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Living Up the Ghost

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"Thank you father for this gathering! Bless all our families as they make their way home. In the name of Jesus, Amen." Pastor Blackwell's voice resonates in the sanctuary, singing out our dismissal from services.

Church has been so purposeless to me lately. Every word I say to God only seems to hover in my mouth, and not really come out. And even if it comes out, it's empty. Don't get me wrong, I'm not anti-God. Not at all. It's just…I don't know what's wrong with me.

My parents are loading my younger siblings into their van while my two older brothers and I take off in our Sequoia. Well, it's my oldest brother's, but we all drive it.

"Zac?" Isaac, who is driving and currently looking at me in the rear view mirror, calls back at me in a slow, leading tone.

I raise my eyebrows, "hmm?"

"What's up with you?" He turns back to the road.

"Nothing." I lie, "I'm good. Just tired."

Isaac looks at Taylor, my other older brother. Taylor looks like he wants to believe me. Isaac won't.

"You want to go get some pizza, or something?" Taylor's got his one-up eyebrow thing going. His eyebrow thing has always meant: you're better off saying yes then no.

I shrug, "yeah. That sounds good." And I turn to look out the window, hoping he doesn't want to talk to me any more.

Like I said before, I don't know what's wrong with me. It's been a natural progression--if it's possible that all of this is natural. Anyway, I guess you need the basics about me.

My name is Zac. My two older brothers and I are in a band. We've sold a couple million albums. I was born October 22, 1985. Do the math; you'll get my age. I'm 5'10" with brown eyes. My hair is blond, but every day it gets darker, just as my dad's had when he was my age. That's about it, I guess. You'll probably figure out the rest later.

I hoped the pizza shop would be pretty empty, but such hopes were quite in vein. Every family in town has apparently decided to go for pizza after church this morning.

"Find a booth in the back." I tell Taylor and head to the bathroom. The people make me nervous. There are so many out there. What if the place gets too crowded? Why is my heart speeding? Water is leaking from the faucet, making a completely irritating noise. I want to rip it out. Instead, I turn the faucet on full blast and splash water on my face. My heart is slowing back to normal. Unfortunately, there are still a lot of people in the restaurant. I'll be fine.

My brothers had snagged a booth in the back. A waitress is standing beside the table getting their orders.

"What would you like to drink?" She asks me.

"Dr. Pepper, please?" I never look her in the eye.

"And what kind of pizza?"

"Pepperoni. Extra cheese."

She leaves.

I begin to tap my fingers on the table as Isaac and Taylor are passing strange glances at each other. Something they were trying to communicate without me understanding.

"Look, Zac," Taylor grimaced, "Mom wants us to talk to you." He nodded up at Isaac, prodding him to continue.

"We've all noticed that you're acting strange lately." Hmm, Isaac doesn't seem to want to be having this conversation. "We just want to know what's going on with you."

"You're so distant," Taylor, always the sensitive one. He can stand in a room and actually feel the air. Know what kinds of emotions actually inhabit the air. "You're almost…almost…."

"…Vacant?" Isaac was finished with that. Now they waited for me.

"I'm fine, really." Jeez, how much energy did that take? "I've just been really tired lately. Maybe I just need a break, or something? To just go off somewhere on my own for a week or two, or something."

They look at each other again.

"Go where?" Taylor sounds like he's actually worried.

"I don't know." My head seems to shake itself, "it was stupid. I don't really want to run off somewhere. I'm fine. Just tired."

Isaac nods, "okay, Zac." I know he doesn't believe me. I don't believe me. But I don't really care. If I can convince myself I'm fine, then I'll be fine. I am fine.

Our pizza arrives and we eat in silence.

During my third slice, I feel myself being lifted from my body. Where am I going? I think I said that out loud, but there's no answer. All is silence. Then I see blackness.

"Hello?" My voice doesn't even echo. I fling my arms out; I feel nothing. Something approaches me. It's a huge hand.

"Zac?" Isaac's voice. The hand has his eyes. "Hey, stop daydreaming. Let's go home.

I blink. The blackness, the hand, they're gone and I'm in the pizza parlor again.

Taylor looks at me crosswise, "c'mon. Let's, uh, let's go home."

"Yeah." I am relieved, "let's go home."

Chapter Text

There is no silence in my house, ever. Seven kids. My god, what were my parents thinking? I mean, really? They probably should have stopped after Taylor. I love my siblings. I guess I feel the same way about them as I feel about God. Only, God doesn't grate my nerves. I have recently discovered that the very presence of one of my siblings can agitate me. They don't necessarily have to do anything, either. I can be in the living room, alone, watching cartoons or MTV or something and one will walk into the room and drive me out of my brain. It takes a lot of energy to squelch the volcano of screams back down into my throat.

Taylor and Isaac go into the kitchen; I'm guessing to deliver the report to mom. I want to take a nap. I sleep a lot now.

Video game noises blare from a crack in my door. After tapping it with my toe, my door glides open to reveal my younger brother, Mackenzie, playing something on my X-Box.

"JOSHUA MACKENZIE?!" He flung around wide-eyed and terrified.

"Zac?" His voice cracked.

"What are you doing in my room?" The volcano was erupting, finally. "Did you ask to use that?" Rhetorical question. "No, you didn't!" I flung my index finger at my bedroom door. "Get out!" I saw a small tear creep out of his tear duct. I had scared the shit out of him, completely unintentionally. But he left. And I am relieved.

I shut my curtains to shut out the sunlight and lay down to watch the light and shapes show on the back of my eyelids. I think I want to cry too. I silently apologize to Mackenzie before I fall asleep.

It's very dark in my room now. Not just the darkness of curtained daylight, but real darkness, from the night. Noises from down stairs creep up, lightly into my room, taking up the space with the voices that cause them, letting me know that I've locked myself away from them.

The light in the hall is on. The door to Mack's room is open and the same X-Box sounds are now coming from his room.

I push the door open. His little arms are yanking the controller up and down, left and right, to grunts of, "go, go!" and "faster, car! Faster!" I watch him do this for a few minutes, admiring the majesty of the human body and mind in its' ability to come together for the simple adrenaline rush of a video game.

I want to apologize to him. Try to make him understand I wasn't yelling at him. It's the…the whatever taking over me.

"Mack?" I whisper so low, I can't even hear myself. I clear my throat. "Mack. Will you look at me?" And he does, still, quite obviously terrified. "I'm sorry Mack. I don't know why I yelled at you. I just--I want you to ask me before you go in my room, okay? Especially when you have your own things in your own room, okay?"

He nodded.

"Will you hug me?" I opened my arms and, without a sound, he got up from the floor and came to me. He buries his face in my stomach and cries. I brush his hair back with my hand, "Mack, what's the matter?"

He shrugs, "something's wrong with you, isn't there? You never want to play video games any more and you sleep all the time."

Yep, I needed to get out of the house before I started to cry. Well, a tear escaped me, "I know. But I'm okay. I need to go visit Beth. We'll play later, huh?"

"Promise?" He wipes his nose on his sleeve.

I nodded and left his room. Feeling a shameful wash of nausea coating my stomach.

There's a large window at the foot of the stairs in the house. It looks out into our backyard, beyond which lies some woods and further back from that a creek. My sisters, Jessica and Avery, are playing crack the egg on the trampoline. Down the hall, my parents are cooking dinner. I hear "Beauty & the Beast" in the family room, meaning Isaac or Taylor (or both) are in there with Zoë. Tiptoeing silently, I walk past the room. Taylor's on the couch with Zo. Through the window I see that the Sequoia is in the driveway--and right behind it sits Samantha's car. Samantha is Isaac's girlfriend.

I have to get out of the house before I decapitate anyone else. Taylor's Benz is parked just beside the Sequoia. I don't think he's going home. Natalie took Ezra down to Georgia for a visit with her parents. He'll probably stay here tonight. I snatch up his keys from the message table and leave the house without so much as a sound.

Taylor's car is fabulous. He's obsessive-compulsive, so it stays absolutely clean. If he ever has somewhere to take Ezra, he always takes Nat's car or their Yukon. Anything to keep the Benz clean. His car is great for other reasons. It'll go up to 135 miles per hour. The engine is totally quiet. Satellite radio clear as a cloudless day. And it drives fabulously. Maybe I should buy one. But it's so much easier to take his.

As I slowly back down the drive, I hope no one can hear the grinding gravel. And…I'm off!

Let me tell you about Beth before you get the wrong impression of her. Beth isn't just rough around the edges. She is jagged glass around the edges, with sharp metal bits tossed in for decoration. She wasn't always like that, though. She was pretty easy going.

My other best friend, Nick, introduced me to Beth when I was fifteen. She's his next door neighbor. And we were friends for a couple months before I asked her to go out with me.

When Nick found out, he laughed and asked, "I thought you rockstar types only like hyper-glam girls?"

Beth is very pretty, but plain. She's a little shorter than me, but not much. Her soil-brown hair comes just above her butt. Hazel, her eyes are hazel, but they change to full on blue or a violent green depending on her mood. Freckles spot the bridge of her nose.

We dated for a year. Our breakup was almost as natural as grass coming up through cracks in the sidewalk. There was just no time. I was out on tour and so was she, with her troupe.

Beth is very intelligent and extremely talented. She attended the Tulsa School for the Performing Arts; it's a private high school for kids who display a massive amount of talent. We're talking world-class type of talent. Taylor couldn't make it in playing piano. Like I said, massive amounts of talent (not to say Taylor's talentless--but let's face it, he's not Mozart). The kids who go to that school must display extreme proficiency in drama, music (instrumental or vocal) or dance. Beth, having taken dance since she was two, is a ballerina. At sixteen she was offered a hefty scholarship to Juilliard. She accepted the scholarship. So you get the picture right? Beth is hella talented. Beth was supposed to leave for New York in mid-August after she graduated.

But, none of this actually explains why Beth is now such a hard-ass. That's really an inappropriate term for the way she is now. She's been hurt. Irreversibly, unforgivably damaged.

Beth works at a music store in town. Six months ago she was driving home near midnight. Dave Matthews blaring on her stereo, she stopped at a red light. A blonde guy, wearing a polo and khaki's tapped on her window. He looked young and distressed. So, with the thought that he was probably a high school kid having car trouble, Beth rolled down the window. He pulled a gun on her and told her to get in the passenger seat.

He drove her far out from the city, out to an abandoned house, in the middle of the woods. No civilization.

She was missing for twelve days. Police searched. The community searched. I searched. My family searched. Knowing that Beth may never be found, God, can I explain that feeling? It was like two elephants sitting on my chest, waiting to see how long it would take before they could crush me, laughing the whole time they were waiting. I didn't want to lose hope, but it faded every morning. But on the morning of the twelfth day, we got a phone call from Beth's mom.

A man had found Beth. He was out spreading corn on his land, where the house resided, and noticed a strange car outside the house. The only people who knew about the house were the man, his sons and some of his family members. And the car didn't belong to any of them.

He approached on of the busted out windows to see Beth in the corner, blindfolded and bound with duct tape.

"Boy?" Beth shouted, "boy? Is that you out there? Please let me go! I won't turn you in. I'm hungry--boy! PLEEEAAAASE!! Let me go!"

The man told her that he wasn't the boy, but that he was going to help her.

She had been raped. Several times. She had been beaten very badly and she was very dehydrated.

I didn't leave the hospital the entire week she was there. We later found out that her attacker was the man's oldest son. He's in jail now, and will be for a very long time.

Beth pushed me away for a while after she left the hospital. I was hurt. It wasn't like I was the one that hurt her. But when I found out she wouldn't let her father near her--she is quite the daddy's girl--I sort of understood that she didn't hate me, she hated men in general.

About two months after the attack, Beth slit her wrists and tried to die. They drew her blood in the ER and found out she was pregnant.

Her parents had her admitted to the psych ward where she stayed for the next two months. She got better, but she'll never be the Beth I met. Beth now suffers from what she calls "the crazy". A condition that is also known as chronic depression. They can't medicate her for it now because she's still pregnant.

After she left the hospital, she came to see me. She told me that sometimes she still wanted to die. She feels like someone took out all her insides and she is now just hollow skin-except for the baby. One morning she thought about suicide. But she had this vision of the baby beating on the insides of her stomach, screaming and screaming to be let out, to escape. The helpless baby, dependent on its mother's body, trapped inside with no way to live. She hasn't thought about dying since then.

So that's Beth. My best friend.

The parking lot is pretty empty, as it usually is on Sundays. I can see her through the window, watching television and sorting new CDs by name.

The bells hanging from the door jingle when I pull the door open. She looks up at me like she knew it would be me. Almost like I'm late.

"Hey Bethy." One monotone statement from me.

"Hello, my Zaccy." She sighs. No one can really tell she's pregnant. The doctor told her that she's carrying the baby pretty low. She still wears her regular clothes.

"Whatcha doin'?" I walk up to the counter and look over to the television. She's watching "I Love Lucy". Her favorite show.

"Sorting." She finally smiles. "What's up?"

An exhausting sigh escapes me. "I think I've got 'the crazy'."

She stands there for just a second, contemplating what I said. "Come outside with me." She says.

Next to the record store is a coffee shop that is closed on Sundays. Out in front of it is a concrete garden table, like everyone's Grandma has in her back yard. A set of black metal mail boxes hang right next to the table. Beth pulls open the one marked, The Record Store, and pulls out a pack of Marlboro lights, in a box. She offers me one.

"Those are bad for the baby." I tell her, waving my hand in decline. It was the bad habit she chose to occupy her hands after the attack.

She rolls her eyes, "once or twice a day won't hurt it."

"It?" I mean, shouldn't she refer to the baby with emotion or something? "What is it? Don't you have a name picked out or anything?"

She pulls a heavy drag off her cigarette, "I'm not naming it."

"What do you mean?" I plop down on the cool concrete table.

She sits down on the concrete bench next to my feet. "I mean I'm not naming it." She looks over her shoulder at me and turns away again. "I figure, if I name it, then that means I have to form some sort of emotional attachment. Like a maternal bond, or something. There's no way I can keep this kid, Zac. Not possible. I want Juilliard. I need to make a life for myself and I don't want to spend my life resenting a baby I didn't ask for. It's not fair. So I have this aunt up in Maine. She has endometriosis, so she can't have kids of her own. She asked if I would let her adopt the baby. I said yeah. She'll fly down here the week the baby's born." Jagged, disconnected glass.

We sit in silence for a few minutes, smoke expelling from her body like anger on fire.

"So." She tosses her cigarette to the ground and crushes it with her toe. "You think you have the crazy. Why?"

Shit. I never thought about it. I know I feel like crap, but I never thought to explain it. Hmm.

"Well…I sleep to much."

"Uh huh?" Just like a trained Freudian.

"I don't eat enough. And when I do eat, it's really crappy food. Everything irritates me. I have no energy. No motivation to do anything. I don't enjoy any of my favorite things. It's a chore now for me to pick up my drumsticks or to play soccer with the kids. I don't even play my X-Box!"

"Ha!" She snorts, "there really is something wrong with you!

"Bethy." I nag, "I'm being serious!"

"I'm sorry." She smiles at me. "Okay, so seriously, you just might have the crazy, Zaccy. Have you talked to anyone else about this?"

I shake my head no. The phone rings inside the store. Beth springs up and runs inside. I stay on the concrete table, admiring--envying--the stars, soaking up the information I had just spilled on Beth.

She's flailing her arms at me to come inside. I go in.

She looks up at me, suspicious, and places her hand over the receiver. She whispers, "did you steal Tay-tay's car again?"

Bam. Guilty expression.

"Zac!" She grunts in a whisper. "Well, he wants to talk to you." She hands me the phone.

"Hello?" Knowing I sound guilty and ashamed and afraid. Taylor only looks small. He's fuming, the silence says so.

"Zac." Drawn out longer than it needs to be because he's pissed. "You took. My car."

"Uh huh…." Oh yeah, I'm a dead man.

"Come home. Now."

"Can I finish talking to Beth?" How pathetic can one man's voice get?

I hear the oxygen forcefully sucked down in to his lungs, heat up and turn into fire. "No. Home. Now."

"Coming." I press the off button. "I have to go, Bethy."

"Ya think?" She snaps, proportionally sarcastic. "Buy a car, Zac, and soon!"

I hand her the phone and she places it on the charger. Now she follows me outside. She hugs me, a little tighter than usual.

"I love you, Zaccy." She kisses my forehead. This is our ritual; our typical goodbye.

"Yeah, I love you back." I kiss her forehead. I get in the car and begin my drive back home.

The night has settled itself softly over the Oklahoma countryside. I let the top down, feeling the freedom of the air.

Maybe I will buy a car soon. Maybe this week. Maybe I should take the long way home? That would really piss Taylor off. I'm ready to go home, though. I'm tired again.

As I turn on the dirt road that leads to my house, I realize I never turned the radio on. So I hit the power button. Taylor had been listening to Sheryl Crow, "Abilene". I turn it up, full blast, and continue on home.

Samantha is still here. I park Taylor's car where it was before I took it. A coward would take the backdoor into the house, which opens right at the foot of the main stairs. A better man would take the front door and receive the onslaught waiting for him. A smart man, however, goes into the basement from the doors right next to the garage. Then he goes up the stairs into the kitchen where another flight of stairs leads to the second floor.

Guess what? I am a smart man.

I quietly click the car door closed and move slowly, silently, to the basement doors. It is dark and cool and damp like a basement should be. I am still, listening for the voices from up stairs. They're in the living room. You can't see the kitchen from the living room.

I quietly go up the stairs and listen to the kitchen. Nothing, so I slowly crack open the door. All clear. I go to the other stairs and up. I don't stop moving until I reach my bedroom, with the door locked.

They're still down there. Taylor's screaming about how irresponsible and disrespectful I am. I can hear mom's small voice. She must be trying to get him to shut up.

Through the darkness, I go to my bed and belly-flop onto it. I hear feet coming up the stairs now.

WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! A fist is obviously arguing with my locked door.

"Zachary! Walker! Get your coward ass out here!" Taylor screams. I'm not a coward. The coward takes the back door. I am a smart man.

I don't move. It's like playing dead for a bear.

"Zac!" Taylor screams again, "I know you're in there! Get out here!" He starts pounding my door again.

"Taylor." Dad's bass voice booms. Did the windows just rattle? "Taylor, drop it. Go to bed."

Taylor's stomps can be heard all the way back down the stairs.

"Zac?" My dad says to my door. "Zachary. Son, you have a lot of answering to do. I don't know what's wrong with you, but we'll sort this in the morning. Do you hear me boy?"

Quiet. He walks away.

We'll sort this in the morning. Translation: he'll knock the shit out of me for it in the morning.

Chapter Text

I am devoid of dreams. My sleep is pure black, like thick, smelly tar. It's said that you always dream. Dreaming is supposed to be a processing of the left-over data laying around in your brain that your brain didn't have the chance to work through during the day. I call bullshit.

Monday morning's sunshine kicks me in the back of the head, warning me that it's time to get up. I sit up, surveying my floor, covered with clothes; some dirty, some not; a lot of shoes--I love shoes; some music magazines are stacked in the corner next to my computer, which is under one of my two windows. Next to my door is the closet, residing therein the remainder of my clothes. On the wall opposite my bed and adjacent to the door is a picture collage created from our trips around the world, pictures of my family and friends. Beth before…Beth now. And last but not least, the wall that is now behind my back. Holding off the sunlight, until I pull the curtains open and allow it in. September sunlight colors my room nicely. I love the leaves in their shades of sangre y oro, blood and gold. It's ten o' five in the morning.

There is silence coming from downstairs. I push the socks and jeans and tee shirts away with my feet while I walk over to the door. I listen closely and find stillness. So I open it and go down to the bathroom to brush my teeth. Then I go down stairs.

Now, there's no way the whole family can be gone. There are far too many of them. At the bottom of the stairs I wait again for noise. The television's on. I walk down the hall, hoping that Taylor has already gone to the airport to get Natalie.

But no. Of course not. Can't happen for me, can it? He's sitting there, back to me, flipping channels on the television. Jessica sits on the couch beside him. She looks up, maybe hearing my feet on the carpet. I motion for her to be quiet and she looks back to the television.

"I see your reflection in the window, Zac." Taylor nods his head forward at my disheveled looking reflection and continues flipping channels. I watch my rigid posture fall slack, realizing I'd been caught.

"Jess, go up stairs." He clicks off the television. "Zac and I need to talk."

She shoves off the couch, stomping out of the room, looking like Taylor had just asked her to give up the phone or something.

Taylor stands up and looks at me, like a parent would, and scratches his three-days-unshaven chin. He does that calm nod thing, "You stole. My car." Very calm. "What's gotten in to you?"

I just stand there, looking the way you do when you're five and your mom has just asked you why you ate all those cookies just before supper. And you don't have an answer, so you just feel really stupid.

"Zac?" Taylor waves his hand in front of me. "Are you listening to me?"

I nod.

"There's something wrong with you." No, really? He lets out a huge sigh that had apparently been burdening him. "And--" His cell phone rings. "Hello? Hi Nat. How's Ezra?" He grunts. "Yes, Natalie I do give a damn how you are. I just--" Grunt again. I hate his wife, just so you know. "--I'll be there in about twenty or thirty. Yeah." Grunt. "I love you too. Bye."

I look at him sympathetically. Not because I'm sorry about the car incident. I'm sorry about his wife.

"If this marriage ever ends," he's serious. And waiting for it. "I'll never get married again! I swear it!" He walks past me, patting my shoulder, "do you want to go with me?"

Is he stupid? I shake my head. "No. Thanks. I'm just going to stay here."

He walks over to the door, placing his hand around the doorknob, and lingers just a moment. Then he looks back at me.

"Zac. Maybe you should, you know, talk to someone?" He shrugs, "you know, other than Beth. She's had enough this year, and she has more coming." I think he wants me to say something here, but I'm empty. All out of thought cookies. Just a few crumbs left. "Well." He lets in a whispery-sigh, "I've got to go. Isaac's with Samantha at the mall. Mom and dad took the kids to the zoo and then they're going to go grocery shopping. You know where Jess is." I nod, because I do know. She's upstairs, probably on the phone. He's gone now.

The phone rings.

"Zac!" Jess bellows. "Telephone! It's Nick!"

I reach for the phone on the stand right beside me, "Hello?"

"Yo. Beth's coming over. We're gonna watch movies. You in?"

"Yeah, but my family's out. She's going to have to come and get me."

"Cool. I'll tell her. See you in a few."

"Yep!"

"Bye." Click.

Out of--well, her room--Jess appears with some news. "You're not allowed to leave the house?"

"Why not?" My eyebrows push down into my eyes.

She shrugs, "hell I don't know! Mom told Taylor just before they left. He was afraid that woman would call to come get her from the airport before you got up, so he told me. I guess he forgot to tell you?"

"Convenient." I grumble to myself for a few minutes. Jess is smirking to herself. "Why the hell are you here anyway, Jessica. Shouldn't you be off schmoozing with those kids from Beth's school?"

Oh, yeah, Jess is a dancer too. Mom and Dad are in the consideration process of allowing her to go to the Tulsa School for the Performing Arts too. She's pretty good, I guess. With some training she might one day be as good as Bethy.

Her eyes are glassy-blue, like Taylor's. And her eyes get that mean-blue shade too when she's mad. "Screw you, Zac!" She stomps back up the stairs. Suddenly, I feel like laughing.

Disgruntled about the house arrest, I have to call Nick back, deciding that they should come over here and watch movies. Besides maybe if there are other people around, my father won't be an ass about last night when he gets home.

Beth's obsessed with Brad Pitt. She won't even watch Friends because she's jealous of Jennifer Aniston. So, being that movie rental was up to Beth, it looks like the day has gone to the Pitts--pun intended. Fight Club. Interview with the Vampire. Seven Years in Tibet. At least there was one guys' movie in there. So we watched Fight Club first. Because it's fun watching guys beat the shit out of each other.

Somewhere, during the first hour of Interview, just after the, "which one of you made me the way I am" scene, I start drifting off. I'm not sure if I'm just spacing out or if I'm going to sleep.

The air around me is heavy. And I'm not sure if the room is going black, or going black with a light, but I see a light, though not its' source. I'm walking around, because I feel my legs moving. I have no idea where I'm going. I blink, and then there's something. Fragments of a scene fall in place around me, blocking out the light and empty space. I look down to my feet. I'm dressed nicely in a tux with a flower pinned to my left shoulder. Next to me, Nick, looking pretty much the same as myself. We're in a church and standing just before an altar. Pastor Blackwell giving a prayer, I assume as everyone's heads are down. I can't seem to hear his voice.

The church is decorated for a wedding. Who's he marrying? I crane my neck around his back to see the bride. Beth. Oh God, he's marrying Beth? He can't do that, can he?

Once prayer is over, the audience looks back up. Beth is stumbling backwards a few steps and falls. Her dress turns red. She's bleeding just below her belly. Her make-up starts to smear as she starts crying. But no one moves to help her. No one even acknowledges that she's fallen. I scream her name, but I can't move.

I hear her call my name. "Zac." She sounds calm, but she's just lying there. "Zac? Zachary?" My body is shaking--but we don't get earthquakes in Oklahoma?

And then I feel a wave of water. The scene fades and I'm sitting face to face with Beth, whose finger nails are buried in my shoulders. She's crying, looking at me like she doesn't know who I am. Nick, standing next to the couch, has the same face. And Jessie's on the phone.

"Mom? Something's wrong with Zac?" She walks over to the window and pulls back the curtains. "Good! You're home!"

The front door whooshes open followed by a loud bang from hitting the wall. Here comes mom, at a dead run into the family room. I don't even look at her. Or anyone else who has now filed into the room. I only look at Beth. Beautiful, fractured, bleeding Beth, with her nails still in my back. "I'm okay." I whisper to her, "it was just a dream."

"Your eyes were open." Nick stuttered.

I kiss Beth's forehead and she lets go. Everyone's rather frantic, not carrying really, that I'm walking out of the room.

"What happened?" Mom asks the first person that'll answer.

Nick says, "we don't know. We were just watching a movie and then he just went crazy. He was screaming about a wedding, or something like that, and something about Beth bleeding to death. We don't know. Beth got so freaked, she started screaming at him. Slapped him a couple times and he still didn't come back. So we threw water on him. He came around after that."

"Beth, hunny," Mom's voice, "are you okay?"

I don't know if Beth spoke. Mom's question is followed with silence. I am just next to the back door, reaching for the handle to pull it open.

"Son?" My father, in that voice that commands silence and stillness. He stops all people in the tracks with that voice. Friends. Family. Fans. All motion ends. I'm not afraid of him. Just hesitant, like a dog who gets a blow from his owner inconsistently, and is hesitant because he doesn't know when the next one is coming. "What's gotten into you?"

I pull the door open anyway, not caring that he's talking to me. I walk on to the chalk colored porch. Zoë's butterflies and Mack's trucks. They're talented little buggers. Oh, and another for-your-information, Avery's got a talent too. She's a beat-ass-and-take-names soccer player. But back to the coming nastiness with my father. He's followed me onto the porch.

"Nothing's wrong with me." I walk out into the grass, picking up a stick that I snap into pieces as I continue walking.

The grass labors under his anger. He stomps out after me, placing his hand on my shoulder, stopping me.

"You don't walk away when I'm talking to you." He crosses his chest with his arms. Hm, lecture drive. "What's been going on with you?"

"Do you really give a shit?" I'm not much of a think-before-you-speak person. "Or are you worried that, if there really is something wrong with me, I'll give us a bad image. Like you did with Taylor. God, you made him marry her. Now you're just worried that I'll fuck up your retirement check!"

BAM! Redness and stars. I fall over, more from surprise than the actual hit. My right eye opens long enough to see him swoop in for another right hook. The redness and stars again.

When I was a kid, I learned a trick. I can leave my head for a while, just so I don't have to feel what's happening. There's a proper name, but damned if I can remember right now. Sometimes I go visit my Grandma. Most times, though, I just crawl away from myself and wait for it to be over.

I'm not out of my head for very long. Mom is screaming at him and jerking his shoulder, trying to peal him off me. He's twice her size.

"Walker, dammit!" She's pounding her itty-bitty hands into his back. "Get off of him! He's your son for crissakes!"

Dad lets up. I start coughing and I'm back in my head again, feeling every bruise, every rib, bone, and what have you, that now yelp in pain. My left eye still won't open and I feel like throwing up.

From my right eye I see him swaggering, as though drunk, back to the house.

"Zac?" Mom whispers, running her hand over my hair. I roll away, face down into the grass. I hate this. Fucking hate it. It's always been a humiliating experience in front of the kids, but worse now that Beth and Nick have seen that all those bruises were never from soccer, or falling or whatever other bullshit I've fed them for years.

They're all pilled onto the porch, looking at me, lying like a baby in the grass. I wish I didn't want to cry, but I really wanted to. And I do cry. My busted lip reels from the salty saline.

Rocks crunch under someone's tires in the driveway. Then the grass crunches under the weight of their feet.

"What's all the fuss?" Taylor, not knowing what happened, jokes. Then follows with, "oh shit! Mom, what happened to him?"

"Your father." She sniffles.

I crawl for a few feet, then get the will to get up, but only with my back to them. And I start for the woods. Taylor calls after me, but I brake into a run and I'm a lot faster than he is.

I run and I run and I run. Doing my best with one eye open. My body is so sore. Running hurts, but I can't stop. I run until I reach the creek. I know now I'm about a mile from home. I look down into the water. Virginia Woolf died by drowning herself in a river hear her house. I don't want to drown, though. Not today.

A tree, just across the water is nice and thick and stocky. It looks like it has been robbed of the opportunity to be host of a fine tree house. I climb this tree, to the first branch and sit down to watch the water. The water is quite clean washing over the pebbles. Creeks must be something like fame. Water must be fans and media, washing over you with little granules of sand to smooth you over, get into whatever pits of imperfection and mold you to suit their wants. But the other side of the pebble is buried in the dirt. Hiding the pits and imperfections and unmentionable things that one holds secret…sacred.

I fall asleep here, in this tree, pondering the water and the rocks. All without conception that my mother must be back at home worried senseless. All I care is the sound of the water flowing and the fading sting in my left eye.

"Davis, over here!" A man's voice. Am I dreaming again?

A mean blast of light makes the back of my eyelids fire-orange. I still can't open my left eye.

"Hey kid?" It's the same voice, "your name Zachary Hanson?"

"Who's asking?"

"Deputy Lewis."

"Well, Deputy Lewis." I clear my throat and sit up a little, trying to see past the light; wanting to know who else was with him. "I don't quite remember if that's my name or not. Who's with you?"

"C'mon kid!" The other guy, presumably Davis, grunts, "this isn't a drug bust or nothin'! Your mother sent us out after you! Now, c'mon! It's two in the morning and I have an eight month old!"

"Fine." I grunt back, "I'm Zac. Is it really two in the morning?"

"Yes." Lewis says, "if you'll just come down out of that tree, we'll help you get back home."

I could fight it, you know, tell them I don't want to go back, but do I have the energy. Not a damn lick. So I climb out of the tree.

When I reach the ground, Lewis asks, "what happened to your eye, kid?"

I thought for a second, "I ran into a tree branch on my way out here."

He replies, "you should watch yourself better."

Chapter Text

Two weeks after the incident with my father, Beth asked me to go with her to the OB/GYN doctor. My eye looks fine and my ribs don't whine when I breathe.

Beth has now reached her seventh month of baby-packing, but no one can tell just by looking at her. At the bottom of her belly she has a small pouch, but it looks more like too much ice cream than it does a baby.

Rattles and bottles are the wallpaper pattern the doctor chose for his office. A small television in the corner across from us plays a video about proper bathing and grooming of a newborn. Ambivalent, Beth keeps her face buried in an article on the latest Brad Pitt flick.

"Beth Andrews?" The door next to the television swings open, revealing a nurse wearing a Scooby-Doo scrub top.

Beth continues, completely lost in that article.

I elbow her arm, "Beth. It's your turn."

"Huh?" She lifts her face from the glory, in her opinion, that is Brad. "Oh! Me?"

The amused nurse smiles and nods.

In the exam room, the wall paper pattern continues, but this time the walls are partitioned; the top parts are papered, separated by a thin strip of molding, and the bottom painted blue. Things like this fascinate me. Really, how do people decide to decide to decorate rooms this way? Sorry, I side track. On the walls are diagrams of baby development, proper nutrition and care.

From under the sink the nurse grabs a white blanket with the name of the clinic printed on it. She asks Beth, "is this the father?"

"No!" We both snap; quick, fast and in a hurry.

She's taken a back. "Ooh." She blushes.

"He's just a friend." Beth assures her, trying to make her feel better. She hands Beth the blanket and leaves the room.

"Zac, can you turn around and face the wall?"

"Why?" I felt really dumb after asking that. I mean, really, I asked her why?!

"Because, doof!" She laughs, before I can correct myself. "You don't expect her to check things out--while I'm still wearing my UNDERWEAR, do you?" And she follows with the moron eye.

"Yep! Turning around now!" Blood rushes into my cheeks.

Over my shoulder are the sounds of a body crunching up exam-table paper. "You can turn around now." She says. When I do, she follows up with, "damn, this is uncomfortable."

I point at the door over my shoulder. "I could go back to the waiting room?"

Moron eye again, "Not you! I just hate the whole gyno thing! I never even came until this whole baby situation. And even then, I only came 'cause mom said I had to."

I stare at her, wishing I had something to say. But really, how am I supposed to commiserate? Guys just can't compare when it comes to women and having babies. What the hell do we know about pushing watermelons out of pinholes?

"Nothing witty to say?" She prods.

I shrug, "I have nothing!"

"Ugh." She snorts, "I hope you get kidney stones!"

We both start laughing. She's always said that all men should have kidney stones at the exact same time their wives--girlfriends, surrogates, whatever--are having babies, so they can experience the "fun". A knock comes to the door. It cracks open slowly with a slight whine of the hinges.

"You can come in?" Beth calls out to the person waiting behind the door.

A massively attractive woman walks in. She has chin length, layered, ruby hair, a la Femke Jackson in X-men 2. Her face is shaped like a heart, the color of creamed coffee, with square glasses. She's probably early thirties and just a bit shorter than me. She's wearing a calf-length, light orange linen skirt, with a lace up shirt of the same fabric. And of course, a lab coat.

"Good morning!" She smiles. "And who's this?" She nods her head towards me.

"That's Zac." Beth smiles, sounding like she's told this doctor my name before.

"Ah." The doctor puts her hand out to me. "The infamous Zac Hanson. I'm doctor Martinez. It's a pleasure to meet you!"

I shake her hand, feeling my ears begin to burn.

"I don't know who talks about you more--Beth or my daughter!"

My ears are an inferno! I'm a sitting torch here!

Doctor Martinez pops on some gloves and begins doing whatever it is that baby doctors do--down--you know--there. And when it's over, she pulls a in a sonogram machine. Now that's interesting. Mom has all her pictures of Avery, Mackenzie and Zoë, but I never actually got to see the sonogram video.

"Here's the head." The doctor taps her manicured nail on the screen. "And it looks like the baby's going to be a boy. See, look here." And she points to her reason. After which the exam is over.

"Looks like that's it, Beth. Do you need any more vitamins?" The doctor makes notes in Beth's file. "Have any questions?"

"I'm good on vitamins--Zac turn around--but I do have a question."

The doctor stops making notes, "lay it on me."

"Is it possible for me to have a c-section? You can turn around Zac."

I turn around to find the doctor with a very surprised face. "Beth, you're in great health. You have strong bones, so there's no worry there. Beth, there's no real reason for you to have a c-section. I don't see any need."

Beth opens her mouth to object, but the doctor cuts her off, "I know that look. You're about a half a nano-second away from telling me that you'll find a doctor that will do it for you, but you won't. If you are physically able to have the baby naturally, any other doctor in town will tell you that you're going to have to push. But if you don't mind me asking, why do you want a c-section anyway? It'll leave a nasty scar on that dancer's body of yours, you'll have to stay in the hospital longer and other such things."

"Because," there are tears in her voice, "you know I'm giving the baby up, right?" Doctor nods. "Well, I just think it'd be easier if I could look at all of this mess as just having an operation. You know, like having your appendix out. You go in, it's done, and you never know it's gone. No attachments, no nothing. It's done, a few stitches and you go home, never missing a thing." A tear wrangles out of her left eye. "I don't want to have a baby. I just want to be Beth again. Beth, unbroken." She swallows hard.

The doctor pats her knee, looking as though she just might cry too. "Beth, I understand. Really, I do. But it's just better for you, if nothing but physically, to give birth naturally." The doctor gives an encouraging nod. "See you next month?"

Beth, pouting says, "yeah. See you."


Beth drives for a while. She's so quiet; it's disturbing. The radio is on, but it's playing classical music, very softly, so as not to disturb her thoughts, I guess. Maybe in ballet, you learn the fine art of making poker faces. Never let them know your toes are bleeding, or something? Either way, I can't read her.

"Beth?"

She raises her eyebrows, but doesn't say anything.

"You okay?"

"Zac, will you be my coach?" Her face says, whoops, I didn't mean to ask that yet! She hadn't planed to say it. I guess I threw a wrench in her cogs.

"Coach…as in, like, birthing coach?" I'm really dumb; I know! "Like, Lamaze class and all that stuff?"

"Yeah?" She giggles nervously. "You know, just be in there for support and all. Yeah, like, just, only if you want to, you know? You don't have to if you don't want to?" When Beth is nervous about something, she begins to talk very fast. "But I'd be really happy if you would. But if you don't want--"

"--I'll do it!" I had to shut her up! She would have kept going in redundant circles, sounding like Mojo Jojo (of Powerpuff Girls fame) or something! "Yeah, you know, it could be interesting! I'll see your birth, and when the time comes, I'll raise you my kidney stones?"

She laughs, "you got a deal, there buddy!"

Today was a good day. Best I've felt in a long time. I'll admit, the thought of seeing Beth in all her feminine glory will be interesting. Never seen her in anything less than a bathing suit. Watermelons out of pinholes. Sounds painful!


The good mood I was experiencing that day with Beth faded soon, and now I'm back to the sadness. Maybe I don't have the crazy. All I have is sadness. Sadness for what or about what, I don't know, but sadness alright. But at least I'm not crazy.

It's the middle of a Friday afternoon. Mom's giving the kids a break from their school work and I'm up stairs playing a racing game. A tiny knock pushes my door open just a couple inches. It's Mackenzie.

"Can I play?" He's holding his extra controller in his hands.

"Yeah, kiddo!" I pat the floor next to me.

A friend of mine once told me that Mack is my clone. He honestly looks just like me, with one exception. My hair was blonde when I was born; his was brown. Other than that, Mack acts like me; walks, talks and thinks like me. He flails his hands when he talks. Wild, totally off-the-wall imagination. He's my own personal mini-me.

Dad doesn't beat him senseless, though. Well, at least not anymore. He stopped beating the crap out of the rest of them a long time ago. Isaac threatened to tell the police when he was about thirteen. Taylor, he told him that he'd quit the band or find some other way to screw up his vocal chords. Then Mom told him she'd leave if he didn't leave the rest of us alone. But, for some reason, he thinks I'm the exception to that rule. Obviously, he doesn't go anywhere near Taylor anymore as Taylor no longer lives here. And Isaac stays gone most of the time. I've tried just about everything to make him back off. I just don't scare him, I guess. I don't know why he hates me so much.

Mack and I play a few races before Mom shouts for him to come back downstairs and finish his work. He gets a pouty look to his face.

I shrug, "it's okay. I have to go take a bath and start getting ready."

Mack unplugs his controller and walks out, dragging his feet at every step.

Nick is dragging me out to some bar in downtown Tulsa tonight. The girl he's been chasing the past couple months is finally single and agreed to meet up with him there. She supposed to be bringing some friend of hers. We're not being set up, just there so Nick and Grace (his potential woman) don't have to walk in alone.


Around eight thirty, Nick slides his birthday present, a Mazda RX-8, down my driveway. He beeps the horn. I catch one last look at myself in the mirror. The yellow, American Eagle shirt Beth gave me for my birthday last year, a pair of loose fitting jeans, and a pair of Dolce & Gabbana shoes I jacked from Taylor a few months ago, and I'm ready to go.

Tulsa, being the city proper, is about forty-five minutes from my house. Nick slams on the gas pedal in a hurry to beat Grace to the bar. We must look like a great black blur to all the houses we pass. He cranks up some hard pounding rap CD he's got in his player. I think it's Eminem, but how would I know?

Tulsa is an industrial city, consumed mainly by the oil market. So this all-work-and-no-play attitude of the people here leaves something lacking by the way of a nightlife. There are only really, two good places to go here. The Cantina, a place for live bands. And Dreamscape, the dance club, where we're headed tonight. I really hate dance clubs, but it gets me out of the house, right?

We reach the club around nine thirty. Nick insists that we sit around and watch the people go in for a few minutes, hoping that he doesn't see Grace go in first, but not wanting to seem over eager to get in. It's not like he'd have a problem getting in. I've been getting in this place since I was sixteen, and drinking in this place since then as well. Isaac a friend of the head bouncer, Larry. Getting hammered sounds like a great way to spend the evening.

After we make it inside, Nick grabs a couple of beers from the bar. I don't really like beer, but it's a cheep way to get started!

Thankfully, there aren't many people here yet. Hopefully, I'll have had enough to drink by the time it gets packed to not care how many people are around.

"What's so great about this girl anyway?" I down a huge swallow of beer.

He grins, "she's hot!" Yeah, I know, men are pigs! Nick scans the bar. She's not here yet.

He looks back up at me, with a look that resembles determination. "Why don't you and Beth get back together?" Okay, where the hell did that come from?

"What?" Was the first comprehensible thing I could blast from my mouth.

He shrugs. "It's a good question, Zac? There's obviously a lot of stuff between you two. Maybe you should reconsider this being apart thing."

"We can't." I wave it off with the end of my bottle. "This have changed too much. We're better off apart."

"Why?" Damn, he's determined. "There's obviously something between you two."

"Yeah," I snort sarcastically, "we're both crazy as hell!"

Nick laughs. "Seriously, Zac. You and Beth were good together."

"Yep." I down the last sip of beer in my bottle. "We were. She's a dancer; I'm a drummer. It doesn't work in the big picture. Want another beer?" He nods. I always change the subject when I don't want to talk any further about something. Nick's nod wasn't just about the beer; he knows I want him to shut up about Beth. And I want him to shut about Beth because I don't actually have a good answer for his question, much more than it just wouldn't work.

When I return to the table, two girls are standing beside it. A short brunette, wearing something that looks like it came from a Christina Aguilara video shoot. A really short skirt and halter. Her friend, with curly red hair, looking like Nicole Kidman, is dressed the same way with thigh-high boots on. I pass Nick his beer, down one of my two tequila shots, and wait to be introduced.

The short girl is Grace. Red is her friend Abby. They share an apartment on the posh end of town. Grace's parents are muckety-mucks in the oil industry and Abby is a private dance instructor.

Abby buys me two more shots of tequila. I blessedly feel absolutely nothing. Abby yanks me onto the dance floor. My memory stops here.

Knives are forging into my brain, wiggling and zooming back and forth, creating great pain in my semi-conscious head. I know I don't want to open my eyes. I get the worst hangovers. I notice an unfamiliar smell, an unfamiliar perfume crawling into my nose and clears room for its' presence, settling itself into the bridge of my nose, demanding my inhale and exhale so I remember that it's still there. All the while, another of my senses wakes from it's alcohol stupor. I feel skin against my bare chest. And it's not my skin. Funny, I don't sleep naked, but I am naked.

"Zac?" A familiar sounding voice, full of astonishment, slams my eardrums. It's Beth's voice.

I crack my eyes open only to find, unfortunately, that the naked girl beside me isn't Beth. Oh shit! It's that Abby girl! Oh. God. What! Did I do?

"Oh my God!" Beth stammers. She looks like she'll throw up in five seconds. But instead, she runs.

I shove Abby off me, grab my boxers and take off after Beth. Her feet are slamming the floor harder and faster than a doctor would recommend for a pregnant woman.

"Beth!" I shout, just in time to hear the front door close. I yank the front door open, "Elizabeth!" Nick lays on the couch undisturbed. Grace is sitting in the recliner flipping channels. Both of them are fully clothed. I charge out into a hallway after Beth. She runs, slamming her hands into a door at the end of the hall, that flies open and lets her out onto the concrete. We're on the first floor of an apartment building. I pound down the hall and thrust myself into the sunlight. Immediately the sunlight sends an army of needles into my pupils, forcing me to stop for a second.

"Elizabeth Corine!" I scream, in place of swearing.

Now she stops. From ten feet away I can hear her chest heaving, laboring heavily from a scream she's trying desperately to squelch.

"Have you gone mad?" Huffing and puffing myself, without the air to yell at her.

She has regained plenty of breath to yell, though. "What the hell? Have I gone mad?"

"What do you mean, 'what the hell'?" Like I'm the one who's screwy here?

"Zac!" She grunts. "Did you fuck that woman?"

"Hell, Beth, I honestly don't know!" I hit my hips with my hands, trying to stop the stabbing pains shooting up my sides. I look down at my body. "By the looks of things, yeah, I think I did!"

Her head falls back, "oh god!" She sounds like a pissed tiger.

"How the hell did you find me here, Beth?" It's a good enough question.

"That woman in there," she flings her arm in the direction of the building, "that you apparently fucked, is a dance instructor at my school, Zac! I came to talk to her about your sister!"

"What have you got your panties in a twist about, Beth? God, it's not like we're dating, you and me!"

She stares at me, blankly, like I'd just spoken in French or something.

"What? Don't look at me like that! I can sleep with every damn woman in this town, and it'd still be none of your damn business!"

"Oh," finally, here comes the cynicism, "yes, Zac, yes you could. Wind up just like Taylor! I bet your mom would be real proud of that! Not to mention your father!"

"Fuck you! Furthermore, stop acting like I did something to offend you! This is none of your business, Beth! None! And why you're stomping around here acting like my girlfriend, like you just caught me cheating on you, I don't know! We--as in you and me--aren't together anymore. So yet again, I can get totally smashed and fuck whoever I want! Because it's my life, not yours!"

Oh shit! I know that look! She's going to say something and I'm going to feel like such an ass! Wait for it…. Wait for it…. Here it comes….

"You know what, you're right! That's just great for you! It really isn't any of my damned business. I'm so proud of you Zac! You've turned into a sleaze-ball fuck head! You got so fucking smashed last night, you haven't the first damn clue what you did!" Her voice begins to elevate. "I'm so FUCKING proud that you could get so wasted, you put yourself, and that woman back there, in the position to do something like that boy did to me! Rock on, Zac! You're now no better than the asshole who did this," she points to her belly, "to me! I'm so fucking proud you're your own man now. Way to go!"

She now runs off to her car and leaves, skidding and squealing out of the parking lot.

Oh yes, I feel SO proud of myself right now. So proud, I could die.

A lady walking her yippity little dog eyes me, bare-chested, in boxers. I forgot I'm half-naked.

Back in the apartment, Nick is still sleeping and Grace is still flipping channels.

"That your girlfriend?" Grace asks, eyes fixated on the home shopping net work.

"Not hardly!" I snap and continue stomping back down the hallway to Abby's room.

She pulls her pink satin sheets over her chest and looks at me with morning after eyes. "Coming back to bed?"

"No." I answer curtly. I pick up my clothes, putting them back on as quickly as I can. Then, I look back at her, "don't bother asking about phone numbers. I'm not going to call you, so don't bother trying to call me."

Back down the hall I shove a finger into Nick's shoulder. "Get up. We're leaving!"

"Huh?" He gurgles.

"C'mon." I prod his shoulder again. "We gotta go. Give me your keys, because you're not driving half-awake!"

He says his good-byes to Grace. We leave, the sounds of pealing tires crying out the sounds of our exit.

Nick has slept most of the way back to my house. I don't bother asking if he and Grace made it as far as Abby and I. I know he didn't. Nick never drinks that much and he is a wait for marriage type. Abby makes number four for me. But I didn't bother trying to tell him about Beth. Though, I'm surprised he didn't hear what happened with Beth. I've spent most of the ride home trying to forget what happened with Beth.

At just past one in the afternoon I walk into my house to find it full and bustling. Samantha and Isaac and the kids are at the table eating lunch. Taylor, and long with Nat and Ezra, are in the living room with my parents.

I manage to get to the stairs without anyone saying something. But then a burst comes from Natalie's mouth.

"Someone smells like he's been in a woman's bed." I hate that woman. In fact, I'd really like to hit her right now.

"Screw off, Nat!" Everyone's too shocked to say anything. So I take off upstairs before they really realize what I'd said.

She's right, though. But I'd never tell anyone that. I smell like shame. Like icy heartlessness. Like a strange woman's bed. But you know, why should I give a shit? I'm a grown man. I don't have to answer anyone's questions about whose bed I slept in last night.

I still need a bath, though.

The water is the hottest I can possibly stand. My skin is scalded red. Finally I smell like my familiar shampoo. Simple. Unjaded.

I yank a towel from the basket beside the tub and wrap it around my thinning waist. I really should eat more.

Fog ate up the mirror. I wipe it away and take up my razor from inside Mack's dump truck. Third swipe and I nick my cheek. Red blood bubbles into the cut, then overflows, slipping down my face in a crooked pattern. It falls from the edge of my jaw, down into a free fall until it splashes into the sink, partially full of water.

Blood is fascinating when it hits water. The way it begins to spider out, like a fire cracker on the fourth of July, celebrating the human art of bleeding. A rush suddenly hits me and I nick my cheek again, watching this little blood-spot perform the way its predecessor had.

Watching this gives me a feeling as though I'm watching my sadness flee from me. I have finally given my sadness a window from which to escape. A window from which to crawl out, feet first, and run like hell. Run, sadness, run. What an ingenious answer.

Fascinated but all of this, I pull the razor apart and peel out the actual blade. My stomach would be a great space for windows. I open five horizontal windows across my stomach and watch, with relief, as the sadness empties itself from me.

Knock, knock. "Zac?" It's Avery. "I have to pee!"

Yipes! "Just a second!" I fold up some toilet paper and place it over the windows. I pull a tee shirt over my head and leave the bathroom.

A full-length mirror sits in the corner of my closet, between my shoes and my songbooks. I drag it out and lean it up against my closet door. I peal my tee shirt back off, lock my door, and sit down to watch the windows cry. After some time, they stop, which is actually quite an epiphany to me. Even the windows of freedom close. And some of the sadness is left inside.

Chapter Text

It's a week before my birthday. Beth hasn't called. It's been like, two weeks. Granted, we were never the pair that called everyday. But it was always once a week. But that's fine. Let her be stupid! It's not like I miss her or anything.

About two nights ago, Mom told me that she and Dad had decided on a birthday present for me. I am to go with Isaac down to Oklahoma City and buy a car. Well, they're paying for half of the car, the other half is mine. They don't want to hear Taylor go all ballistic again.

Samantha decided to come down for the ride with us. Currently she's yammering on about some nephew of hers doing all that stuff that two-year-olds are known for and Isaac's eating it up. Isaac loves kids. Wants his own softball team. So he has to marry Samantha. She wants a softball team too.

Speaking of Samantha, I wish Taylor would have married a girl like her. 'Mantha looks like a pudgy Catherine Zeta-Jones. I mean, damn, it's uncanny! Right down to they eyes! Isaac met her when a friend of his asked him to come to an OSU orchestra performance. Samantha was center stage, playing cello, and in doing such, enchanting my brother beyond belief. He talking about her for weeks until Matt (his friend) told him they were performing again. Samantha wasn't center stage that time, but she was the center of Isaac's attention. Well anyway, she's a talented girl. You know it doesn't seem like we can get away from them, talented people, can we? Well, except for Natalie…. Anyway, 'Mantha and Isaac travel back and forth to see each other. He should just ask her to marry him and get it over with.

Before we left the house, I snatched up a copy of Meech's (oh, that's Michelle Branch to you) demo that she had mailed us last week and Avery's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire book. Crimeny, it's long, but I can drown in it and not have to try and hold up a conversation with anyone.

Shortly after the qudditch world cup, after the Dark Mark scene, Samantha slaps my knee. "Hey, muggle, step back off the train! We're here!" She pops open her door and jumps out. I follow.

There's a lot of full of cars, half of them screaming my name. Determined to buy a car like Taylor's, but better, I head in the direction of the sports cars.

Halfway over there, a sales guy walks up to us, "Hello." He stuck out his hand. "My name's Dave; what can I help you with today?"

"What's the fastest car on the lot?" I figure I shouldn't waste time dancing around the tree. I know what I'm here for!

"Zac!" Isaac shouts, sounding very fatherly. "Be serious! We're here to find you a car not a racer."

I turn around, shrugging my shoulders, "I am being serious. And I'm cool with a racer. Maybe not like that Vin Diesel movie, but fast. Yeah, I want a fast car. It's my birthday, not to mention my money. So stop trying to be dad." I turn back to sales-guy Dave, hearing a grunt from Isaac sounding something like "moron", but I didn't ask. "Okay, now which is the fastest?"

"Uh," Sales-guy Dave looks around the lot and begins walking in the direction I was headed in before he interrupted us. He stops just in front of a black convertible that I knew was going home with me. "This is the fastest we've got. It'll get up and go so fast, that, in under a minute, your cheeks'll flapping faster than a Saint Bernard in a hurricane!"

"I want to drive it!" Oh my god, I think I might be drooling. Funny, when you think about the Saint Bernard comment!

Sales-guy goes to get the key and I just continue standing there, gawking.

"Have you lost your blinkin' mind, Zac?" He grunts at me in a listen-to-reason whisper. "You will kill yourself in that car! Mom will kill you for bringing it home!"

"Taylor has one just like it." I waved my hand in the air, proving my indifference to what he was trying to tell me.

"Taylor's--"

"--A safe driver!" Samantha jumps in. "You've never been known for your precautions, Zac!" At this, I of course roll my eyes.

"Maybe," Isaac pleads, "you should look into an SUV or something? Maybe we could head up the road. Look at a couple Navigators, or Aviators, or something. Think four doors and a hard top, not a speeding death trap." Isaac Hanson, ladies and gentleman, the voice of reason.

"No." If I were three, I'd stamp my foot on the ground. "No one told you what to buy, and no one told Taylor. No one's going to tell me!"

Sales-guy Dave has returned, giving me the sacred last word in the argument. He hands me the key, like I'm holding gold. Then he told me about company policy saying he has to ride with me for the test drive. I don't really care, I just want in it!

Leaving Isaac and Samantha (and their pissed off faces) on the lot, the sales guy and I took off.

I drove around for a while before Sales-guy points out the extremely low gas tank. "Where's a nearby gas station?"

"Well, that's not policy." He looks really confused. "We put gas in it on the lot."

"No, you don't understand." I have spotted a gas station. "I'm buying this car. I'll need the gas to get back to Tulsa."

"You don't even want to test any of the others?" I really love confusing people.

"No." So after the gas tank is full, we go back to the dealership so I can do all the work and pay for the car.

I start to follow Sales-guy Dave inside, but Isaac jerks my arm.

"You are not! buying this car!" He roars, like it's his business or something. "Zac you will kill yourself, you reckless ass!"

It takes me a second, but then I snort, "better a car than with a gun!"

"Zachary!" Samantha snaps, and looks like she's going to try to continue.

"Shut up!" I fling my hands into the air. "Both of you, just shut up! I'm a big boy and I can make my own decisions--"

"--Like with Abby?" Samantha remarks. There's this curse, in the Harry Potter books called the Cruciatus curse that causes people to spasm painfully. I'd like to use that one right now.

My jaw locks in place, "--talk to Beth have you?" I shake my head to regain control, "look. I appreciate your concern, but this is my decision, so back off, please. You can either leave my stuff here and go home, or you can wait while I do all the legal crap.

Isaac drags his glare over to Samantha, "we'll wait, okay?" She nods. And then, even though I'm not supposed to, I hear him whisper, "and it's not real bright to bring up Beth." In the periphery Samantha shrugs ambivalently. Well, it was a crappy victory, but a victory nonetheless and they follow me inside.

Once the process was done, Isaac asks, "what do you want to do now?" He's cooled off some and I'm not so pissed at Samantha anymore.

"I'm going home to return the favor to Nick." The gloat is already flowing from my ears, in buckets.

Isaac's eyebrows lift up, "favor?"

"On Nick's birthday, the second he got the keys from his parents, he took off for our house to show me his RX-8. So, I figure, with a Mercedes, I've definitely got to top a Mazda, right? Who cares if his car was in a movie!"

Isaac rolls his eyes, laughing at me, "it's petty but whatever!" He turns to Samantha, "you want to back up with me or do you want to visit your parents while we're down here?"

Samantha opted to see her parents. I get my stuff from Isaac's backseat and glide into my new toy, with the top down. My cell phone says I missed two calls. One's from my house. The other one is from--Beth. Mom wants to know if I've gotten a car yet. And Beth says, "I…uh…I…um…." Click.

Nick beat me to the house. He was leaned up against his car, waiting for me when I got there. We took our cars down a patch of dirt road that no one drives on unless it's hunting season. He beat me, hands down, the first time. No two ways about it, but I crushed him the next three times. When it was all over, our cars were covered in red dust and we were laughing hysterically at each other.

"Alright, aright," Nick laughs, getting out of his car after the fourth race, "you win! I concede! But I want to ride in that thing!"

We drive back to his house and park his car.

"So where do you want to go?" I ask him, pulling out of his driveway, looking over at Beth's house. She's not home.

Nick shrugs, "let's just drive around town." He pulls out a burned disk he has titled Nick's Rock and puts it in the CD player. It had a bunch of hard driving, rock. It had a bunch of songs I knew, but never knew who originated them. We drive into town, with the top down, talking about the stuff I should do to my car. Fast and Furi-fy it!

Running out of other main roads to drive on, I take a turn down the road the Record Store is on. Beth is sitting outside, talking to a guy I have never seen before. Instinctively, and quite without intention, I slow down. And, of course, she looks up. Next instinct: hit the gas peddle hard. She looks up at me as my toe his the gas, sending me some sort of electrical charge, both a mixture of hatred and love. Strange mix, but that's what it was. Nonetheless, we squeal out of sight.

A few minutes later, Nick says to me, "I'm going up to Tulsa again tonight with Grace and Abby, you in?"

"Are you out of your head?" I punch the car through a yellow light, heading back in the direction of Nick's house. "Yeah, I'm all sorts of dying to go hang out with Abby again! Sounds like a great time!"

"Seriously, dude!" He laughs at my sarcasm. "Abby's not pissed or anything. She says she understands what happened."

"Like hell!" I snort.

"Okay, well, maybe she doesn't really understand, but anyway, she doesn't care about what happened between you and her. She wants you to come. C'mon, dude, you can show off the car?" This last bit he says like he's dangling a piece of meat in front of a dog, trying to get it to sit.

"I think I'll pass." I turn on to Lucinda Drive, six or so miles from his house.

"Zac!" He groans. "What are you going to do at home, sleep?"

Come to think of it…. "Yeah, actually, that doesn't sound like a bad idea. I'm kinda tired."

"You're always tired." Hm, did I note a hit of sharp tongue there? "You need something to take your mind of Beth."

Sometimes he can be seriously dim. "Oh yes, Nick, and the answer to get my mind of Beth is Abby, the indirect cause of my argument with Beth. Brilliant plan, there, buddy!"

"Oh. Yeah. Sorry, didn't think about that."

I give him that 'yeah, dumbass' look.

"So I'll call up Grace and tell her I have to cancel. You and me can go out and party 'cause it's about to be your birthday!" I get a sudden urge to sing that 50 Cent song. "What are you really going to do on a Saturday at home?"

"Look, if I promise to go party with you next weekend, when it really is my birthday, well you let me off tonight?"

He contemplates this, looking a mix of pissed and disappointed. "I guess. Maybe Grace can bring someone other that Abby?"

I laugh a little more curtly than I intended to. "That'd be a smart idea!"

I turn into his driveway. He butts his knuckles up against mine. "Later!" We say in unison and he gets out and I head home.

Isaac's home now, and apparently Samantha's still here. Hmm, mom seems to have conned her into playing her cello. It something really somber, like you'd hear in a period movie, 1700s maybe, during an intense life or death scene. This I hear from the other side of the front door. On the inside of the house, the music is loud, and it rattles in me, haunting me, scaring me. I move quickly for the stairs. My family is so much entranced by the music, they do not notice me.

Under a pile of drumming magazines sits my laptop. I pull it out, plug in everything that's necessary and head out into the World Wide Web. I do the usual thing, visit friend's sites, check e-mail, check in on my favorite bands. A check-in at hansonnet wouldn't do any harm, but it was all the same as usual. Complaints about updates, a lot of talk about Taylor and just the average daily lives of our fans. Most of them seem pretty cool. I've talked to a couple of them online, they didn't know of course! Once or twice I've landed myself a scary one. You know the type, so obsessed with one or all of us that they forget there's an outside world. But for the most part, people just like the music. But now I'm beating a dead cow.

Bored, with nothing left to do, I nearly clicked off when I got the impulse to hit up a search engine. When prompted, I typed in 'self injury' (cutting seemed a little to broad. I'd probably get something back on cutting bread) and waited to see what I got. And oh, the plethora of information that came slapping me in the face. It stole my breathing patterns for a moment. How many people in the world can this actually be happening? Surely not this many people have been condemned to this. Hundreds, thousands of people, feeling it too. Cutting is a part of me now. It's a fine mixture of Neosporin and alcohol. It soothes and it burns. Can I really explain this? Explain how release is a slave driver.

Let's start with a story. Last week Nick and I were in the mall buying new CDs. It was Saturday, actually, meaning the mall was crowded. I have a rather passionate fear of crowds, which has not always been the case; they've just recently become a contention point with me. The more we moved around, the more anxious I became. My stomach began to tango with my liver. I think I had a panic attack. I started shaking. Desperate to keep it from Nick, I told him I had to go to the bathroom--now! He asked if I was okay, I just blew him off claiming that I had to piss and fast. So I moved, jamming through people, to get to the bathroom. Nick went on to Abercrombe to wait for me.

Once I made it into the bathroom, with all its porcelain clean, sane, whiteness, I felt a little better. At least there wasn't a crowd. But my heart gave a hard charge if I chanced thinking about returning into the mall. What was I going to do? I didn't want to tell Nick. I went into the handicapped stall, and slammed my forehead into the cool tile wall. But then…it came…the voice, that's not a voice. More of a drive, like a nagging two-year-old, that wants what it wants, when it wants it. It lies between the back of my skull and my brain. The drive's answer for everything is to hurt myself. My heart still pounding I know that I've go to find someway for the anxiety to leave me. Use your fingernails, I tell myself. But then, rationality steps in. But let me say, rationality is sometimes weak, and it's nothing more than a squeak in the distance. But sometimes it wins out. Only sometimes. Rationality likes to ask me why am I about to hurt myself. Sometimes, I can only say I don't know; those days rationality wins. It loses when I want to feel better. So, obviously, that day, rationality lost. So I yanked up the shirtsleeve on my left arm and raked my fingernails up and down about five times, until some of the skin had pulled up and there were tiny bloodspots. Of course, that wasn't enough, so I did it until I was satisfied and calmed. I was now free to return into that crowd without panic. Thankfully, Nick didn't ask what took so long.

Sometimes the need comes straight out of me, but from nowhere. It comes when a day is all wrong, or even when nothing's happened at all. And that's when I feel it in my veins. It makes them itch. My heart is a volcano, sending searing lava into my veins and I have to let it out. Free it to stop the burning. But I don't like to say they burn, they itch. Because the thought that veins themselves can itch is fascinating to me.

As I search around online, I find that I'm not the only one with rituals. It's like we're all drug addicts, and we get high off draining our life fluid.

Like drug addicts, I'm sure, I never sat myself down to say, "okay, so this is how you have to do it." It just happened. If it's night time, I lock the door to my room and pull a Dolce & Gabbana shoe box out from under my bed. Inside lie a box of razorblades, some medical tape and gauze, and alcohol, to clean the blades--can't risk infection. I crawl over to the mirror that I left sitting outside of my closet and sit in front of it, examining my preexisting damage. Usually I scratch at a few of the newer ones, in hopes that they won't heal. Maybe I just for them not to heal. Windows that can still be opened. So anyway, I clean my razorblades and wait. Sometimes I leave my head and watch. Sometimes I stay and experience it, if I've had a particularly bad day…feel it. In either case, I just stand there and watch the blood run free of me, like scared kids run from a bully. It makes me sleepy and quiets the two-year-old. In public, which is extremely rare, I find the closest sharp object and knick at my ankles, or my wrist under my watchband.

Have you had enough? Because I have and I don't think I can talk about this anymore. I think I'm going to puke.

*	*	*

So it's my birthday and my mom has invited the whole family. A week shy of a month without Beth, which is sort of getting annoying. She's being stupid. Nick tried to talk to her, but she kept shunting him, giving him some crap about it was fault and if I want to talk to her, I'll come find her. Puft! My fault? All those baby-emotions have gone to her damned head. Blah, anyway.

So the family's planning my birthday thing. My grandmother will be here, my mom's sister Anna and her son (her husband left last year for a younger man), and my dad's sister Karen and her three kids (her husband's in South America working for an Oil Company). Nick and Grace will be here-I had to threaten his new paint job to keep Abby away. Nat and Tay and Ezra, of course, and Isaac and Samantha. The kids, and yadda yadda, you get the point! There will be a lot of people here. I don't like crowds, but it's getting cold and Mom won't push them out onto the porch.

The morning is rather glorious. I can tell my family members are already here. And that the kids are bustling around like a bunch of house elves. The younger kids are in the front yard, with Taylor supervising, playing soccer. My siblings are in the house. It's nearly noon, I note looking at the clock. I rake my fingernails across my stomach and remember last night's window openings. They begin to bleed a bit, so I grab a couple tissues and stop it. Then I head off for a shower.

By the time I get out of the shower and get dressed, it's nearly one. Nick and Grace will be here at two, so I go down stairs to see if I can help.

"No!" Mom shouts, "you know better! It's your birthday! Go outside with Taylor!"

Avery and Jessica pass a few foul scowls my way as one peals potatoes and the other is cutting vegetables.

Taylor's perched on the steps watching James, Aaron and Leslie (Karen's kids) and Erik (Anna's kid) play soccer with Mackenzie and Zoë. Karen's kids were all one team and losing to the other three by one point. Taylor laughed as he watched Mackenzie trip on his shoelaces.

"I told you to tie those!" Taylor shouted out to him.

Mackenzie flushed and returned to playing.

"Finally decided to join the living, have you?" Taylor grins up at me.

I roll my eyes, "I was up late." I sit down next to him. Zoë scores a goal, though quite by accident as she to was slipping because of shoelaces.

"Which deranged fan were you talking to last night?" He smiles, telling me he's kidding.

"Blah on you Taylor!" I throw a leaf at him, "where's Natalie?"

"I forgot to grab the diaper bag on the way out. She had to go back for it. Zac?"

I raise my eyebrows, watching Aaron tickling Leslie.

"Have you thought about what I told you the other day? You know about maybe talking to someone?"

I thought for a moment about the scars my chest. What would he say to that? He'd really think I need help.

"Nope." And to avoid further questions, I ran off into the yard after Zoë, to tie her shoe laces, as she had fallen once again.

Nick arrived and we did the birthday food-fest. My aunt Anna and the kids got me a radar detector for my new car (much to my mother's disappointment). Aunt Karen bought me some new clothes, telling me she rather disliked my vintage tee shirt collection, thinking they looked bum-ish. Well, of course, the parentals provided the car. Taylor and his family got me some self-help book and a new racing game. My gift from Samantha and Isaac was definitely my favorite: my very own, Fender twelve string acoustic guitar.

As mom was doling out ice cream and birthday cake, the doorbell rang. I got up to get it, telling mom it was my birthday, and I could do what I wanted and that included getting the door. I just wanted away from the screaming, as yet, sugar deprived kids. When I got to the door, there was no one there, but a wide, thin package that fell on top of my feet. The card attached at the top had Beth's handwriting. I hear a car rumbling up my driveway, and I see Beth's tail lights pulling away.

Inside the wrapping is a signed copy of the very first Jimi Hendrix vinyl album.

Chapter Text

Every particle of dust Beth's car pushed back, hit me and burned me like ashes flying up from a wood fire. How many friend would post a couple thousand dollars (how could it have been any less?) just for your birthday?

"Who was it Zac?" Mom asks not seeing the dumb-struck look on my face.

"Zac?" Natalie sounding honesty concerned. "Are you okay?"

And I have no reply, because I'm not really okay, and I'm at a serious loss. But I'm still not sorry.

It's much later in the day now; the purple of twilight has come in and the stars are beginning to show. My family left hours ago and shortly there after, Nick left with Grace for Tulsa.

Isaac, Samantha and I are sitting at the table talking about their plans for Halloween. Isaac's going down to 'Mantha's parents' house for their annual costume party. I'm going with Taylor to take Ezra trick-or-treating. As the conversation shifts into plans for Isaac's birthday, Dad bends his head into the room.

"Guys," he looks at me and then to Isaac, "I need to see you in the living room."

Taylor's already waiting, with Ezra, when we get into the living room.

"Where's Nat?" Isaac asks, plunking down next to Taylor on the couch.

I sit in the recliner across from them and hod my arms out for my nephew. Taylor passes the sleeping kid over to me and answers Isaac. "Mom wanted to keep him tonight. Said she wanted to give me and Natalie a break. I think she just misses having a little one in the house!"

We all laugh.

Then Dad comes in. "You're gonna want to take advantage of that break." He pulls the French doors closed behind him. "You're leaving for California week after next."

Of course, this is news to the three of us. We had no plans on returning to California until some undetermined time after Christmas. No particular reason, other than we're just not ready to go back into the studio right now.

"Why?" Taylor's eyebrows fall into his eyes, giving away his suspicion that Dad's done something out from under us again.

"The people at Arista want to hear what you guys have been working on." He pats Ezra on the head.

"But we haven't been working on anything!" I remind him curtly. "Hello? Downtime?"

He ignores me and takes his seat in the other recliner next to mine. "You three have to fly out to L.A. and record about four or five demos. They don't have to be perfect; just examples. Submit the demos, and when they're happy, you come home."

My brothers look as horrified and scandalized as I do.

"How long will that take?" Isaac looks angry. It's just like Dad to do this.

Dad Shrugs. "Until you're finished." He flashes three plane tickets at us. "They're one ways tickets. You can buy your return tickets once you've finished."

At the same time Taylor yells, "What about my son?", I yell, "What about Beth?" Ezra jerks his head up, looking at Taylor, startled by the sudden noise.

Dad for a moment is taken aback; maybe more from the unison shout than from what Taylor and I were shouting.

He points at Taylor with the tickets. "You have a wife perfectly capable of taking care of Ezra. You also have a nanny. And if either of those fail, you know your mother can take care of him. And you." He wheels around in my direction. "What're you worried about? Beth? Beth's got her own family to be around for her. Besides, you haven't even spoken to her in, what, four weeks?"

"Three." I grunt under my breath so he can't hear me. "So we're having a pissing contest!" I voice up. "Doesn't mean I'm not worried about her."

"And just exactly what are you so worried about?" Like he doesn't know. I'd like to gouge his eyes out.

"She's about to have a baby!" He can be such an ass. "I'm supposed to be there!

He rolls his eyes. "That kid's not yours! Why do you have to worry about it?" Frustrated air passes noisily through his nostrils. He won't hit me as long as I have Ezra. "Unless there's something you'd like to tell us?"

I'd like to tell him a big, fat "fuck you!" But that's like asking to be waylaid by a sledgehammer. I glare, unyielding, at him until he finally turns away to Isaac. "Any objections from you?"

Isaac puts his hands up, wordlessly saying I've got nothing. He always was the smart kid. Kept his mouth shut and opinions to himself.

"Good!" Dad slaps the tickets down on the table and marches over to the doors. "Your flight leaves next Tuesday at eight a.m. Be here at five thirty and we'll take you to the airport." He gives me one last challenging look and leaves the room.

For as long as I can remember, there's this look me and my brothers give each other after one of these types of moments. Our eye brows raise and the left side of our mouths push up into our cheek and then we shake our heads.

"When's Beth due?" Taylor asks, desending slowly back onto the couch, slamming his back into it, exerting frustration.

"A couple days after Isaac's birthday." Ezra's drooling on my shirt. It stings the scars underneath. "I can't remember the exact day."

"We'll be back." Isaac says reassuringly. "We'll take all the scrap bits of paper we have lying around, even the ones with five words of a half-ass lyric, and whatever else we have that looks like it could be a song. We'll take all the stuff we wrote with Michelle--but we'll have to tell her we might record demos of stuff she meant for her album. And we'll crank out the best possible, the fastest possible."

Taylor and I nod.

"Why didn't you tell Dad about going to 'Mantha's for Halloween?" Taylor's picking his fingernails.

Isaac purses his lips together and shrugs his shoulders. "It's not worth the argument. We never win."

"We never have." I whisper over the top of Ezra's sleeping head, a little more dramatically than I meant to be.

Taylor drops his hands into his lap. "We never will." He pauses a second to collect reactions from us. We give him the face. "Guess I better go tell Nat." He makes a face like he's afraid.

Isaac stands. "Better tell Samantha. Damn, she's gonna be pissed!"

Then, the both stop their trek to the door and look at me. It takes a second for me to realize what they're trying to say.

"Oh! Yeah! I'm gonna go talk to her tomorrow!"

Beth's house isn't much smaller than ours. It might even be the same size. A couple of large oak and pine trees provide a barrier between her house and Nick's house. Their houses are actually quite similar, made of the same artificially aged brick and wood; houses that resemble the rockstar suburbs on MTV's Cribs.

Beth's mom, Linda Andrews, had the house surrounded with landscaping and used to tend the flowerbeds herself, along with a gardener. She hurt her back last year, though, and now spends her free time painting and other arts and crafts. Before Beth was taken, before the baby, Beth had begged and begged her parent's for a freshwater fishpond. While Beth was away on some dance trip, Ms. Linda and Mr. Daniel (Beth's dad) built the pond for her in the floor of their porch--well, it looks more like a conservatory, being all glass, but you get the point. Ms. Linda painted the tiles with sea creatures and mermaids. And in the center, in fancy blue letters, are the words, Elizabeth Pond. Beth spends time there reading; Ms. Linda does all her painting on the porch now. A few months ago, Mr. Daniel had an antique wood-burning stove installed so they could still enjoy the porch in the winter, and so the fish won't freeze to death.

There's a massive crescent-shaped cobblestone fireplace in the kitchen. It looks through into the living room, with its bookshelves full of books, and Beth's trophy's and ribbons. I ramble, sorry.

Being the end of October, the winter chill has begun to set in, and there is smoke coming from the chimneys as I park my car behind Beth's in the driveway. I look between the trees to see that Nick's at home. I wish I were over there right now, not here to argue with Beth. But, it needs to be done, right?

Through the window in the middle of the side door, I see Ms. Linda bustling around the kitchen, talking to a friend of hers, cooking supper. The windows rattle slightly as I tap on the door.

Ms. Linda opens it. "Hi, Zachary!" There are no such things as nicknames in this house. Nick is Nicholas here. And might I say, that one day, twenty or thirty years from now, Beth will look like the woman who just pulled open the door. Ms. Linda is a forty-something Beth. "Elizabeth's out on the porch." See? Only her friends call her Beth.

"Thanks." I walk into the stifling kitchen.

Halfway across, she says to me, "oh, Zachary? She's in quite a foul mood today, so be warned. You might leave here without your head."

I laugh at this. "What happened?"

She returns to her pasta and shrugs. "Baby hormones, I guess. She woke up that way. She's been barking at Benjamin all day. She screamed at him when he sneezed--into a Kleenex--at breakfast. She told him he needed to take his snotty nose elsewhere. Then she got in a nosh at me for not putting sugar in her cereal." She shrugs again, sending off a frustrated sigh. "Maybe you can cheer her up?"

Yeah right! I think; but I say, "we'll see."

"Get out Ben!" A bellow from Beth, sounding like a jaguar. "Leave me alone!"

Feet come pounding down the hallway and Ben rounds the corner into the kitchen, GI Joe in hand.

"Mom!" His eyes the size of quarters, fearful and green. "Elizabeth won't let me play soldiers on the porch!" Ben's some eight years younger than Beth.

Ms. Linda stretches her index finger and thumb across her forehead, rubbing her temples. "Benjamin. Go…play in your room."

"But Mom!" He wails, jumping into the air and hitting the floor with a hard slap of his bare feet.

Ms. Linda's eyes flare open as though they themselves could commence to screaming at her son. "Go!"

Ben stomps out, grumbling incomprehensibly.

Ms. Linda looks back at me, flushed and embarrassed. "Like I said, she's in a very foul mood. And again, she's out on the porch."

When I reach the porch, Beth's back is turned to the doorway. She's sitting in the widow seat, nose buried in a book. Her curly hair is pulled into a messy pony-tail. She's wearing a black, spaghetti strap tank top; I can see her shoulder blades and the bumps of her spine.

She is so involved with her book, she doesn't see my reflection in the windows. "What are you reading?" I ask; her shoulders tense, but immediately relax.

"White Oleander." She doesn't look back at me. Rather, she speaks to me like I am an imaginary figment, not flesh. An apparition with a familiar face.

The silence stands, making fun of us for a few minutes. She looks over her shoulder, but not at me, at the floor at my feet. "Did you like it?"

"Like what?" I ask without thinking.

"Your gift?" Sounding a little hurt.

"I loved it." Lacking enthusiasm, but blatantly honest. "I only shut it off last night when I went to bed."

"Good." She whispers and turns back around to watch the trees swish in the mild wind. Then she looks up to my reflection. "That's not what you came here to talk about."

"No. It's not." And I'm still just standing here in the doorway like she's made a bubble from her anger around her self such that I can't pass into her sanctuary.

"Then what is it?"

"Don't be coy, Beth. We need to talk about Abby. And some other stuff."

Finally she looks at me, though it's nothing to be happy about as she's molded her face in contempt. "Abby?" She snorts. "I thought that was 'none of my fucking business'?"

Agitation begins its ascent up from my belly. "Please, Beth! I came her to talk to you, not to start another fight. But I can leave, you know?"

"Shut up." She shoots out. "Let's go upstairs." Her baby pouch is really showing now, sorta like an anatomical fanny pack. Hard to believe she's eight months and not five.

I follow her, dragging our feet, upstairs. Beth's room is never messy. It reminds me of a little girl's room, with its pale pink walls, canopy bed and fairy tale murals that stretch completely around her room. Her mom painted the murals. She started them when she was pregnant with Beth and didn't finish until Beth was almost six.

Beth flops down on her bed and lifts her shirt, exposing her stomach, which now moves as though her stomach has turned into a flesh colored ocean.

"He's moving." She says, somber little face. And I think there's a double meaning in what she's said, but I don't say anything. It wasn't really said for my attention anyway. I just happened to be standing there.

"So what do you want to talk about?" She pulls her shirt back over her belly and picks a glitter wand up from her bedside table, watching the glitter float and suspend as she twisted it.

"Beth!" I scare her and she drops the wand. "Stop acting so disconnected! You know what I want to talk about because you want to talk about it too! You've got so much fucking pride, you know? Just drop it for once and pretend to be human again!" Damn! Did that come out of my mouth? It got her attention anyway.

Her lip gave a minute tremble. "Fine. You want to talk about Abby; let's talk about Abby."

"Why'd you go psycho on me?"

She crinkles her nose and goes quiet. Her contempt for me is oozing, but I just stand there waiting, not caring how much she apparently hates having to ask this question.

"Because I hate Abigail Rowland." She accents every word, driving the hate into all of them. "And Abigail Rowland hates me." She's quiet again. "When we were in junior high, just before her tryout for the Tulsa School--she's a year older than me--we were in the same dance troupe, and had been since we were little girls. I had always been better than her. My mom was a dancer and my grandmother before her. It's in my blood. Anyway, our last recital was scheduled for the week before Abby's audition and the people at the school had told her that they were going to come watch her in the recital. Abby wanted to be the star, naturally. Yeah, well, she didn't get it. I did." She pauses and shakes her head. "She ranted and ranted and whined that I always got everything and that Madam Cinque favored me and on and on. So, to shut her up, Madam Cinque told her that she could be my understudy and have a supporting part to do also.

"Well, apparently at thirteen, Abby'd seen a lot of movies about revenge or something, because no one I know could have thought this up. Opening night I set my bag down near the dressing area backstage and went over to the makeup table to have my makeup done. When I went back to change, my bag was open, my stuff was thrown all around the floor and my costume had been completely shredded. Everything, right down to my slippers. And because we were expected to provide our own outfits, there were no extras for me to wear. So they had to send Abby out in my place. After it was over, Madam Cinque questioned Abby about it, but she insisted that she had been changing when it happened and she had nothing to do with it. She didn't even see who did it. She made it very clear to me later that it had been her, though.

"When we did the show again, I kept my bag with me. No way she was going to cheat me again, and it sent it out with my mom after I'd changed. As we were lined up to begin the show, Abby whispers in my ear, 'now you look like my understudy. For once, I out did you! Stop trying to out do me. Or you'll have worse than a shredded costume.' But I did out do her, and many times. And she did a lot worse things to me too. Dead bugs in my locker. Bleach in my hair after gym. Once, just before another big recital, people from big name dance schools across the country--and I was staring again--she tried to break my legs with a metal bat and damn near got expelled. Her father bought off the principal though. She laid off after that." She lifted her wand back off the bed and continued twisting it and twirling it.

I let the story settle. But then something struck funny.

"Why'd you tell me that you were there to see her about helping Jessie?"

"Ugh!" She laughs. "Boys are really stupid. Like I was going to tell you that I had just hauled ass out of work to see if what I had just heard was true!"

"Urgh?" Sounding like Tim Allen al la Home Improvement.

Beth flexes her fingers. "A girl I knew from school that graduated with Abby, works in that bar you guys were at. Anyway, she called me the next morning to tell me that she saw you with her and that you two had left together. So I called my boss, told him I was sick and left to find you. So there you have it. The whole nasty tale."

And yet, something else didn't make sense. "Okay, so that's great and all, but it doesn't explain why you got so friggin' mad at me. Though it's surprising I didn't know, you never told me about your rivalry with her. How the hell was I supposed to know."

"You have a point there. But I got pissed at you because of how it is that you wound up with her. You were so irresponsible, Zac! You got so wasted, you could have done god knows what! And besides…." She trailed off, sounding like she was about to change the subject.

"Besides what? Were you jealous?"

"I could slap you for that."

"But you won't. So, besides what."

"Well. It's like this. When you're a girl, and when your best friend is a guy, you want him to stay away from other girls. Just because we don't want to date you, doesn't mean you're on the open market. This is unless we know the other girl. And then we have to know her really, really well and approve of her. And even then, we're sort of wary. Follow?"

"Uh. Yeah." But I only say this because I don't want to look stupid. "But it doesn't make a damn bit of sense."

"Well, see, it doesn't have to make sense to boys. It's girl theory." Then she laughs like it's an inside joke. "Welcome to your first lesson. See, girls know about other girls. We know how we operate. Unless we're friends, you're not safe. You'll be evaluated from every angle. God save you if we hate you ahead of time!" You know, really, someone should write a book on this stuff. It would outsell Harry Potter. "So anyway, if I know Abby--and I know Abby--she probably agreed to meet up with Nick and Grace and you because she knew that you were my best friend and knew that I'd find out. And oh, how that would get under my skin, you know? And it did. Abby did it out of spite because she knows I'm going to Juilliard next year and she never stood a chance. And you know, really, I wasn't at you at first, just your stupidity. I wasn't pissed at you until the spectacle in the parking lot. You've never, no matter what, ever yelled at me like that. It hurt."

I shrug, because I'm sorry I hurt her feelings, but I'm still not sorry about Abby. "You've never gone so postal on me. You made me mad."

"Sorry." She flushes and puts her hands back on her belly. "Forgive and forgiven?"

"Forgive and forgiven." We both watch as her belly becomes the fleshy ocean again. "But there's something else I have to tell you."

"You slept with Britney Spears too?" She laughs.

"Uh, no!" I shudder. "We're being sent to California for a few weeks."

Her eyes flutter in disbelief and a slight rage begins, like a tempest before a hurricane. "What! But you promised--"

"--Whoa!" I threw my hands up. "This isn't our--that is Hanson's-doing. This is Dad and Arista. But mostly Dad. Me and Taylor already had a scream out with him about it. Nothing we can do. And get this: our tickets are only one way! We have to stay until 'we're finished'!" I do quotes with my fingers.

She looks frenzied and panicked. "How long will that take?"

"Don't know. We're going to cram in as many as possible as fast as possible. They're telling us four to five songs. Not exactly perfect, but they want the best possible considering that they're demos. There's nothing we can do, Beth. We have to go."

"Ugh!" She flings the glitter wan to the floor with a loud clinky-thud. "You're dad's such an ass! What's Taylor going to do about Ezra?"

"Dad told Taylor his wife was perfectly capable of taking care of Ezra and if she had any problems Mom would be around. Taylor's pissed! He's going to miss Ezra's first Halloween because we'll be busy packing!"

"He's so wrong for that!" She huffs a couple times. "You have to be back! I can't have this baby with my mom for a coach!"

"Elizabeth!" Her mom shouts from the bottom of the stairs. "Nick's here! Come help Benjamin set the table!"

"Mom!" Beth whines back. "Make Ben do it himself! I did it myself until he came along!"

"Elizabeth, please!" Ms. Linda pleads. "Just come down and help him! And ask Zachary if he wants to stay for dinner!"

Beth tosses her arms helplessly into the air. "If this keeps up, I'll go into premature labor. I can hear her now, 'Beth, you're not pushing hard enough. Do your breathing. Now, hunny, don't yell at me.' I'll kill you if you're not back in time!"

* * *

Next Tuesday has come. It's a rainy start to November, and cold. The airport is relatively deserted at six in the morning. The three of us are seated in the waiting area, in the ozone between sleep and consciousness. Dad's in the row of seats across from us, in the same ozone. Our luggage has already been checked in and, like us, is awaiting boarding.

Beth, Nick and I went out to eat last night. It felt good. I was light and something close to happy. Unfortunately, waking at four this morning, and seeing the dark rain, my own helplessness settled down under the top layer of my skin. I love my job, honestly. But I feel as though my father is the king our career castle and we're the oxen plowing the fields, and despite all the desperate attempts, we're never going to be free of our yoke. And it's with this feeling that I sit here now, looking past him at the still-dark rain, that every once in a while catches a glimmer of the runway lights. Fragments of hate come and go, driven away by the reminder that no matter what, that man is my father. No matter what. And it is with this thought that I fall asleep until boarding.

Chapter Text

Sunshine greeted our arrival in Los Angeles. Our nearly three hour flight was uneventful and we spent most of it asleep or reading.

A couple years ago we decided we were tired of spending money on hotels, and losing almost all our privacy, every time we came to LA, so we bought a modest little three bedroom house outside the Hollywood Hills. The house is very Spanish looking with white stucco walls and a red clay-tile room. It has a nice size yard and a big garage, though we don't do much with that except keep the Sequoia in it. And other than the gardener, who we hired to keep the yard from getting unruly in our absences, no one knows we live here. Or at least, we hope no one knows.

After unloading the three cabs it took to get us, and all our stuff here, we each depart into our rooms to unpack and take a nap.

My room here is much smaller than my room at home, as one would expect. There's one large window over looking the front yard and houses across the street. My bed is under this window, dressed in dark blue and green paisley linens. On the left side of the bed (this being if you were facing the window from the door) is the closet and on the other side of that is Isaac's room. Taylor got the master bedroom because of Natalie and Ezra.

On both sides of the bed are night tables with lamps, and in the drawers are books, magazines and notebooks with pens. At the foot of my bed is my dresser with a large, unnecessary mirror. The walls are bare minus a corkboard; I didn't see any reason to leave behind valued pictures or posters. Overall the room is dark, and oppressive. Like an echo of my insides.

After taking in my room, smelling a little closed up for too long, I start unpacking. Underwear and shorts and undershirts in the dresser. All other clothes in the closet. I tune the clock radio near my bed to a jazz station and turn the volume to just-barely-audible level. I peal off my shirt and look down at my stomach--my razorblade battleground. And how thin I've become. My collarbone is starting to become rather pronounced. When was the last time I ate? I had an apple and some crackers yesterday, didn't I? Does it even matter?

I here movement in the hall and realize I forgot to lock the door. God forbid Taylor or Isaac walk in. I shudder to think about their reaction. Scary.

I quickly lock the door and crawl into the linen sheets that I haven't slept in for quite sometime now. A faint reminder of laundry detergent has remained in them. Inhaling and exhaling this scent, and feeling the breeze of the ceiling fan pass over me, I fall asleep.

I wake in a strange bed with a jolt. My heart beats irregularly. Someone's calling my name. When I step out of the bed I notice my chest is bare with no scabs or scars. Tell me the past two months have been a dream? But, no, this place is totally unknown to me.

My body moves, seeming to know where it's going. I pass a dresser lined with picture frames. In a large crystal frame is a picture of a bride and groom. I pick up the picture to get a closer look. It's Beth. Ugh! Not that dream again! But, that's not Nick next to her! That's me!

The voice calls my name again and my body tugs forward into a hall. Beth is at the other end. How pretty she is, with her hair hanging down, being moved by a breeze coming from some unknown place. Her hazel eyes have turned green next to the pale moss green nightgown. My feet are moving, but I'm going nowhere and I try to reach for her. Not again. There's blood below her belly again, and she falls over screaming again. She's crying and her screams, terror-pitched high screams, get louder and I know my ears will burst soon if it doesn't stop. And I start screaming from the pain in my ears, but more because I can't save her.

BAM! BAM! BAM!

"Zac!" Isaac, maybe? "Zac! Open the door! What is going on in there? ZAAACCC!!"

I fly upright in my bed feeling like I'm going to throw up. Air rushes down my throat, trying to calm my heart. I snag my shirt off the floor, yank it on, then yank the door open. Taylor and Isaac jump from the shock, giving me a clear path to the bathroom, in which I promptly shut and lock the door. They commence their door banging and shouting as I commence to drive heaves, well, succumb to anyway. They stop beating on the door after about ten minutes of silence from me. About ten minutes or so after that, the heaving stops and I lay down on the cold tile floor, catching my breath. After my breathing slows some, I go over to the sink. The face in the mirror is ghastly, paper white and has horrifying raspberry rimmed eyes. I turn the water on, continuing to stare at myself. The water rushes forward from the sink and I begin splashing my face and drink in a few handfuls. My heart has finally stopped jack-hammering my chest and the heat has left my face.

Taylor and Isaac are leaned against the wall waiting for my exit.

"Are you okay?" Taylor asks impatiently.

I nod, not feeling the energy to speak.

"What. Happened?!" Isaac snaps.

"Nightmare. Sorry." I go back down the hall, not feeling the need to sleep, and head for the kitchen, with a strong desire for some apple juice.

It doesn't occur to me until I'm staring an absolutely empty refrigerator in the face, that we don't have anything to eat or drink. Store. Yep, go to the store.

"Hey!" I bellow at the hallway. "I'm going to the store, you guys want anything?"

"Dr. Pepper!" Isaac shouts back.

"And some of those Starbucks coffee things!" From Taylor. "Vanilla flavored."

"Oh, and get some peanut butter!" Isaac.

"And some bread and jelly!" Taylor.

"Shall I just buy groceries?" Me, sarcastically.

"Yeah!" From both of them. Lazy bastards!

Back in the bathroom, in a cabinet under the sink, under a pile of towels is a lock box. In that box we have duplicate copies of our birth certificates and social security cards; health, life, and car insurance information; credit cards; and all our spare keys for the house and the Sequoia.

I get the keys for the Sequoia and head for the Albertson's that's about ten minutes from the house.

As I walk into the freezer cold store, a redhead cashier eyes me funny. Not in a disgusted, oh-god-it's-another-customer way, but in a hey-I-know-who-you-are way. Anyway, she quickly snaps her head back around to attend to the customer waiting on her.

I like putzing around grocery stores during the day, while most people are at work at it is uncrowded. It makes me feel normal, domesticated. I pick out all our favorite junk foods, (pop-tarts, sour cream and cheddar chips, various candies, peanut butter crackers, frozen pizza) wondering how much of it I'm actually going to eat. Every so often I pick out foods with some remote nutritional value (granola bars, raw veggies with ranch dip) so we can tell mom we're eating good foods.

My meandering takes about an hour and a half, when I decide I've looked the store over and have everything we could want, including the requests from Taylor and Isaac.

Unfortunately, the shortest line belongs to the redhead that eyed me when I came in. Enh, it can't be that bad. So I scoot my buggy over to her line.

"You're Zac Hanson, aren't you?!" Is she squealing, because it sounds that way.

"Uh," shocked, it takes me a second to remember that I am, in fact, Zac Hanson. "Yeah, I am. Sorry. You caught me off guard."

"Sorry." She looks like she's nanoseconds away from clamoring over the counter and jump on me. This strikes me as funny. She looks to be in her late thirties, early forties maybe? Usually, our "older fans" (such a bullshit title! Fans are fans, right?) are pretty calm and reserved. Even if they do want to ravage us. She extends her hand. "I'm Angel! Big fan. Have been for years!"

I shake her hand. "Thanks. Do you guys take debit?"

"Yeah." I think she's about to giggle, but she doesn't. Her glassy green eyes flash these fervent, adoring looks up at me whenever she got the chance while passing the food over the scany thingy. After running my debit, she asks, "so are you guys in town for recording or something?"

Anxiousness starts zooming around my stomach terribly. "Uh yeah. We're here to cut a few demos.

"That's so cool!" She gushes. "Do you stay near here?" Audacious little bug, isn't she?

And that bothers me. "Yeah. We're in the Hyatt up the road from here." Let her try and find us now! "Well, have a good day!"

"You too!" She called after me eagerly. "Come back soon!"

Note to self: Wal-Mart!

When I get back to the house I find that my brothers have already set up our equipment in the living room. We use the dining room as our living and dining room. Isaac and Taylor are sitting on the floor working on a song I had written months ago.

"Whatcha think?" Isaac asks, strumming a few more chords on his guitar. "The sound you were going for?"

"Sounds good." I say, setting down a few bags of food.

I tell them about Angel as we finish putting the food away.

"She didn't follow you out, did she?" Taylor pops open a Starbucks thing, that he's apparently been dying for.

"I hope not!" I snag the apple juice I'd been dying for. "I'm pretty sure there was a customer waiting behind me. I just wanted to get out and not look back."

After we knock back a few Dr. Peppers and inhale some chips and a sandwich or two, we get to work on perfecting my song. I wrote it for Beth, when she tried to die.

Shattered

suicide, she says
like it was something she forgot to do
before she figured out who she was
and the things she was never supposed to be

sold out and lost
they've spoken to her of love
and life yet to see
like painted backdrops
on old movie sets

broken glass lay betwixt her toes
but she only cries when she pulls at the shards
because she can't wiggle her toes
when she bleeds

so when the innocence is all gone
there is nothing left
but the broken mirrors
and a fractured girl
who lost herself
before she ever stood a chance

By midnight we were pretty confident in the song and decided it would be the first thing that we would record for Arista. We had a Dr. Pepper and talked about what bits of lyrics we wanted to turn into songs and a few other things and around one in the morning, we went to bed.

During the night I had another nightmare about Beth, but I don't remember much of it now. It was probably something like the one I had earlier in the day. Thankfully, though, it didn't send me off into another fit of screams.

Taylor and Isaac are still asleep. I go into the kitchen and pull the orange juice from the refrigerator. I'm not really hungry, so I decide to skip breakfast.

I haven't cut in two days, giving myself a little bit of pride this morning. Maybe there's hope yet.

My brothers are soon awake and moving listlessly around the house getting dressed and eating breakfast. Then, feeling jet lagged and homesick, already, we leave the house headed for Wild Hearts Studios Inc., owned by our friend Madge.

Wild Hearts looks like a house from the outside. And that would be because it is, technically, a house. Madge renovated it. She lives in the house too. It reminds me very much of the Incubus video for "Wish You Were Here". The studio, which takes up the backside of the house, is surrounded by windows that look out to the pool, over a cliff and sprawls out into a view of the Pacific Ocean.

Madge and a few of her employees are sitting around the kitchen table, enjoying pancakes and coffee, when let ourselves in.

"Heeey guys!" Madge smiles and lifts her coffee cup to us. "Want some breakfast? David made some fine chocolate chip pancakes and, if I might say so, I made an awesome pot of coffee!"

"Thanks, Madge!" Taylor said. "But me and Ike have already had breakfast. Zac might take you up on those pancakes, though." Then he looks at me. "You didn't eat this morning, did you?"

"Yeah." I lie. "I had some pop-tarts before you guys got up. So, thanks Madge, but no thanks!" And then my stomach rumbles. Damnable thing!

Isaac eyes me as to say, "oh really?" But he doesn't say anything?

"Coffee then?" Madge gestures again to the thermal coffee pot like they have at every IHOP in the country. "Amaretto! It'll warm you right up!"

Taylor gets a great kick out of this comment and lets out a blast of laughter. "Madge? It's seventy-four degrees outside!"

Madge laughs back. "I forget that anything over sixty in the winter is a heat wave to you guys!"

California in the winter is great. There's a cushy-comfortable warmth always, that reminds you of an eternal summer and sunshine; year round waves and surfing; forever grassy yards, so vibrant you can feel the green; sunny afternoons watching wind trickle through the palm trees. California is more than a place. It's a being, a feeling. See, once you've been here, summer or winter, you know why people long for this place, the way cocaine leaves its addicts so hungry. People seek its freedoms. All dreams can be forged from the fabric of California.

Madge pours coffee for the three of us. Black for Taylor; cream and sugar for me and Isaac. She was right. It was good coffee and warm too.

Madge is the vision of a California girl. She's a thin, attractive blond with short hair. Her hair has bright white-blonde streaks in it, but they're not fake. Madge spends a lot of time in the pool. She once made the joke that she could spend twenty bucks on the chemicals for the pool and get the same effect at fifty bucks at a salon--and have some fun and exercise while she was at it. Her eyes are the same sort of hazel as Beth's. Today she's wearing low-ride jeans and a lacy blue tank top. I think she has a--crush or whatever--on me, but she never really lets on. It's just that, she looks at me the way Beth did when we first met.

"So what're we doing today boys?" Madge leads us into the studio room.

I look up at the loft noticing that Madge left her bed undone and that there was a smell of vanilla in the room. I can't tell if it's come from her bedroom or from candles in the studio, though.

Isaac and Taylor explain to her what we plan to do with "Shattered", the orchestra and whatnot. I'll be singing lead and maybe trying my hand at the tympanis. But I don't feel like talking about the song now. Instead, I walk over to the high glass windows, curtainless, and spilling light all over the place. The light wood floors are covered with oriental rugs and wires and amps and things strewn every which way of yesterday. Just like that Incubus video.

Through the glass I see boats soundlessly zipping back and forth around the jet skiers in the Wal-Mart-bag blue water. Why am I so sad today? For the first time in months I'm completely out of reach of my dad. But I'm also out of reach of my two best friends. If Nick were here, we'd sneak quietly out the back door and go surfing, leaving Taylor and Isaac to take care of the day's businesses. And Beth would be the one driving the get-a-way car with the surf boards tied to the top, speeding the whole way to the shoreline.

I don't want to be here today. My skin itches to get out, but I can't. I have to stay and do what I can. For Beth. For my brothers, who want to go home as badly as I do.

Thus, the tedious recording process begins. Taylor's up first to lay down the piano and some auxiliary percussion. Then, after a lunch break (I ate some cookies) Isaac with his guitars. And finally, late in the afternoon, me.

I played the song through five times and each time I'd be off or playing the wrong part or just completely lose my place.

"Zac, focus." Isaac tells me, slightly impatiently.

After nearly an hour of the same mistakes, Isaac cuts in again. "Zac? Where are you today? It's your song! Focus!"

And still, I wasn't jibbing. Half an hour later, Taylor walks into the studio.

"What is the problem, Zac?" His voice is low. I guess he's trying to keep this from being a scene.

I beat a couple triplets into my base trying to think if I can explain to Taylor what it's like when your skin itches because your veins are burning. "I don't know." I whisper back.

"Zac, it's not a hard part."

"I know that Taylor." My voice becomes accidentally elevated.

"Then why can't you get it right?" Still trying to keep his voice low. We can't cause a scene, now can we?

"I'm trying." I grunt.

"Try. Harder." He grunts back.

"You know, if you're so fucking perfect," I'm yelling now, causing the scene Taylor was hoping to avoid and the people in the mixing room all look up. "You do it!" I fling my sticks behind me so hard I hear the glass crack. I stomp out. Everyone's so stunned, I guess, that no one moves to stop me. I rage on through Madge's kitchen, picking up a cook's knife someone had left on the counter and head for the bathroom. Door locked I yank up the left side of my Led Zepplin shirt and put a nice gash in my side; three inches or so across, no telling how deep. Relief comes down on me like rain for a starving desert. And I do it twice more, admiring the crushing red wave in the mirror.

For once no one is pounding on the door, and I'm in peace. The blood's started to stain the waistband of my shorts. I grab a fistful of toilet paper and catch my liquid rage before it runs to far. Once the bleeding's stopped, I stare at my handiwork again in the mirror. I feel like I'm going to collapse now. Maybe there isn't any hope.

I pull a navy washcloth from the cabinet above the sink to clean my new wounds and try to get out as much of the redness from my shorts as possible. A sickly-satisfying sting jabs at me as I pass the warm, damp cloth over the gashes. I deserve this misery. Look at what I've done to myself. I've damaged the temple. Too quickly the walls of the bathroom are getting too close and I need out.

No one is waiting for me in the hall. Back in the kitchen I quietly wash off the knife and put it in the dishwasher.

A vision of the cliff comes into my head. I check that no one is meandering around and walk out the front door, closing it with a soft click. I know they'll be able to see me through the windows in the studio, but I don't care. Let them look.

As I reach the back of the house, I hear someone playing the drums. Taylor, no doubt, damned perfectionist. I reach the edge of the concrete, on the other side of the pool, looking directly down into the water.

Redness swirls when I close my eyes, my face turned west, towards the setting sun, reveling in the last bits of its day's warmth. I see myself diving off the cliff; air rushing my ears; smell of salt water infiltrating my nose; feeling my arms outstretched like a graceful bird. Absolution upon hitting the water. The vision doesn't fade when I open my eyes. Oh hell. I'm in the water, looking for the surface. Had I actually dived off the cliff? I'm thrashing my arms around stretching in vain for the surface. There's no air left in my chest. Can't breathe. Drowning.

Smack. "Zac! Snap out of it!" It's Taylor.

I take in huge gulps of air.

When I see clearly, after blinking about a million times, Taylor is in my face, frowning and furrowed brow.

"What is going on in that head?" He looks really scared.

Some of my barrier crumbles. "I don't know." Breathless. Hopeless. And suddenly, I can't look at him. His eyes can be lasers, bright blue and cauterizing. He has mom's eyes. The kind of eyes and are total joy or total pain.

Neither of us speak, but the sound of the ocean and the night chill fills in the space. Isaac joins us, but he doesn't say anything.

Taylor lights a cigarette as I crouch to the ground, trying to void myself of thoughts, and Isaac hums a familiar but unrecognizable song.

Yes, California is the fabric. We just get lost looking for the right pattern.

Chapter Text

The ride home was quiet. Not one of those unnerving quiets, that makes you desperate for something to say, but an understood quiet. A needed quiet. We all knew there are things to be said, but who should speak first? Me? So gone in the crazy I can't explain anything. Not even a sigh. Taylor, maybe? The one who's seen the changes, worried and pleaded with me to get help to no avail? Or Isaac? The peacekeeper, who worries but questions interference as it might create another argument. So there we sat. Quiet, watching the sky pass over the sunroof. Waiting for opportunity to come tap our door, offering itself up to help us over come the silence.

Our answering machine, placed behind an amp under some chords, beeps at us as we walk into the house, announcing that someone cared to call. Isaac braves the chords and presses the button.

"You have three new messages."

"Hi guys! It's Mom! Just wanted to check in and see how your first day went! We love you guys! Call soon! Bye!" Mom can have a bad day, and still sound like a cup full of cheer on an answering machine. Beep.

"Hey Everybody! It's Beth," a little ruffling noise, "and Nick!" We just wanted to call and say good luck in the studio!" Ruffle again. "And we love you guys!" Back to Beth, obviously. "Come home soon!" We're trying, Beth, I think. And I wonder what my brothers are thinking about this last comment of Beth's. How many snide things just went through their heads? Beep.

"Taylor? It's Nat." Ooh, there's a happy voice! Note the sarcasm. "You forgot to leave your number and I had to hunt down Beth to get it! Anyway. Your son hasn't quit crying since you left. So when you get a chance, call. Bye."

Taylor looks a little disappointed. She didn't even say she loved him. Nick and Beth spread the love around. His own wife. What a bitch.

"We should call mom." Isaac, who also looks a bit dejected.

Taylor sits on one of the amps, taking note of the look on Isaac's face. "Samantha didn't call." He notes more for himself than for Isaac.

"Yeah well…." Isaac grumbles. "She just got her first taste of what life is like with us. It's left her a bit stung."

"You guys…didn't…." Me, fading because I don't want to say break-up, if in fact that was the case.

"No, no, nothing like that." Twisting the cables between his fingers. "She just…she doesn't understand how we can be expected to pack our bags and leave on a whim. Go off for God knows how long, forgoing our friends and our families." He looks a Taylor after the last word. "It's understandable, her anger. Maybe she'll get used to it."

Taylor says, "I guess." And gives Isaac the Face.

"Well," Isaac sighs with a fleck of hope, "let's call mom."

Taylor picks up the phone and starts dialing the numbers, looking excited. Eternal momma's boy.

A fear feeling churns in my stomach. I want to ask him not to say anything to mom about what happened today. Mom would be horrified. Mortified too, to know that a child she raised could have done such a thing. Mom's not stupid--well, she married Dad, but that's forgivable. She's known about my behavior, the foul moods, sleeping too much, eating too little, my temper. I'm sure, in fact I quite well know, she's asked Isaac and Taylor to keep watch over me, see if anything changes. Better or worse. And in secret, they'll be expected to tell her everything that doesn't break the laws of brotherhood. They'll be expected to tell her, because she's worried. See, she and Isaac are just alike. Worry, but don't interfere. And I know they'll tell her about my nightmare and that I've barely eaten anything since we got here. But those moments, the sound of the glass cracking, drowning on solid ground, those were ours. To be locked in that unwritten book that binds brothers. The moments of life that are never discussed with anyone, but ourselves.

"Hey Mom!" Taylor burst a genuine smile. The worst of his day is over. Her voice is on the other line. He's her favorite. No one will ever say it. It's just understood. "We're good. Yeah, it started off pretty well. Well, Zac had a little trouble." My breath catches as I glare down on him, though he doesn't see it. Maybe I was wrong. "But he got through it." Phew. "Come to think of it, today went exceptionally well, Mom. We already have the music for the entire song done. Except the strings, but that's for later in mixing and production. Anyway, we should be able to do vocals tomorrow. Oh, yeah, it's a song he'd written about Beth. Yeah, he's good. He's sitting right here. You want to talk to him? I love you too. Bye, Mom." He holds the phone to me and goes into the kitchen.

"Hi mom." Not nearly as excited as Taylor.

"Hey baby! How are you?" Pained and sad and worried and it's all for me.

"I'm good."

"What kind of trouble were you having today?" She's honestly interested, but I know there's something else she's waiting to ask.

"Oh. It wasn't really anything big." I pause to think up something to tell her. "Just some rhythm troubles. I wasn't sure how I wanted it to sound. But I got it right eventually." I smiled guiltily at Taylor, taking a swallow of Dr. Pepper. "How are things around there?"

"Noisy!" She laughs. She never has any solitude in that house. Not a moment's peace. "Mackenzie and Zoë are already asking when you guys are going to be home. But your aunt Karen brought the kids over, so they're out of the house for a minute. Soon they'll be in wanting food, or with boo boos, or having been teased about something." Typical kids. "It's cold anyway. We should probably bring them in. Avie, go get the kids."

"Ma-ahm!" Avery groans.

"Go."

"Where's Jessie?"

"In her room, sulking. Her friend Sarah's brother asked her to the movies, but your father won't allow it. He thinks she's too young. Honestly! But, what can you do?" Sounding defeated.

Stand up to him! Of course, I would never brave saying this to my mother.

"Zac?" She says into my silence.

"Mom?"

"Did you eat today?" Yep. I knew it. Here it comes.

"Yeah. Pop-tarts, and sandwich and some cookies."

"Zac," the disapproving voice of a mother, "that's not a whole lot, especially for you. What about yesterday? Did you eat?"

"Yes, mom! I ate!" Frustration starts up in my heart and gets sent out into my veins. "And in a few minutes we're going to stick a pizza in the oven and I'm going to eat some of that. I'm eating just fine mom!"

She sighs again, emanating the sounds of the ulcer I must be causing her. "Okay, honey. I believe you." No, she doesn't. "Well, keep working hard, okay?"

"Okay mom."

"I do love you, baby. I love you so much."

I hate that tone of voice. If she keeps talking, her voice will crack. She'll cry. It stabs me to know she thinks she has to convince me that she loves me. I know she does. But she still loves Taylor more.

"I know you do, mom. I love you too."

Sniffling. "Okay, honey. Lemme talk to Isaac, now. Love you."

"I love you too, Mom. Bye."

"Bye." Still sounding hurt. Like I'd just dug a few more holes in her worried heart. I hate myself.

Isaac takes the phone; I leave the room. Taylor's heavy footsteps are soon behind me and I know he's not going to the bathroom, nor is he going to his room. He is going to my room. To talk to me. Set a pick in my barrier and slam it with a hammer.

I walk around my bed, facing my closet, hoping he won't sit next to me and he doesn't. He sits on the other side of my bed facing the wall with my corkboard and an American Pie movie poster.

In my periphery I see him in the mirror, looking despairingly at the ceiling like the answers to his questions might just be up there; he just has to learn the code; figure out why the letters don't match; find his little lost brother.

"What happened today?" Tone leading, like mom asking me about food.

Why can't head shakes be verbal? Why don't shoulder shrugs possess a noise unique unto themselves?

"Zac." Impatient this time, not wanting to wait for me to think.

"I can't answer that question." Now really, why did I just say that? That line never works for anyone. Brad Pitt himself couldn't pull that line off.

"Can't or won't?" He's still staring at the ceiling. There are no answers there, Taylor.

"Can't. Because I don't know."

For a moment, he seems satisfied with this answer. But only for that moment. Maybe it wasn't satisfaction; he just needed to gather courage and the words. "What if we found you someone here?" Here we go again. Ha. Oh, my Madeline, here we go round again…. "You know, someone for you to talk to. A doctor; a good discrete one? We don't have to tell Mom and Dad. Isaac and I could take care of it; pay the bills. You could go a couple times a week while we're here. And when we go home…we could find you someone there too?"

"No." My voice garglely.

"Why not?" He's half shouting. "There--is--something--wrong--with--you. And you know it! And you won't let any of us help you! You are sick, Zac, and you know it!"

"I am not!" I shout at the wall. Neither of us has turned to face each other.

He slams his fists into the bed. "Then what do you call it Zac?"

"Tired?" It was a lame answer. It wasn't really an answer at all, just a word that sounded right. Like it had a place in the puzzle.

"That's the best you can do?" His head lulls back, shaggy bleach highlights trickling down his neck.

"Yeah." Because it really was the best I could do.

Silence must find itself very enamored with Taylor and me as it often has its way with us. And we sit in this silence, Taylor still trying to decode the ceiling and me drilling holes in the wall with my eyes, though I never break through. A very long time passes. The last of daylight is so gone, my room is nothing but blackness, with two living things waiting for a light; the light of sense to pass us over. Isaac is down the hall, strumming the same three chords over and over, singing words I can't hear through the closed door.

"Zac?"

I stop drilling. "Hmm?"

"We really are worried about you." I believe him. "Mom's the worst; you just don't know. And I have to say this because what I'm about to ask is really selfish."

"Okay…."

"Whatever it is that's going on with you, do you think you can just get over it for a little while? So we can get through this? I want to go home. I miss my son."

"I know." Shame painting my words as they infiltrate the air. "I miss Beth and Nick. And the kids…and Mom."

"So you'll try?"

"I will try." I begin drilling again, hoping he can deal with my answer. I have nothing more than that. Any promises will, invariably, be broken.

Taylor's weight leaves my bed, leaving me behind in the darkness. Leaving me to fall into the hole I've drilled for myself. And somewhere, faraway, the phone rings. "Hi Nat!" And he sounds happy to hear from her.

After Taylor hung up the phone with Natalie, I was called out of my drilled hole to come eat. We decide not to practice. Instead, we sit in our cushy recliners, watching Fresh Prince reruns, eating gooey slices of pizza. I eat a slice and half. More to please the promise I made to mom than for the sake of hunger. Because, let's face it, there is no hunger. I know that within me lies this empty organ, that I'm supposed to feed, but it doesn't ask for anything. And when I fill it against its want, it has a tendency to revolt. So I just put little bits in. It can live with that.

We taper off to bed. Taylor first. Dragging his feet, in a way that says he wants to go home. Next is Isaac, toting the phone with him, hoping that Samantha might call. Wow. The only sad face that isn't my fault. And last is me, well into the night because sleep hasn't come. Only resigning to go to bed in hopes that the sleep will come eventually.

Sleep is amazing. It follows you, an invisible shadow, through your day; when you need its comforts the least; but give it the night and it is an illusive child, waiting for the final second to catch the bus. It's maddening. However, my senses are beginning to soften, breathing slowing, touch and smell close to gone….

"Zac?" A whisper--from above my head. In the window?

Figuring I must be on the conscious side of a dream, I ignore the nose, rolling over to face the wall, a shadow of a person cast on it.

"Zac!" The glass rattles this time. And I know that voice, because I know this scene. So up I sit, facing the window, annoyingly eyeing the girl on the other side. "Delancy?"

She wiggles her fingers, so unenthusiastically, you would think someone had forced her to talk to me. She's strung out, looking like she should be selling on the street. But Delancy's too good for that. Should have known it would be her.

She's already pulled the screen out of the window. And I'm sure beneath her feet is a box or a step stool or something, she's too short not to have otherwise.

I yank the glass open, wishing that for once she could pull these stunts at an hour sometime before midnight. It's two in the morning now. She leans into the window, waiting for me to pull the rest of her through.

Nothing has changed. Same old Delancy. Dressed in a pair of pants, legs two feet in diameter; a tiny, tight tee shirt with some smart ass phrase I can't read due to the large, black hoodie. This time her hair is a nice, violent pink. The color of healing skin, with black and purple streaks. It's not the choppy, pixie length it was a year ago, but somewhere near shoulder length now. Delancy's all of about five foot four, maybe five five; and clothed and soaked, she might weigh a hundred forty pounds. She wears her heavy gothic make-up at all times. Nose pierced on the left side, both eyebrows, her lip, and up both sides of her ears. She doesn't resemble anyone famous, really, unless you want to play doll parts (no Courtney Love reference intended). She has the shape of Claire Dane's face, Liv Tyler's eyes, Cameron Diaz's nose, and Sheryl Crow's mouth. Viola. Delancy Elliot.

She yanks her jacket over her head, exposing a newly pierced belly button. New to me, anyway. She comes after me, like a hungry dog after food.

Her tiny cold hands yank at my shirt (it was cold in the house). Attempting to pull it over my head.

"Whoa!" I grab her hands. "No, 'hi, how are you'?"

Vacant expression, like I'd just asked her who was the fifteenth president. "Hi. How are you." And again she goes for the hem of my shirt.

"Dah-lan-see!" Snatching her wrists and yanking her close to me, her chest hitting mine. She smells of alcohol and a flowery perfume. Ralph Loren maybe?

Her eyes wide and innocent. A child who's never known better. Her eyes look like strawberry margaritas with sad, blue iris.

"How much have you had?" She hits the floor when I let her go.

"Couple Valium." Her eyes flash spastically around the room. "Bottle, maybe two, of Jack and some coke."

"'Cain or soda?" Could be either with her.

"Soda." She's sulking now. Looking up at me; pissed because she couldn't get at what she wanted fast enough.

It seems I attract people that are broken. Or people who are destined to become broken. But unlike Beth, Delancy was broken early. Shattered as a kid because she wasn't intended for.

In the middle of the summer, 1996, we left Tulsa once again. This time it was for us to record Middle of Nowhere. We had been here sometime when Mom decided we needed a day off. Mostly because the kids were driving her crazy virtually locked up in the rented house most of the time. They had their toys and a backyard, but no friends. It was just the six of us back then. Zoë was still two separate zygotes and Mack hadn't been speaking in sentences for very long. Isaac, fifteen, was obsessed with all things female. Taylor, thirteen a couple months before, was being sideswiped by puberty. And I was a grand total of ten years old. Should have been back in Oklahoma with a scooter playing soccer. But there I was, elementary aged, about to make an album that would sell millions. But that's neither here nor there, now is it?

Mom took us down to the beach early in the morning. She packed sunscreen and sandwiches and a radio and a book that she never wound up reading. Mom spent most of the morning tottering around behind a fascinated-with-the-world Mackenzie; telling Avery not to throw sand at Jessica; and reminding the rest of us to reapply our sunscreen. Dad wasn't there. I don't remember now where he was. He just wasn't there. This was, is, the typical picture of our life. Mom, acting as a single parent in a two-parent home and Dad gone away somewhere with business.

After lunch, an ice cream, Avery wanted Taylor and I to build a sandcastle with her. Isaac was too busy trying--terribly--to hit on girls. Some towers and a moat later, a sandy haired girl we'd seen earlier came over to us. She could have passed easily for a Hanson child. Blue eyes and blond hair. If I had been older, I would have probably wondered if maybe mom had given a kid up for adoption. She was dressed in a hot pink a purple bathing suit carrying a pink bucket.

"Can I play with you?" Just as bold and unafraid as you pleased.

"Yeah!" Avery's tiny, six-year-old voice, came out like a blast of sunshine that hits you in the face; happy that she had a girl that wasn't Jessica to play with. "I'm Avery! I'm six! Who are you?"

"I'm Delancy." She tucked into a spot between Avery and Taylor. "And I'm eleven. Twelve in September." She flashed her eyes at Taylor. They always go for Taylor first.

Taylor, not noticing the look he'd just been given, announces his name and age and continues sculpting windows in the towers with a twig. Then she looked at me. And I think in that second Taylor didn't matter anymore. Because she smiled for me. And I blushed. That was the only time I've ever blushed for Delancy.

"So, uh…." I stumbled like Isaac was doing with the girls on the beach. "Where are your mom and dad?"

"Over there." She snarled as she looked in their direction. How strange it was to me, the look on her face. Usually, at that age, kids announce their parents somewhat proudly. Then she followed, "on their stupid cell phones!" What a rarity those were then. "I wouldn't stop fussing about the beach. So, instead of just getting their swimsuits and whatever normal parents take to the beach, they packed up their work stuff and brought me out here. They don't care where I go to, as long as I don't disturb their work! Stupid convention!"

I was too taken aback to say anything. But Taylor, perfect on his toes Taylor, asks her, "what hotel are you staying at?"

"The Marriott." She grumbled, stacking a new tower.

"We're staying there too!" I finally chime in. "Maybe when we're not working you could come play cards or go swimming or something." And that's precisely where this began. My friendly suggestion brought us to where we are now. But I jump ahead of myself. Taylor simply pushed over a tower that wasn't angled right and went on rebuilding. I was about to have my life changed.

Delancy was two floors down from us. And every day thereafter, whenever we returned from the studio, I would rush down and get Delancy. Her parents never seemed to mind that she was running around with strangers. But then, one look at my mom fawning over us, and anyone would be apt to leave their kids with her. We would go swimming or play cards or board games. Jessica and Avery always wanted her to play Barbies with them, and she did.

When the convention was over, and she was returning to San Diego (which is roughly two hours from LA), we traded phone numbers and address. To this very day, her letters are in a shoebox in my closet.

As times changed, we traded paper for e-mail. And the older she got, the more despairing her letters became. Almost unbearable to read. Her parents all but denied her existence, giving her whatever she demanded so long as it meant she'd just shut up and go away.

In the summer of 1998, we embarked on the Albertane tour. For the first time in two years, I would get to see Delancy. She was still thirteen, nearing fourteen. But the changes from the girl I had met into the girl I know now were already beginning. She had eight piercings between her two ears. The make-up had begun, but not the Gothy stuff. But there were layers of it.

Her letters stayed sad, and began her talks of drugs. What she'd tried; what she wanted to try. How she got her alcohol. Often she was being asked for sex instead of money.

I don't ever want to get that low. She told me once in a letter. I can pay for my drugs! I'd rather die than give up my body. I'll get AIDS through a needle before I fuck a guy for meth.

Another two years later, and all of the Delancy that is now standing before me, was completed. Her heavy, dark makeup. Radically colored hair. Piercings. The lot of it. And drugs and alcohol were no longer weekend activity. They were everyday and necessary for her breathing and living.

Mid-afternoon we arrived at our hotel during the TTA tour. Delancy sat in the lobby, leaned back in a chair, legs crossed, wearing a very short pleated skirt, a halter, and knee high boots. She looked at me, her fingers to her lips, like I was a husband who had missed dinner and just been caught on a night out with the boys.

I remember the eak sound that came from my mother's chest. "Delancy?" Like she'd just found a child she'd lost, so altered, there was no way it was the same kid. I thought she might pass out.

Delancy didn't so much as flinch, staring at my mom. A defiant rebel, proud of the way she'd turned out. What she had become.

The show that night had been trying. A stupid girl jumped on stage, attempting to molest Taylor. And when we got back to the hotel, I just wanted to eat and go to sleep. But Delancy had other ideas. She called the room; it must have been two seconds after we had gotten into it. I went the five or six doors down to her room after we'd finished eating. Knocked and waited. And I hoped that when she opened the door, the face of the, only minutely jaded, sandy haired girl would be behind it. A sober face. A vain hope indeed. She yanked the door back. Her hair back then was blood red and white striped and punk spiked, with long, straight bangs in the front. Her skinny white arms crossed her chest, dressed in black tank and string bikini panties. Already stoned and half-drunk, it was a wonder she could stand.

Her hands softly tugged at my arms as she pulled me into the room. It smelled foul, like stale tea (marijuana). She had only pulled me in a few steps, before reaching up and pulling my face towards her's. The kiss consumed me. Stopped all things, my brain, my heart, my breath. When she pulled away from me, my mouth hung open from shock. Never one to look an opportunity gift horse in the mouth, Delancy placed a small white pill on my tongue.

"Swallow." She whispered, knowing I would give her what she was after. Love was nothing to her. Cellophane wrapping around Godiva, that was love to Delancy. It could be thrown out before it was useful.

"What was that?" Hoping she'd just kiss me again so that I could enjoy it this time.

"E." Drawled, with a childish glee. And after that, I wish I could remember. I know what happened, but I know no details.

Back then Delancy's parents did, to an extent, care when she went missing. More because if she got arrested, it would make them look bad. Thus, they set out looking for her, and knowing that we were in town, it wasn't hard for them to find her. I think they had to tell the hotel people that we were minors and that Delancy might be suicidal, to get them to open the room. We were discovered.

The band was packed up and we were half way to the next city before I could really comprehend how much trouble I was in. It took most of Jessica's makeup to hide the bruises.

Amongst other privileges, my cell phone and computer were taken and padlocked in a bag under the bus. I was warned to never see, or have any sort of communication with Delancy again. She was nothing but a drug whore. Could give me more PR trouble than she was worth. And from then on, my family's hated her. And I just sat around in a dazed sadness. I had never had a girl that wanted me because I am me. I know that at any given time, I could point to just about any girl in the audience and ask her if she wanted to sleep with me. The answer was always going to be yes. The only real friend I had, outside of my family and tour people, was Nick and what use was he to me in those moments. The moments filled with all the realizations that Delancy was gone. And all I wanted from God was another girl to fill the void of Delancy. Someone who would love me, lack the troubles Delancy was plagued with, but love me as Delancy had. Someone just that important.

Six months later, I met Beth.

My parent's rules, just as rules of any sort, were nothing to stop Delancy the determined. She still wrote, under the guise of being just a simple fan, but the initials were always D.E. and had a blue eye drawn somewhere on the envelope so I'd know it was her. And a trip to California has never passed without a sex-fueled visit with Delancy. All the nights start somewhat like this. She walks in, and goes after what she wants. But tonight was the first time I ever stopped her. Gripped by something. Maybe it was my conscious. The ringing of Beth's voice after she'd found me with Abby has again begun its tone. Maybe now, I have begun to fear my carelessness. My abandon.

Delancy, still sitting on the floor, crawls over to me. Reaching my feet, she reaches up and tugs at my boxers.

"No, 'Lance." Clamping her hands to my side.

Up she stands, pissy. Her eyes slam into mine. Her hands jut out swiftly, and I have no chance to stop her. She's yanked my shirt up to my neck, stopping with a telltale gasp. Finally giving in, I pull my shirt off.

Delancy's head just meets up with my shoulders, so there she is, eye-to-eye with my secret. Her face lights with fascination. She gingerly places her fingertips to my scars. Cold, harsh little fingers. She traces the progression of my sadness. The loss of myself. The roadmap of the crazy.

After intricately tracing my stomach, she moves over the three gashes in my left side. Makes me flinch, the way salty flesh touching wounded flesh does; like she'd sliced me for a fourth time to see how that works as well.

Mirth swept too easily over her face. "Someone's ashamed of his addictions." A smile like pride follows, because now I'm just like her.

"That's not it Delancy." I turn from her to put my shirt back on. Her enchantment with my scars scares me.

Immediately, she shimmies her hands back up my shirt, slowly sliding her hands over the scars until she reaches my pecks. Her fingers splay in all directions.

"Why else would you push me out?" Taunting. "You've never stopped me before. Have you gone gay on me? Not like girls anymore? You always liked it before." Her hands glide up again, exposing my skin and she places a light, feathery kiss on my scabs.

"Things--" My hands on her shoulders, I shove her away. "--Are different now."

"Why?" Demanding. Angry. Childlike as Delancy often is when she is denied the things she wants.

Delancy, given her drug induced states, should be the one person who would understand the crazy, more than anyone. More than Beth. It's a cold Beth caught, but Delancy's life long illness. But I just stare at her, not knowing exactly how to explain why. Why because I've changed. I'm not the lusty child who would just give over to her once upon a time. Why because of what Beth had said. You've turned into a sleaze-ball fuck head! You're now no better than the asshole who did this to me! I'm so fucking proud you're your own man now. Way to go! Because I'm not a sleaze-ball fuck head.

She looks enraged at my silence; my inability to answer her. But then the cynical smile comes. "Is it Beth again? Ha!" A laugh that blasts like dynamite. "Simpering baby Beth? Are you still her lap dog?" So much hate, you'd think they'd grown up together. Never know they've only met once. Both being left with a horrible distaste for each other. Another blast of laughter makes me jump. She begins twirling in circles, singing. "He was a punk; she did ballet. What more can I say?" A great peal of laughter as I snatch her, trying to shut her up. "He wanted her; she'd never tell. Secretly she wanted him as well**." Wasn't Valium supposed to make you sleepy? Then again, Delancy had just been afforded the opportunity to bust on Beth. Always a cause for excitement with her.

"Would--you--shut--up!" I slam my hand against her mouth. "You're going to wake up Isaac and Taylor!"

Her eyes light with more excitement. "I don't care!" Muffled and slurred, brought about by the Jack.

"I--do!" I shoved her back, flopping myself down on my bed. Looking out the window. Looking for help.

She lays down on the floor, still giggling. "So who'd you fuck?"

The vacuum of speechlessness sucks out all the words I know and taking with it all the oxygen, rendering me a blank hunk of skin. I snatch my breath back. "That is none of your business." Hadn't I said the same to Beth? As can be expected, Delancy had a different reaction. No screaming anger or accusations.

"How rockstar." She muses, flicking the belly ring poking out of her shirt. "But unfair."

"How is it unfair?" A plane flies across the black sky, flashing little lights down on me.

"Because you're it for me." She reaches up to her air, looking rather absentminded about it, and yanks out a few strands.

"That's not true." Insipidly. Knowing that there has to have been others.

"Okay." Agreeing? I knew it! "One other. Before you. My ex. But since that night in 2000, none other than you."

"You have got to be kidding! What kind of idiot child do you take me for, Delancy?"

"Have I ever lied to you?" Serious and coming up on anger.

"No." And to the best I know, she actually never has. She never really had any reason to. What could I have done? From Tulsa? Europe?

"I always wait for you." That tone that sounds stolen from a movie. "All the weeks, the months. The years. I wait. I bide my time, strung out and wasted, getting as sober as I can in the weeks before you come. I wait for you." That's impressive, no?

For the moment that it's quiet, I thank God that Delancy's off-key singing hadn't been so loud as to wake my brothers.

Delancy flies upright, looking accusingly at me. "You fucked Beth, didn't you?" An empty epiphany, only she realizes this before I counter. "No. No, you didn't fuck Beth. She's still whining isn't she? Like it hasn't happened to a million other girls! Like her parents don't have money to pay for her therapy. I wish I were poor! I could tell her what I pansy ass little rich girl she is! She really should get over herself!"

"What? Like you did?" She must have forgotten what had happened to her. That ex she was talking about? Yeah, she slept with him willingly, once or twice, but then she decided she didn't want to anymore. So he raped her. I remember the belly-full of rage I suffered, knowing I couldn't do anything for her. This was several years before Beth's attack. "Because you just let yours go? You got over yourself right into a bottle and a joint! At least he didn't hide you away, trying to figure out what to do with you! Hurt you over and over!"

"Oh, here it is!" Delancy snarls at me. "Defending her like always!"

"Just like I do for you!" She looks surprised. "But you know what, 'Lance? You didn't have to carry yours around. It was horrible and you drowned or smoked it away. She doesn't get that! No, because her's is still in her belly, Delancy! She stopped 'whining' months ago! It's not her, 'Lance! It's you! You won't let it go!" To the outsider, Delancy would look on the verge of tears. But she's not. She won't. Delancy doesn't know how to cry. "You're still pissed because Beth wasn't just born rich--like you!" Incrimination. "She was a rich kid that got fawned over! She wasn't given what she wanted just so she'd stay out of the way. She got hugs and kisses and blessed. You're fucking jealous, of her Delancy! You're jealous because she got loved!" I stop for a breath, knowing she won't say anything. "You envy her because she could cry and mourn her losses."

A knock at my door. "Zac?" Taylor. "Are you awake?"

Delancy's furrowed, wounded brow looks at the door. "Yeah. He's awake!"

"Delancy?" A sound of disbelief from the other side.

Not to be deterred, I continue my diatribe. "You envy Beth because the only person that ever gave a shit, whatsoever, about you was me! And it pisses you off because for years now, you've had to share my attention with her. Knowing that I'm accessible to her and always so far from you!" My rush of rage finally hit its climax, leaving me with the energy to whisper one last thing. "You hate her because she's everything you wanted to be. But lost out on."

"Zac?" Isaac now. "What's going on in there? Is Delancy Elliot in there?"

I don't answer. And neither does Delancy. This has nothing to do with them; we both know that. So we stare at each other. Familiar strangers. In the moonlight, that has filtered its way into my room, shining on her face, I see a single tear slip. That tear has been waiting there her whole life. Waiting for the one person that would say something just enough to open its gates and set it free; maybe to give way to its brothers and sisters fighting for their chance to escape the cramped spaces they were crammed in from years of repression.

Delancy leaps on top of me and commences beating me. Punching my chest, my face; grabbing serious handfuls of my hair, yanking for all her little body could pull. Raging sobs and angry tears tore out of her. A thunderstorm that had been dormant too long.

I hear my door open, though I don't know how. It was locked. I can't see for Delancy's continuing rage. Her weight is abruptly wrenched away from my torso. Taylor only looks scrawny. He heaves her into the corner opposite my door. She stays there, perpetually motionless, save her howling. I sit upright, feeling blood rush out of my nose and mingle with the blood from my lip.

"What! In the name of all things holy is going on in here?" Isaac demands. He quite reminds me of mom when he throws his finger in Delancy's direction. "And what the hell is she doing here?" Making Delancy cry a little bit harder.

"She's here," blood slips into my mouth, "because she's my friend. As for what just happened? I told her the truth, the honest, soul cracking truth, and she couldn't take it." I caught her wet eyes. "Because it came from the only person that mattered."

Delancy stands, and I worry she's going to come after me again. Instead, she takes her hoodie from the floor and walks over to Taylor, who is hovering in the door way. Taylor looks at her. A mix of disgust and sharp pity. Delancy places her hands in the middle of his chest, shoving him into the wall behind him.

After the squeal of her tires faded from my ears, fatherly Isaac says, "Zac, she isn't to be in this house! Nor near you! Or have we forgotten the restraining order?" Actually…I had. Mom had a restraining order put on Delancy after that night.

"Don't worry." I cough, feeling a little more blood come down from my nose. "She won't." Not this trip. Though, she will be back. We've had fights, though none as bad as this. But she'll come back. Delancy can take me or leave me, but she'd much rather take me than leave me.

Isaac, livid, stomps back to his room, rattling the house when he slams his door. Taylor has returned to the doorway. They removed my door handle to get in the room. He chunks the knob onto my dresser. He looks at me, seemingly fascinated at what had just happened. Because it would have never occurred to him to cross Mom as much as I just had. Even knocking Natalie up wasn't as bad as my continuing to see Delancy. He rubs his temples. Sighs a concerned older brother sigh.

A realization strikes me squarely in the chest. "Holy shit." I whisper, with a stunned laugh."

"What?" Frustration, not really caring what I was about to say.

"I made Delancy cry." And he looks at me. Just as amazed as I am.

A cynical laugh comes from him. "Won't Beth be proud?"

Chapter Text

Three forty-five am. Another sleepless night. I've already walked circles around the house. I think at some point I started walking in the shape of a clover. Maybe there's an indention in the floor. Eventually, I had to result to walking through the garage as well. The dishes are not only clean, but in a concise order in the cabinets. Our practice area is now free of the "tripping" wires. Almost all of the laundry has been washed. Folded. And at least set outside my brother's doors. Floors shine in the bathroom and kitchen. My bedroom, though not all that messy, is clean as well. I was half tempted to wake Isaac and Taylor so I could clean their rooms as well. Cleaning something has to be better than laying out here, on a decomposing picnic table, in sweat pants and a tee shirt, freezing. But there's nothing more for me to do than layout here, stare at the stars, watching my breath fade every time I exhale.

Sunday morning now. Mom will be calling sometime around seven, California time, to remind us to go to church. Isaac, without fail, will go and Taylor will most likely go with him. And I might go…next week. I never go to church when I'm sleepy or stayed out too late or just in general don't want to go. I fell asleep in church once. Neither of my parents said anything to me about it. I doubt they even noticed. Not Isaac, though. Isaac lectured me for almost an hour on how inappropriate it is to fall asleep in church and how it is an insult to God. On and on he went. And the only thing I cared was that I wanted to go back to sleep. When I don't want to go to church, I usually tell mom I'll watch Charles Stanley or some other televised preacher. But I watch cartoons. Or, more often, the back of my eyelids.

I wish I could watch eyelid theater right now. Instead I have starlight theater. The exciting tale of stationary balls of fire, millions of miles away from earth.

The Big Dipper remains undipped as I try to think of sleepy things. Sheep, calmly flowing water, birds chirping. Nothing comes, though, and I continue my enraptured stare-down going with the stars. Something does come. A flash vision of the iron box under my bed. The things inside. They could help me sleep, though? Cut, yes? But why? Just because. To sleep? It'll help me sleep. Yeah. It'll help me sleep.

Back into the quiet house. The only sounds flow from the crack in Isaac's door. The sounds of his oldies playing. Want to know how to wake Isaac without speaking or touching him? Shut off his radio. It's almost like he needs it to breathe.

Once in my room, I lock the door and go for the key taped to the back of my corkboard. No one knows this box is here. And, were it found, it looks plain enough. As though it should house money and jewelry and credit cards. A safe box. An ironic deception, though. Because I don't really know that what's inside is safe. Just personal sanity encased in tin. Some razorblades cut out of disposable razors, a small paring knife, and some thumbtacks. Rubbing alcohol to clean them with; can't have infection. Gauze. No Neosporin, because what would be the point in that?

It's a bit after four now. I take a breath, and stop before my fingers brush the razorblades. Waiting for reason to step in. Take over. Make me stop. Nothing comes but the rush. The itch in my veins. I lift my shirt, looking over my scars and scabs; I can't cut here. I pull a razor from the box and walk over to my mirror, pulling down the lip of my sweat pants and boxers, exposing the flesh overlay of my hipbones like freshly made canvas. A canvas waiting for the paint that will give the canvas a reason, a life. Paint to turn it into something that means something.

Disposable blades make thin, deep cuts. I leave my head, like that day with my dad. Watching me, watching myself in the mirror as I cut crisscrossing lines on the left side of my body. Blood creeps out from my opened flesh bead by bead, sliding across the open trenches, meeting each other and finally spilling over the side. Back in my head, I grab a piece of gauze off the bed and begin catching the blood, falling in torrents into the sanctum of cotton gauze.

Sleep has begun to come. Placing tape over and across the gauze pad, so the blood doesn't seep out, I repack the box, returning it to its cave. Sleep hits full on as I put my head to my pillow. Ah. The blackness.

It is remarkable that the loss of dreams can be something of a disappointment. It seems that these days I only dream when I'm having nightmares about Beth. Otherwise I spend unnoticeable hours in blackness. And it is this unending blackness that is now disturbed by a light knock on my door.

"Zac?" Groggy Isaac. "Hey. Are you awake?"

I open my mouth, trying to overcome the dryness from snoring. "Yeah." Grumbled into my pillow.

"Open up." He jiggles the door handle. Like I ever sleep with my door unlocked anymore.

"I'm not going with you this morning." Hoping he hears me as my face is barely turned out of my pillow.

"I know you're not." His face must be pressed into the door jam. "I woke up around two thirty." That same damned pained expression I get from my mother and Taylor. "I had to pee and you were very concentrated on reorganizing the cabinets." He trails and emanates the hopeless feelings Taylor has no problems vocalizing. "I...I uh…really didn't know what to say. So I let you keep doing what you were doing." He clears his throat. "Anyway, Mom's on the phone. She wants to talk to you."

"Tell her I'm not going." Finally taking my face out of the pillow.

"Already did that." He jiggles the door handle again, even though I'm sure he knows I'm still in my bed, under my blankets, wishing he'd just forget that I exist. "She still wants to talk to you."

There's no fighting the will of one's mother on a Sunday morning. Especially when you know she's at home trying to wrangle four other kids into Sunday dress clothes with breakfast and all. My clock reads seven o' eight.

When my door is unlocked and open, Isaac eyes me suspiciously. "What's up with the shirt, dude? You never sleep in a shirt."

"It was cold last night."

His eyes seem to squint automatically. "It gets much colder than this at home?" Ever watch Friends? That motion that Chandler does where he shakes his head sharply and then juts his hand out? Isaac just did that, like I had said something so completely moronic.

I shrug for want of any other logical explanation.

"Here." He hands me the phone. His face reads that something smells foul. A little brother lying.

"Hey honey!" Mom, tired, but blessedly lacking the pained expression in her voice.

"Hi mom." I return, dragging feet, to my bed and the security of a fuzzy blanket and oversized pillows. My room is still dark. Shadow-cast because of dark curtains and the sun is just barely beginning to crack the sky open.

"How are you--Mackenzie! Get dressed!" This makes me laugh because I know what's going on. She's in the living room, already dressed in a nice dress, with her shoes on, staring at Mackenzie who has to be parked in front of the television, still wearing his pajamas, eating his cereal. "And tell Avie to help Zoë get dressed. Sorry, honey. Now, how are you?" Her household-director voice gone and back to concerned mother.

"Tired mom." An involuntary yawn crawls up through my throat, providing emphasis. My body making sure she understands its fatigue.

"I'm sorry baby." She is. One of those compassionates that is sorry if you so much as stub your toe.

"Not your fault, mom." Yawn again. "How are you?"

"Oh, I'm fine; I'm fine." She could have a knife in hear heart and using her last breaths and not tell me. "Listen, baby, I only woke you because--AVERY! You are NOT leaving the house in that!"

"Why not?" The familiar voice of my second youngest sister. My favorite tomboy is probably wearing a polo and a pair of jeans. "I ironed it!"

Mom doesn't even go into it with her. Just as with Mackenzie's perpetual procrastination, Avery's "I hate dresses" attitude is consistently a Sunday morning argument. "Walker!" Exasperated shout. "If you don't mind," touch of sarcasm, "I need some help with the kids! Can you please get them dressed?" I guess he said yes. "Thank you!" She sighs. "I'm sorry, Zac, it's--"

"--Sunday morning?" I return in an understanding laugh-like sigh.

She makes the same sound back to me. I love the sound of my mother's voice. Maybe not to the magnitude of Taylor, but maybe damn close, and minus the sadness it can carry at times. She has a permanent coo. Radiating comfort. Casting out compassion to all that hear it. From her own children, to our hyperventilating fans, trying to spill out in one hurried breath how much they love us.

"Yes, Sunday morning it is!" She laughs and there is quiet in the background. Dad must have the kids corralled upstairs. "Anyway, I called because I want to read you something I found last night." It has to be a bible passage. She always scours her bible when she's worried over one of us. Sometimes she finds her answers. And when she doesn't, she spends her days hugging us as many times as she can get her arms around us. And, in the case that we're away, we receive phone calls and e-mails saying I love you in as many ways as she can come up with. But she never interferes.

In the darkness, I feel tired again. "Okay mom."

"I found it in Psalms." Like I said. "Chapter forty, verses one through three. 'I waited patiently for the Lord, And He inclined to me, And heard my cry, He also brought me up out of a horrible pit, Out of the miry clay. And set my feet upon a rock, and established my steps. He has put a new song in my mouth--Praise to our God; Many will see it and fear, And will trust in the lord.'" Quiet. I suppose I'm supposed to say something here. My tongue glues itself to the sides of my teeth. "That's it."

I yank at my tongue. "Thanks mom." Wary and wishing I could go back to sleep.

She waits for me to say something more. No philosophical declarations of understanding are coming out of this mouth with out some glue remover.

"Did you understand it?" Impatience. Something she doesn't normally have. "I guess I want to know that you understand why I read it to you." See, glue remover.

I can see the phrases of the verses tip and twirl around behind my closed eyes. They rearrange themselves so that I can translate back to my mom the things she wants to hear.

"You think that spiritually, and probably emotionally, I'm in a bad place. And being in this 'bad place', I need to place my faith and my trust in God because he has a promise to me that, even in my darkest times and in the deepest pits, he will pull me up. He will give me a stable place to stand and a reason to smile again."

The breath she draws is a subtle one, of happiness and surprise. And I hear it again when she exhales. A band-aid, if I'm lucky, to cover the wound I caused her only days ago. A beautiful sound. Like hearing a smile.

"Have a good day, honey." Voice with satisfaction. A hungry stomach that's just been filled to bursting.

"You too mom." Just the conscious side of sleep.

She hangs up the phone. Moments later, I'm back to my dreamless sleeping.

Buurrriinnngggg! Buurrriinngggg! Nine thirty-seven and the phone is ringing. Four more rings. Must be the only one home. Taylor and Isaac would be scrambling to get to the phone if they were home. On the eighth ring, just as the answering machine clicked on, I took the phone off my table.

"Hello?" I must sound like the speaking dead. Face in the pillow and voice raspy.

"Zac?" Whoa. It's Samantha. No one has heard from her since the day before we left Tulsa. Isaac has called. A lot. But she never returned his calls. Every time it rings, Isaac's legs suddenly acquire springs. Unfortunately, so Taylor's, who is always waiting to talk to his son. Even if he's just spoken with him five minutes before.

"Hey 'Mantha." I roll over, looking at the bumpy things covering my ceiling. "How's it going?" I'm not going back to sleep.

"Good." Her voice is one of innocence. It resounds and echoes. Filling in the spaces of a room with light. Good day, or bad. "Is Isaac awake yet?"

"He's at church with Tay. You want me to leave a message?"

"Yeah." Disappointed sigh. "If you don't mind? Just tell him to please call me at my parent's house. I'll be here until about seven tonight. Will you tell him that for me?"

"Of course. He misses you a lot, you know?"

I hear a happy muse come through the line. "I know. And I miss him to. I wasn't really mad at him. It was the situation. My parents hold the big Halloween party every year and a lot of my family, they come down, and it's always a whole lot of fun. And I wanted him to be a part of it; so he could meet my family and all. Then, hello! Out of nowhere, your dad just yanks him away. We haven't really been together all that long, you know? And in all this time, if I called him, he came--and vice versa." She giggles. "We're so both whipped!" And I laugh at that. "Anyway, so all this time, he's mine. He's never canceled a date. Like, never! It was just a shock, you understand?"

"Yeah, I think so." And I kind of do. Because I've heard Nick and Beth talk.

"I guess I was just really pissed at your dad. No offence, or whatever, but sometimes I really hate your dad." She whispers the last bit like she's afraid Walker Hanson will round in on her, giving her a bruise to remember him by.

But it makes me laugh. "It's okay. It's a common feeling." There are two people in this world Beth can rant about all day: Delancy and my father.

"Anyway." She brightens back up. "Will you let him know I called?"

"I will."

"Thanks, Zac!"

We hang up.

Taylor left the coffeepot and the iron on. A pile of clothes in the practice room floor says Taylor didn't know what to wear to church this morning. The old ladies in church fawn over him. Like a group of seventy-year-old versions of Mom. "What a sweet boy!" They say. And that, "he's always so well dressed!" Oh, and then there's, "holds doors open for you! What a nice boy." And it's not that Isaac and I don't hold doors open or dress nice. Well, okay, truthfully, I don't really get the point in dressing up for church. I figure the Big Guy only cares that you've shown up. But Isaac dresses well. Taylor has an exuberance that we must lack. He likes hugs and sweets from ladies with purple hair. Me and Isaac, we want to get home to eat.

The house is still. Quiet. Cold. There are never moments like this at home. Mackenzie and Zoë are allergic to stillness and quiet. If the air stalls, if only to collect its thoughts, Mackenzie and Zoë are sure to come screaming through it. Jessica and Avery were the same. As they've gotten older, they've learned to enjoy the silence. And long for their own pieces of solitude. I wish I had a dog.

Church has probably just started for my brothers. I wonder around the kitchen for a little while considering some food, but at the thought of some cereal, my stomach gives a lurch, saying I'd better not. I fill a coffee cup with the remaining dregs and head into the practice room, thinking about taking up Isaac's guitar when I see the answering machine I had placed on a small table the night before. A feeling of disconnection comes to me. I haven't returned the three or phone calls I've received from Nick and Beth. They understand; I know. They have both experienced full-on relationships with my answering machines and automatic e-mail responses. And usually they are subjected to this because when I have a moment of free time, I'm asleep. In my sleeplessness, I should have taken to the keyboard and written them. Let them know I'm breathing and that we're coming close to finishing. But I haven't. For as much as I miss home, I have done nothing to be a continuing part of it.

With this disconnected feeling, I return to my room to get the phone. Lifting it from the night stand, I mash the talk button, but quickly hit the off button once I've turned around and gotten a look at myself in the mirror. I toss the phone back on my bed and get closer to the mirror. I flip on the lights and pull the top of my pants down to expose the gauze. Bright red. Mashed strawberry red. I rip off the gauze, which had adhered itself to my skin. Immediately, a fresh wave of blood comes, fast and angry. A savory agony spilling out. All for the sake of sleep.

I grab a wad of toilet paper from the bathroom, sopping up the slowing blood and return to my room for the phone. For reconnection.

Knowing Beth can easily keep me on the phone for hours, I decide to call Nick first. Boys never really talk long. We cover the basics and move on.

Three rings. "Hello?" A girl's voice that isn't Nick's step-mom or one of his sisters.

"Bethy?"

A squeal of happiness. "Zaccy?"

I laugh. "Didn't I call Nick's house?"

"Oh yeah." I imagine she just waved her hand through the air. "He and Grace broke up last night, so he called me and asked me to come watch movies with him!"

"They've only been together a month, right?"

"More like two." Gossip-girl voice turns on. "She gave him some bullshit about," mocking voice, "'she just wasn't feeling it'! Stupid whore! Anyway, Nick's still upstairs, passed out. What're you doing up this early? Shouldn't you be in church?"

I pull the sliding glass door open and head into the backyard. "Yeah, I should be. Isaac excused me today because I didn't sleep last night. I went to bed around four thirty. Mom called at seven. A little math and I only had two and a half hours of sleep. So Isaac let me stay home."

"God knows you--ooh damn!--don't need another 'don't fall asleep in church' lecture." I hear screams coming from the television.

"Beth. You're not watching Maternity Ward again, are you?" She loves that stuff. All those real-life hospital shows. Maternity Ward being her favorite.

"Kristin," Nick's step mom, "taped them for me. There was a marathon while I was at work and we don't have cable at work, so I missed it. This lady's baby's stuck and they're trying to pull it out with a vacuum. She's screaming so loud, her husband keeps putting his hands over his ears."

Clouds waft over me in various undeterminable shapes. The morning air is chilly and sharp. Like invisible glass.

"Yes, Beth, give yourself nightmares."

"Nah." Another scream from the television. "It's all good. I've watched this show a thousand times. Actually, very few births have complications. It just seems over exaggerated by this show. Because how interesting would it be if all you ever saw were typical births?" She oohs again at the television. "You know, Zaccy, if I wasn't going to be a dancer, I think I'd be a baby doctor. How's California?"

A vision of Delancy's flying fists. That first day at Wild Hearts. "It's had it's moments."

"Delancy come for a visit?" Sarcastic. Caring, but not.

I grunt. "Yeah. You could say that." I down the rest of my coffee and lay back on the picnic table to watch the clouds in the way I had watched the stars. Beth listens as I recount most of the story with Delancy. Her sniping comments about Beth. Singing Sk8er Boi. The bloody nose. But I leave out Delancy's exploration of my scars and scabs. It wasn't pertinent. Beth could live without knowing. "Once she's gone," I finish up, "I realize that for the first time ever, I had seen Delancy cry. And when I tell Taylor, 'I made Delancy cry', he says, 'won't Beth be proud'."

Beth delivers a peal of laughter. "I am proud. Serves her right! Vile little bitch." She giggles a bit harder. "I bet I could take her! She's smaller than me. She'd be too strung out or drunk or something to try and fight back."

A rise in me says to defend Delancy. I thwart it, for once though, as I'm still a bit piqued at Delancy. Beth deserved her bit of revenge after Delancy's scathing remarks. So I give Beth the satisfaction of a laugh from me. "Yeah, I'm sure you could."

"Have you gone to the beach?" The only beaches Beth has been to are the lakes in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas. Never a real coastal beach. And might I say, for the record, having swam in both the Pacific and the Atlantic, west coast beaches are best.

"It gets cold here, too, Beth."

"So!" Jealousy. "You should still go. Just sit out there, on the sand, and watch the waves move. Watch the seagulls fly and try to catch fish. Imagine the inspiration waiting for you out in that water. You don't have to get in or go surfing. Just watch it. Like a God-made movie." Sometimes Beth can speak like the girl next door. Sometimes she can speak the words a soul would speak if given its own voice. "Waste of a trip not to go to the beach! So how's recording?"

"Good." And that's the truth. "We've finished one song already and started working on a second Friday."

"Which one?"

"Some song Taylor wrote a while back with Michelle." We got clearance from Michelle Thursday night to use the song for a demo. "Called 'Chain Reaction'. It has a lot of piano in it and guitar. I think I'm just going to let Isaac take all the guitar on that one. It's a breakup song, so Isaac's singing. He does breakup songs well." Beth laughs. "Anyway, I think you'll like it."

"I can't wait. Ooh, good morning, stank boy!" Nick must be awake.

"Mornin' ugly!" They've known each other far too long.

Beth giggles. "Who you callin' ugly, fatass?" Nick's the same size as Taylor. Possibly smaller. "I'm talking to Zac--"

"--The original fatass!" Okay, so we've all known each other too long. But it makes me laugh. An honest, unforced laugh. "What's he doing. Wait, shouldn't he be at church? Or is he avoiding another Isaac lecture?"

"Avoiding." Beth snorts. "Wanna talk to him?"

She hands him the phone. "Hey, man, what's goin' on?"

"Nothing. House to myself, that's about it." A cloud shaped like a horse floats by.

"Whoa. That's rare. Beth tell you--Beth! Shut that shit off!"

"No!" I hear a ruffle. They're fighting over the clicker. "Go in the kitchen! Better yet, go take a bath!"

"My own house!" Nick grumbles. "And I'm getting pushed around by," over emphasis, "a cranky pregnant woman!"

"Cranky pregnant woman, yes!" She hollers back. "But you'd be cranky too if you got kicked in the spleen every night!"

God I miss home.

"Anyway." Nick presumably leaves the room. No more screaming women, Beth or television, in the background. "Beth tell you about Grace?"

"Yeah. That sucks dude! You don't think it has anything to do with Abby, do you?"

"Nah." He yawns. "I think she'd have chucked me way back if she was leaving over that. She gave me b.s. about wanting to be friends because she just wasn't getting the 'vibes' she usually gets when she's dating the right person. But I think Richard's after her."

"Richard Leary? Not that prick that works the bar at Dreamscape?"

"Yeah, him. Well, if she wants assholes, let her have her assholes! Her problem now! Hey, did that Delancy girl pay you a visit?" Nick's never met Delancy.

"Uh, yeah. You'll have to get Beth to tell you the story. No offence, but I don't feel like telling it again. Anyway, Beth'll get more enjoyment out of the retelling than I would."

Nick guffaws. "No shit! She hates that girl. Hey, you get any sleepers yet?"

Sleepers. Noun. Girls that camp outside our hotels and venues waiting for us to turn up. Nick coined the phrase many years ago.

"No. No one even knows we're in California right now! And supposedly, the fans don't know about the house. Though how we've managed to keep it a secret, I don't know. They usually figure everything out. But I did meet an over zealous fan in the grocery store the other day. She kept looking at me, like I'm supposed to be above grocery shopping or something! Anyway, I'm shocked that didn't wind up on hnet. Whatever, I'm not complaining."

"Lucky she didn't turn it into one of those stupid fan fiction stories!" He lets a blast of laughter. And mocks, "'it was love at first sight! Aisle five, cookies, and he wanted to marry me!'" We've all read some of the stories online. Now, I'd never admit this, but some of it's okay. Really talented people out there. But most of it is crap! All that love at first sight, we met at a concert crap. Source of entertainment when we run out of stuff to do on the bus. "Look dude, I'm gonna get after some breakfast. I'm hungry. You want to talk to Beth again?"

"Yeah, for a minute." Sleepy again.

"E-mail us or something." Pots clattering. "She won't tell you, but Beth's been really spazed. Just call and let us know you're breathing."

"Sorry!" Beth spazed is never good. "I'll do my best! Talk to you later, man!"

"Later!"

He takes the phone back to Beth. Once again I hear the screams of women in labor. "A lady just had a baby whose intestines were sticking out." Not a voice of fascination, but one of pity. "Poor kid!"

"Beth, really, maybe you should watch Trading Spaces reruns or something?"

"Nope! Come home soon, will ya? And I don't mean Hanson soon. I mean real, normal people soon. The doctor's already talking about delivery and my aunt Sarah is starting to make arrangements to fly down here. Work fast!"

"I'm trying Beth. We are trying. Taylor and Isaac want to go home too. We're working hard, I promise. I won't let you down."

"Okay." Contented sigh. "I love you, Zaccy."

"I love you back, Bethy."

"Be good?"

"Only if you'll be better?"

"Always. Bye my Zaccy."

"Bye Beth." We hang up.

And ominous feeling takes a seat at the bottom of my belly, warning me about some unforeseen thing. But I don't care. I'm tired again. Ignoring the feeling, I allow myself to, coldly, fall asleep. Lulled by the clouds, with nothing better to spend my day doing.

When you're sleeping, the range of things with the ability to wake you up is insane. An eighteen wheeler can crash down the road, and I won't finch. Let someone tiptoe in my room, and I'm awake faster than you can say sibling. It's also possible to be awaken by a simple stare. A set of eyes, peering in on you as you sleep, as if to interpret the purpose of your breathing, the secrets you disguise in a dream, they create an undeterminable anxiety. And you don't know the origin until you've opened your own eyes to see that person standing over you.

A blast of cold air runs flush over my apparently bare stomach. Bare. Stomach. Hm, not good.

What makes things worse? The eyes, the source of my sleepy anxiety, belong to Taylor. There's a curse God can put down on you before you're born. He uses it to reprimand when he has nothing else. He gives your brother the very same eyes he gave your mother, and the ability to pass down the very same looks.

If Taylor had blinked, he would have missed me sitting up, yanking at the him of my shirt, trying to cover my skin. But the damage was done; his face a mix of anger and the fear that comes from misunderstanding; he look Mom gives Dad when he's given me a bloody nose.

The window of the neighbor's house is instantly very absorbing to me, though I can't see past the curtains. His eyes continue to bear down on me, drill into my ear.

There it was. Written in the early Sunday air, for him to see and interpret. And silence has begun its dance, because yet again, we have let it loose.

Taylor horribly clears his throat. Swallowed tears and phlegm. "You…you uh…." Digging for something to say. "You eat this morning?" Pretty sad for the articulate member of the family.

Nope. "Pop tarts."

"Liar." Caustic. "I had pop tarts this morning. There were two packages left. And those are still in the box, on the same shelf, unmoved."

Shit. "No, wait, I had pop tarts yesterday. I had a few pancakes this morning."

He makes a game-show buzzer noise. "Wrong again." He's still burrowing into my ear. Maybe if he gets into my head, he'll have his answers. So I don't have to give them to him. "Isaac ate the last of the pancakes this morning before church. Now, maybe we can try this one more time, huh, Zac? Did you or did you not eat this morning?"

Grunt. "Nothing but coffee and a phone call."

"And how are Nick and Beth?"

"Newly girlfriendless and watching too much television. Respectively."

Here comes the fight. "And why is that your excuse? Because you didn't eat breakfast yesterday. Nor lunch and Isaac and I had--"

"--Taylor." I can't take another fight. My energy is long gone.

He stops, allowing me to continue.

"I can't fight with you. I won't fight with you. It feels like the past two months of my life have been a continuous fight. And it's not just little fights. They've all been these huge, draining fights. I feel like I'm living in a video game and every time I fight with someone, I lose a life." I wish the curtains of that window would open. Maybe I could look in on a life better than mine. I turn to face him, study his face. He doesn't look angry anymore. Just lost in the California skyline. I think he's trying to say something, but can't.

"It's like this. You want to know what's going on? You've been on my back for months, so I'm going to give you what you want. And you're going to let me talk. You will not interrupt me, understand?"

Stone face, looking like my father, and nods.

"You won't tell mom or dad. Or Isaac, Natalie, or anyone else. This is between you, me, and this picnic table. You want my burdens, so you can try and carry them as well? Fine, I'll give them to you. You will sit there, quiet, like you're nonexistent and I'm just out here talking to the clouds." Which I would rather do. "No questions, nothing. And once I'm finished, I'm going to get up from this table and go inside. Maybe I'll work on some music or play on the computer. It doesn't matter because after I walk away, that's it. And if you have any questions…they'll just have to wait."

Taylor stares at me, taking into consideration the things I had just told him. As though the terms of agreement are up for negotiation. But I'm not offering him options. Take it or leave it, Taylor. He realizes as much and says, "okay."

"First, do not chastise me, Jordan Taylor, about food." And his attention is all mine now. "Make no mistake, I am no anorexic. That was your path; your crazy." What's a recovering anorexic to say to me about food anyway? "I don't eat because I'm not hungry. The Crazy makes me nauseous." All these words crash down out of me as a fountain of syllables I didn't plan for. Taylor ultimately chipped at my dam just enough to cause a fissure. Cause my secrets to not only leak, but cascade themselves down on him in one typhoon wave he hadn't prepared himself for. It all comes down in a sound of monotone disaffectedness. "So I don't eat. But I don't exercise and I don't, intentionally, throw up. And it's not that I never eat, just when I feel okay."

He's already reeling and I know he's unprepared for what I will tell him next. "What you saw today," he flinches, "is the ultimate result of the Crazy. When my days are too long, or something pisses me off, or I'm really low, I hurt myself. On purpose, I make myself bleed, with razorblades or whatever other sharp things, depending on the situation. And it makes me feel better. I don't know why or how, but it kills the Crazy for a while; slows my head and allows me to think. There is nothing anyone can do to help me. Not Isaac with his disconnected concern. Not mom with her scriptures and million 'I love yous'. Neither can you Taylor, with your offers of professional help and 'I've been there' attitude." I lean down to catch his eyes. "Because even though you've been somewhere, it wasn't the same road. You haven't been here. Your hell was a kitchen and a mother that cooked too much. And haven was a long run for miles." I yank up my shirt, exposing it all. "This is my hell and its cause is undetermined. And my haven is pain and to bleed. And in the end, Taylor, there is nothing you can do for me."

Taylor looks as though he will fall over the table and die of heartbreak. But he sits there, making the painfully familiar sounds of tears coming. He wanted it, though, and I gave it to him. Guilt causes the nausea to come again, and I have to leave the open space now, into some confinement for fear of getting lost.

Poor, fragile Taylor. I hurt him. Just like I hurt my mother. No one is safe from my razorblades.

A tear slips out onto my face, but just one, as I pass through the living room.

"Samantha called." I don't even know if Isaac's around. But it's in the air now, so someone had best catch it.

In my room, I resurrect the iron box. The pain I'd just caused Taylor and my guilt soon flow from me in cocaine lines of red. My windows. And Taylor uncovered them from their curtain. Across the hall, his door slams, but soon, I'm asleep.

Chapter Text

It was sometime later in the night when I woke up. Isaac was in the living room laughing at something he was watching on television. The Simpsons, maybe? Taylor, who usually joins Isaac in watching the comic stylings of Homer Simpson, could not be heard echoing the same laughter. As I peered out my door, I saw that his was open a crack. I expected smoke to be floating out of it. But I knew I had done too much damage. Much more than a couple cancer sticks could fix. I came up to the outside of the door, greeted by the terrible hum of the treadmill. I hate that noise.

That noise had infiltrated our lives, stolen the singing in Taylor's throat for too long and became the sounds of his escape. Taylor has always run, or maybe it just seems that way. He runs to get away. From our father, himself, his pains, always thinking that he could get away if he could just run far enough. Fast enough, until it hurt. Five, ten miles and on the worst days fifteen to twenty. The resounding remnant coping skills of an anorexic.

From the crack in the door I watched him run and run and run. Headphones covering his ears, blocking the terrifying hum from the belt of the treadmill, blaring something that sounded like the Black Crows. Escaping me. Trying to escape the baggage. Not just mine, but his too.

The laughter from the living room stopped, but I was too lost in my head to really notice it. Until Isaac came up behind me.

"What're you doing?" Sounds confused.

"Watching Taylor run." I answered, not thinking.

Instant panic as he steps over to my other shoulder, peering into the room. "How long has he been running?"

"I don't know." Disinterested in his panic and concern. Because I had realized then that this was the point when Taylor could take his life with Ana (what we called anorexia to avoid the stigma of the name) no further. This point, a slave to the coping strategy, was bottom for him. When he began to fear for himself. It was here that he sought help, began the escape process. I haven't reached bottom yet. Still falling. "A while."

Isaac shoved past me, pushing in through the door. Taylor must have noticed the motion and shut off the treadmill. With him out of the way I had clear view of the display. Fourteen miles.

"What are you doing?" Isaac, practically screaming.

Taylor's chest heaved, a lot. "Running." He managed between a few breaths. "Long week. Just letting go of some stress."

"Fourteen miles of stress?" Demanding and frightened.

Taylor shot a look at me. No. Not fourteen miles of stress. Fourteen miles of reminders. Fourteen miles of sickness. Fourteen miles of me, stabbing him again and again with my secret. Fourteen miles of fear.

His breathing begins to slow a little, still looking at me. "Yeah. Fourteen miles of stress."

I couldn't take it anymore and left his room, resigning to a scalding shower and my guitar to work on a song that never left the practice room.

Taylor hasn't run since that day. Maybe he had run for lack of anything else to do. Maybe I scared him too much. And maybe he quit because he had scared himself. Scared of going back, falling down, and walking the same path. And God forbid we walk the same roads side by side. We'd institutionalize Mom.


It's two weeks past that day. Taylor and I are pushing a buggie through Albertson's, grocery shopping and picking up the last incidentals Madge forgot in planning Isaac's birthday party. Candles, she forgot the freakin' candles.

Mom has already sent out his gifts. Including a new digital camera, a portable DVD player and an impressionistic painting of a trumpet player Mom found in New Orleans. There was to be a surprise visit from Samantha that Isaac put a stop to as soon as he bribed it out of Zoë. Anyone could buy that kid off with a new Barbie. He told her that it would just make having to stay here after she was gone harder. And then I heard him whisper something about it not being fair to Taylor, who misses Ezra like trailer-covered grass misses the sun and yellows.

We finished "Chain Reaction" a couple days ago and began work on an untitled song. Two down; one and a half to go.

Beth, though she won't say it, is getting nervous. Two weeks to due date. Translation: she could have the baby any day now. Her mother is making her skin crawl, constantly fawning over her. One afternoon Ben asked Beth to pull a box of Legos from the top shelf of his closet. Beth told me that the box couldn't have weighed anymore than ten pounds. Mrs. Linda walked in and started screaming at her about being careful and not lifting anything. "Thankfully Nick's around." She says. "I'd scream myself into labor without him."

Taylor and I pass through the produce into the potato chip aisle. I check back over my shoulder, looking for the sour cream and onion chips I find a pair of green eyes glaring at me, with a look of contemplation. Yes, Angel, it's me again. And Taylor too.

A little way up the aisle, out of her eyesight, I tell Taylor, "that Angel chick is here."

"The one you told me and Isaac about our first day here?" He rounds the Twinkies end-cap, grabbing a box.

"Yeah."

We reach the end of the aisle where Taylor gets a good look at her. "Looks a bit, um, deranged, doesn't she?"

I snort in return. But no matter what cracks he might make meandering through the grocery store, make no mistake, he will be saccharine to her. And he will absolutely be sure to pass through her line once we've finished.

We pass through the freezer aisle grabbing all things Staufer's, again so that we can claim semi-healtyness. Taylor's cell phone.

"Who is it?" Me, impulsively and absentmindedly from habit, not really caring as I thought it was probably Natalie.

He checks the ID. "It's...Mom?" Flips it open. "Hello? Hi mom." Disappointed face. "Oh. Yeah, he's right here."

He hands me the phone and continues on to the juice and frozen breakfast foods.

"Hello?"

"Hi honey." Dammit, pained voice.

"Uh, hi Mom." Not another bible verse. Not again. She's already given me four others since the first. "What's up?"

"I have some bad news, honey." She talked to me in that same voice once when I was a child. My puppy had died. My breath stalls, waiting for her to just keep talking. I don't have the breath to say anything because I know what's wrong. "Beth," yeah, saw that coming, "is on her way to the hospital with Nick. She's having some pains in her stomach and they're worried she might be in labor."

"Has her water broke?" My reflection stares me down in the plexiglas freezer door.

"She's not sure." She clears her throat. "She doesn't think so. But she's not very sure. Linda says Beth is more worried--more worried that you're not there." My throat swells. Mom becomes quiet now, trying through osmosis to gather my reaction through my silence.

Taylor stops moving, and comes back down the aisle. "Zac?" Tries to catch my eyes. He picks apart the silence well. "What's wrong with Beth?"

I just hand him the phone and let him carry on my unended conversation with my mother.

Anger tears gather themselves in the corners of my eyes. I send them to their finish in the sleeve of my hoodie.

A beep from Taylor's cell phone over my shoulder tells me he's finished talking to mom. I pull a carton of rocky road ice cream from the freezer, chunking it haphazardly into the buggie, nearly crushing the eggs.

"Mom says she'll call later." Claps my shoulder. "Are you okay?"

I shrug and nod once sharply. Not really okay. Anger buzzing like the flu through my stomach, as thoughts of beating my father senseless materialize in my head. Imagining for once I am the one screaming, defaming and throwing the punches. Angry that my promises are broken because I am here, not there, where someone else will now have to pick up for my slack. Stand in for my absence. And while I'm sure it will be Nick, it unnerves me. Today is going to be for shit.

We finish with the food and proceed to the check out. Of course, Taylor decides to pay Angel a little visit.

"Hi." Squeaky voice of a vermin mouse.

Taylor gives her "the smile". Yeah, that one. The one that's written about a million times a day somewhere in the hnet boards, that sends all those girls fawning and screaming. And sometimes crying. "Uh, hi." Shy and fake-ishly coy. Undeniably Taylor. "You guys take debit?"

"Yeah." Breathless excitement. "But Zac should be able to tell you that." Eap. She smiles at me. "He asked the same thing when he was here."

Taylor smiles a mocking smile at me while she giggles like a two-year-old. She seemed thrilled the day I came in, shopping by my self, but seeing Taylor? She just might have a stroke. Or even a heart attack.

"I--I thought you guys were staying at the Hyatt?" Passing a box of Cheeze-Its over the scanner with an accusatory look at me.

Taylor looks at me now too. Telling me I had best get to bailing him out of this question.

Thinking as quickly as I could, I manage a fantastic lie. "Well, we were. But we got bored by the hotel and we're staying with a friend up in the Hills." Taylor looks relieved.

"Anyone famous?" Another look of thrill.

"Uh--no." Taylor cuts in. "Just some friends from way back."

"Are you guys almost finished with the demos?" I really wish she'd just shut up.

"Yeah!" Killer smile and she's hit the excitatory button in Taylor. "Everything is going great!" If only musically. "We've got a couple songs cut and a few more to work on. We can't wait for the fans to hear it. We're pretty sure they'll love it!"

"I'm sure we will." Cheeky grin, big one with huge teeth. She continues to stare at Taylor as she passes food over the scanner, giving me the opportunity to just put things in the basket and out of having to talk to her. Small talk isn't my strong point anyway.

I put the last of the food in the basket as Taylor swipes his debit card and punches his pin. She hands him the receipt.

"Oh." She calls, as we're a few steps away from the register. "Tell Isaac 'angelgreeneyes' says happy birthday!"

My heart overrides a couple beats. Taylor's face goes slack. We look at each other, both calling, "okay," over our shoulders and moving quickly out of the store.

"So that's angelgreeneyes!" I sputter once we're out the door. "That's that psycho-stalker woman!"

Taylor just nods, afraid to turn around or move in any direction except towards the truck.

"Yeah." Taylor yanks open the back end of the truck. "She's the one that tried to break into Wild Hearts a couple years ago, remember? And Madge had her arrested."

The stories about Angel go on. She is infamous on the hnet boards for being crazy and constantly tracking one, if not all, of us. Her favorite is Taylor, but she'll take any of us she can get backed into a corner. When Taylor married Natalie, well, postal just isn't the word for it. His inbox was full of letters from her telling him how he'd just fucked up his whole life. "What were you thinking?" She asked him all the time. She called Natalie a trophy seeker that messed up and got herself pregnant. She trashed Nat at every opportunity. Now, Natalie is not necessarily my favorite person, by any means, but what does anyone else know? No one has the right to bust on Nat except those who actually have to put up with her. I detract. After a few weeks of this, Taylor got really pissed and had her suspended from hnet and her address was blocked from his. Once her suspension was lifted she began e-mailing Isaac and I, pleading with us to tell Taylor she was sorry. We had her blocked too. Total psychopath. We've never seen her face to face, though. Figure that. Other wise, I would have been running like Forrest the second I walked in here the first time.


Our ride back is quiet. I'm sure Taylor is still coming down after the fall-out of his heart in the grocery store. He was scared.

My own anxiety over Angel faded soon after we left the parking lot, giving way to thoughts of Beth, alone in Oklahoma, on her way to have a baby. A stiff shot of anger and worry courses through my veins, making them itch heatedly. Makes me want to hit something. But all I have is Taylor, and on swoop on him might very well break his arm. So it just pools in the acid tank called my stomach, making it even worse.

"Will you put the groceries away?" Taylor says, dropping a bag of pop-tarts and twinkies on the floor. "I want to take a shower."

Shrug. "Sure. What else have I got to do?"

He doesn't notices the bite in my voice. "Thanks!" And he's off down the hall.

I haul in a few more bags. When I bring the eggs in, I stop to lift a glass off the counter to move it out of the way. With the bag down, I still hold the glass in my hand. Angry, angry, angry. Squeezing on the glass, but it won't break. I heave it at the wall. The glass hits the external wall of my room with an enrapturing and highly satisfying smash; heaved so hard, I cracked the dry wall.

I reach for the coffee cup that was next to where the glass had been. Threw that too. One more coffee cup and a cereal bowl later, Taylor, in boxer shorts; flies down the hallway, ducking to miss a syrup-covered plate. Then another glass. Ebb and flow of anger like the tide. Strong rush of rage, brought down slightly by each smash against the wall. I had promised her. Promised.

Letting go of another cereal bowl, Taylor rushes me, snagging my wrists as I reach for another coffee mug.

Avery, Zoë too, they have those eyes when they're watching something scary on television. Huge blue energy orbs, charged up with fear; electrifying and damning.

"Are you fucking crazy?" Screaming, looking over his shoulder to see the pile of glass shards following the food stains up to the huge crack in the wall.

Stronger than him, I yank an arm free, determined to chunk one more plate at the wall before he begins lecturing me. And I do.

Grabs my other wrist again, jabbing me back against the sink. "What are you doing?"

"Venting!" I growl, wishing he were dad so I could finally let loose.

"STOP!" A huge yell you'd never think he was capable of. "Fucking stop!" Let's go, giving me one last shove. He rubs his too-tired forehead, frustrated. He really is too young to be as old as he is. "Who are you?" His chest heaves. "What--what the hell has happened to you? You used to be the sane one! High strung sometimes, but sane. You were the protector, the father, the responsible one! My God, Zac. When the fuck did we…when the hell did we switch places?" That was it. That was the question underlying Taylor's silences, the cruxes that ended our conversations. It was the question that had frustrated him so much; he was always walking away from me.

My volcano is now satiated and defeated and dormant. Taylor stares at me with my mother's eyes for some time. She is there in his face; his horror-filled and washed out face.

I know in that head lie an infinity of questions that I have no answers for. And I don't know this because of intuition. I know this from experience. Because right now, all those years he spent a slave for Ana, I understand. The questions in his head now are all the questions I asked him a million times apiece. Pleading with him to eat. Forcing him to stay down stairs after dinner, in a room somewhere with me, to keep him from throwing up. I was notorious for hiding every last pair of shoes he owned to keep him from running. Our questions of each other might be different, but they seek to get us to the same place. The understanding of the Crazy in both of us.

"Where's the broom?" He's looking again at my massacre of the dishes.

Point to the garage. "Out there."

"Get it." Parental command voice. "I'll get the vacuum."

Quiet, except for the sounds of the glass scraping against the linoleum, Taylor and I clean the mess; me sweeping up the large chunks of glass and Taylor behind the vacuum, picking up the slivers we might have missed.

"Go…take a bath, Zac." Exasperated, he says when we're finished, going to the sink to get a washcloth to clean the terribly cracked wall. Looks like an earthquake hit.

"I thought you wanted first shower?" Taylor's pretty insistent about taking all the hot water before anyone else has a chance to use it.

Back to me, running water of the washcloth, he says, greatly impatiently, "just do it, Zac! And when you're done, make sure you get Isaac's clothes ready!"

"What about the food?" Piles of bags still on the floor.

"GO!"


My room is cold compared to the shower I had just submitted myself to. So hot it I think it might have seared my flesh. Part of me screaming to turn the cold water up. The other part screaming to make it hotter.

After I'm dressed in a Ramones tee shirt and a pair of khaki cargo shorts, I leave my room for Isaac's.

Isaac is a mesh of Taylor and me. He's clean, but messy as well. All articles of clothing have their specific drawer. No one says it's folded in the drawer, just in the correct drawer. His bed is always made, but the top of his dresser looks like the hair products section of Wal-Mart just exploded onto it with all his gel, combs and what not. Along with all his belts and ties. Totally unlike my room, where all of my rumpled clothes lie in whatever drawer is open at the time and shirts are lucky if they see the inside of my closet. And, when so inclined, I just steal Isaac's gel to style my hair. And my bed...only made when my mom does it for the sake of company.

As I pull a pair of jeans out of the closet, I hear the water stop running in Taylor's bathroom. Then the whir of the hair dryer begins. He'll be after his hair for another half hour or more. Then will come the wardrobe process, a guaranteed twenty to thirty minutes as well.

I yank a white tee shirt, green tie and greenish tweed jacket out of his closet as well, and a pair of black converse. Isaac's overnight back is under his bed so I toss his clothes in there along with the aforementioned gel cologne and some deodorant. Don't want him to smell funky at his own birthday party. Though technically his birthday was three days ago. But who's counting?

The phone rings. So I set Ike's bag down in the hall and take off to find out who it is. Caller ID reads Andrews, Daniel & Linda. No way.

"Hello?" Sounding confused.

"Hey." A sheepish sounding Beth.

"Shouldn't you be at the hospital? Having a baby?"

"Heh." Another sheepish laugh. "Uh yeah, you know how much I like Mexican food?"

Laugh. "Yeah...."

"And you know how I clear a bowl or two of salsa before the food ever arrives?"

"Uh huh...."

"And you also know that the next day I'm begging my mom for the bottle of Tums because I have a helleacious case of indigestion?"

"Beth, you didn't?"

"Yeah." She laughs. "I did. I had the worst stomachache this morning. I didn't even think about me and Nick going to La Casa last night. So when I wake up with all these pains and stuff, I just figured maybe it was time. I didn't think my water had broke, but I'd heard plenty of stories about women going to the bathroom and having their water break. Doctor Martinez thought it was pretty funny. She says I'm up to two centimeters, though."

"Meaning?" Because I don't speak baby.

"Enh, it means it's getting closer. She said that babies are usually born around two weeks before the due date or two weeks after."

"How much time does that give me?" Taylor walks out of his bedroom.

"Uh." She stops to count. "Well, you've got eight days until I'm due. And then until, um, I think near the second week of December."

"We're trying, Beth."

"I know you are! Take your time, okay? I want you to be here, but I know you have a job to do. Do your best and come home."

"We will."

"Be good, Zaccy. I love you."

"You be better, Bethy. I love you too."

"Bye." Together and I hang up the phone.

Taylor's dressed in a white shirt, jeans and those ridiculous red suspenders. I think he stole those from our grandfather. "Who was that?" Nods his head at the phone.

"Beth." He looks shocked. "Yeah, she had indigestion. Not a baby."

Taylor snorts. "Beth can be a bit…dim sometimes?" We both laugh. "How much longer do we have? Before the baby's born?"
"She's due in eight days. But the doctor told her that babies can be born up to two weeks after the due date."

"Let's hope the baby wants to stick around with Beth for a little while." Taylor takes a quick look at the wall. "You get Isaac's stuff together?"

Point at the bag. "Yeah. You know, Isaac would have let me finish throwing the dishes at the wall." Takes a bit of effort not to laugh at that.

Taylor laughs. "Yeah, but then you would have a new window and we would be eating dinner from the countertops."


Madge's house is full of people. Ben Folds is here. So is Bob Weir and the guys of Maroon 5. I'm pretty sure I saw Michelle. Could be that Vanessa Carlton girl--they look alike. There are several other people here too. Some industry people are here. Some other producers and engineers. A lot of people I've never seen before.

Early on I found a niche near the fire place, where I can watch cars pass through a large window. Cars pass up and down the road driving too fast. No one has bothered me much, which I am very thankful for. Madge has stopped to talk to me a few times, telling me not to drink too much and trying to encourage me into becoming part of the party. There are just too many people here. My third glass of Jack and coke is drained down to the ice cubes. A nice buzz has begun, but I know that I need to get another. It numbs the anxiety; makes the people soft around the edges and nonexistent. The fewer the real people, the easier this night will go.

There's a path to the kitchen that's pretty clear. Head down, I begin to make my way through, hoping no one stops me in the vein belief they'll get a conversation out of me.

In my periphery, I see Taylor talking very animatedly to Ben Folds. He must be talking about Ezra. A few feet from there, Isaac is talking with Michelle and Madge, probably about a song. Isaac and Michelle always talk about music. I think there's a bubble that exists around them when they're together that says all subjects except for music are off limits.

The kitchen opens directly into the living room; it can be said that they are the same room. It is large, with a table in the middle, covered in catered foods as well as a few of Madge's own delicacies including a very tasty looking strawberry cheesecake. Not what I'm after, though. Madge is not one for great formalities. A party is a par-tay for Madge. If she's throwing the party, she believes it should be the closest thing to the house parties people attend in high school you can get in adulthood. If she wants high class, she says, she'll just attend one of those snotty industry parties she is constantly invited to where there's a bar, with a bartender; big silver pans with burners under them and people serving you on bone china; drinking champagne and talking about the flavor of the caviar with the nights selection of fish. Not Madge's style. In place of a bartender, Madge has a sink full of ice and all types of hard liquor one could have want for. Under the sink are the reserves. Malt and non-alcoholic beverages are in the refrigerator.

Grab a bottle of Jack from under the sink to replace the mostly full, cold bottle I'm confiscating, a six pack of coke from the refrigerator, and head for Madge's, technically off limits, room.

Just as I expected. It's a mess. Unmade bed and a pile of clothes in the corner by the bathroom. The ceiling is high with a ceiling fan hanging low right over the bed. Her furniture is wrought iron, with a sheer fabric running around the four posts of the bed. Very whimsical. A huge chest sits at the very end of her bed. A few feet from there is a fire place with a plasma television hung above the mantle. Beside said fireplace is a bookshelf, hosting a DVD player a large stereo and Madge's CD and DVD collection. The bookshelf on the other side hosts her books. Madge is a big reader and I think she writes as well. Not uncommon to find her mumbling to herself--about unknown people and places--in front of her computer, only to quickly closeout the screen or slap her laptop closed when you enter the room.

I place my bottle of booze and my coke on the chest, walking over to the edge that overlooks the studio. It seems like a different place. Not the large room with oriental rugs and electric cables where we have spent the past three weeks trying to cram in a couple of songs to get back home. It seems like it could well be someone's quiet place. Where the world stops so she can think for just moment over everything. Water lines from the illuminated pool wiggle on the ceiling.

Madge hasn't replaced the window I cracked. She says it gives the room character, a story to tell, gives it a small definition of its reason for existence. A window shattered in a moment of great upset, she says with a small laugh, it's inspiring. Taylor and Isaac just avoid the topic of the window.

Through the house-high windows, I see the stretch of the sky, clear and dark and speckled with stars. If we were at our house, I'd probably be outside, laying on the picnic table, listening to the movement of our neighborhood.

Cold air owns the night, keeping people inside Madge's house and away from the pool or even the porch for that matter.

I pour myself another glass of Jack and coke; mostly jack and some coke for flavoring. Waterlines wiggle on Madge's ceiling in time with the wind blowing outside that is also busy lightly weaving itself through the palm trees lining the cliff-side Madge lives on. The waterlines make me want to jump into the ceiling and go for a swim. In the chill of the evening, that would probably be a bit refreshing.

Refill. It's considerably quiet in here. She did a really good job in having this place soundproofed. No one will notice my absence for a while, I hope and I can remain here, getting drunk and watching television. Over on the book case I find a pile of remotes and through a process of elimination, I discover the one responsible for operating the TV. Take a seat on the chest and flip channels for a while. Scooby-doo. Emeril live. Cribs. Disney east and Disney west. The Spanish channels. Nothing to watch. Scan her DVDs and there's nothing there I want to watch either. Turn off the television and set her radio to a local jazz station, drain the remainder of my glass, fill it again with straight Jack and drain it in two swallows. And one more. Sober doesn't stand a chance in this race. Drunk is here.

I lay back on her bed, watching the waterlines; taking in her smell, a combination of a floral, expensive smelling perfume and some fruity shampoo. I could have Madge if I wanted to. She's very pretty, funny, real. Whoo hoo. I am drunk. I can't even pull up a decent picture of Madge in my head. Just swirled colors from the room surrounding me. Close my eyes. No matter, I know who Madge is and I could have her if I wanted to. I'm Zac Hanson. The Zac Hanson. I can have any woman I want, including Madge. Grab the open bottle from the chest and take a big swig. Yes, I am Zac and I could have Madge if I wanted her.


A noise like an opening door.

"Zac?" Surprised voice with a cool hand on the size of my face.

Grunt. "Beth?" Slurred, my eyes won't open.

"No," a pitying laugh, "it's Madge, baby. How much have you had to drink tonight?"

"Aye-ohn-no." Manage to yank one eye open. Her face is compassionate of my current condition. Her fingernails lightly scrape down my scalp as she runs her fingers through my hair, returning her cold hand again to my hot cheek. What a beautiful woman.

"Do you want me to make you some coffee?" Her eyes lock on mine.

"No." A gargled noise from me.

She sighs like I had just delivered a great blow of disappointment.

Beautiful woman. Lack of inhibition, full of impulse, my mouth hits hers and she tastes like strawberries. She loves strawberries. Her mouth is lovely new territory; something requiring exploration, which I don't mind doing. She doesn't seem to mind exploring my mouth either. Quite enjoyable until she pulls away.

"Baby, you are really drunk." She laughs, hard red flush to her face.

Put my hand behind her head. "Who cares." Kiss her again, addicted to this feeling, this drive and want.

Did it start like this with Abby? Rubbing her throat with my thumb? Her fingers intertwined with mine? This want that won't go away? It gets stronger; I topple her to the floor. This is fun. I slide my free hand up her thigh, pushing up her miniskirt. She stops me. Pulls away from me, a smile the size of Texas.

"You're too young," she whispers, breathless, "to be this good."

Frustrated. "So why do you keep stopping me?"

So pretty looking up at me, with her disheveled curly hair, wet lips, flushed cheeks. She doesn't want to say no; she's just supposed to.

"You're drunk, baby." She makes a face of bittersweetness, pushing me away so she can sit up. "Really drunk." This time I get the you're-a-cute-kid face. "This can't happen. You won't even remember this in the morning." Hand touches my face. "If you were just a bit older…. Listen, I'm going to go back downstairs. I don't even remember what I came up for. We're going to light candles on Isaac's cake soon. I'm going to make you some coffee, okay?" I nod. "Hop in the shower; wake up a little. When you get ready come downstairs and I'll dance with you, okay?" She winks at me and exits, leaving her smell in her wake. A rush of flowers to hit me, knock the wind out of me.

I flop face first into the carpet, hitting it with my fist in frustration. I have never been refused. This. Sucks. After a few minutes of inhaling carpet, I roll over to see the waterlines again on the ceiling. Mesmerizing little blue-white lines, like translucent spaghetti dancing. A thought. A cold swim would be much more fun than a cold shower.

The lights are off downstairs.

"One--two--three!" A voice sounding like Taylor and everyone in the house bursts in to one, monotone chorus of "Happy Birthday".

No one can see me go through the house to the back door that leads out to the pool.

A meandering breeze gives me a shiver from the cold. The stars come and go in focus. Out of focus. I catch a chair next to me to steady myself. Clouds have vacated the sky, allowing the moon to light the darkness.

Hello man in the moon. Will you keep me company?

Lights are scattered along the cliff-side like a Christmas tree made of rock and plaster. Wonder what's happening in those houses. Have their lives turned out the right way? Did they get what they expected? Who they expected? Are the kids okay?

The alcohol is beginning to bring me down. I hate this part of drunk. Alcohol is always fun in the beginning. A rush that allows me to do as I please without any worry that I am Zac Hanson of that band Hanson. Or more accurately, that kid from that band that one summer. The kid who acted up too much because he's shy. Who loves soccer in the front yard after school lessons; Ike and Tay against me and Nick; playing until the sun dropped so far down, we could barely see to score. Roller blading on the pier in LA in the middle of the summer. Bad horror movies with Nick and Beth at the theater for the all-night Halloween marathon. Teaching Zoë to tie her shoes and singing my nephew to sleep. I miss myself. But a bottle of whiskey and there I am again. Right down there at the bottom. No more scars. No more missing. Just me, the person. Zac. No h, no k.

The movement of the water is lulling. A tile mosaic decorates the bottom of the pool. Rick, an engineer friend of Madge's, did that for her when she began transforming her house into the studio. Wild Hearts is spelt out in fancy lettering with two palm trees in the background bent in the shape of a heart.

I walk to the edge of the pool, stick one foot over the water and step in. Clothes, shoes and all, fall face forward into the water. I half expected to walk on water, with my foot stuck out. Instead, I just…fell in.

The water is bitingly cold. It seizes my chest; I sort of enjoy it though, such a masochist I am. I feel like a fish. A tiny little fish, a beta, bought in a pet store as the test pet. Parents always buy kids a fish to test their responsibility with the pet. Fish are expendable. If the kid can't remember to feed the fish, it's okay. They'll just flush it down the drain and wait a few more years before they get that dog.

My body floats without my intention to do so, breathing in the chlorine-flavored water, not making any real attempts to force myself upward for air. Upward happens though, with my face still in the water.

I am a fish. Yes, I am a store bought beta with an owner who forgot to feed me. But that's okay. I like it here anyway.

Water forces its way into my lungs as I dive back down into the pool, determined to remain a fish. This lighted pool is beginning to darken. And now, it's all gone.


Beep…beep…beep…beep…beep.

"Physically, he appears to be fine." An old man's voice enters the darkness. "We'll know more of course when he wakes up. If he had remained unconscious very much longer, we would have had to talk brain damage, but I'm very sure you've nothing to worry about."

Something is in my throat. I try to clear it and open my eyes. Blurry outlines of Isaac and Taylor, arms crossed across their chests, talking to a man in a long white jacket. They're standing at the end of what appears to be a hospital bed. And I'm the occupant of this bed.

I grunt again, announcing my consciousness.

"You're awake?" Isaac, sounding like I've done something mildly impressive.

The man in the white jacket steps up to the side of the bed.

"Zac?" He has the voice of a doting grandfather.

My eyes roll for a second it seems, and finally look at him, still slightly out of focus.

"I am doctor Russel, Zac." He smiles a little. "You are at Cedars Sinai Medical Center. Do you know why you're here?"

Without a way to say, "kind of," I shake my head no.

"You drowned in a pool outside your friend's house last night." It's morning? "Ms. Lowsom (Madge, in other words) saved your life. You could have easily died with out her."

My eyes take up scanning the room for her.

"She's not here, Zac." Taylor announces. "She went home around four this morning."

I look back at the doctor.

"What you feel in your throat is a breathing tube. There was some trouble stabilizing you last night. But we can take it out, now that you're awake. Can you sit up?"

I nod and do so. In the process of doing this I notice that I am naked under the cover of this white cotton hospital blanket. They must all know now.

Doctor places his hand on my shoulder. "Okay, I'm going to count to three and what I need you to do is cough very hard. This is going to be a little uncomfortable. One. Two. Three."

That tube must have gone all the way down to my toes, because that's where I felt it. And who was kidding? A little uncomfortable! That fucking hurt!

Doctor Russel throws the tube in the biohazard trash can and returns to my bedside. "I need to speak with your brothers for a minute. I'm going to call the nurse and have her ask the cafeteria to bring you some soup. Alright?"

I nod because what else am I going to say? No, don't talk to them. Especially not Taylor. He thinks I'm crazy.

Taking advantage of my now-clear vision, I look up at my brothers. They are frazzled and disheartened. For once, Isaac looks worse than Taylor. Something like a drop of butter someone tried to spread over an entire loaf of bread. Each of them avoid looking at me. Instead they walk quietly, obediently, out into the hall with the doctor, shutting the door behind them. Shutting me out.

It was an accident. I didn't mean to drown; I didn't want to drown. I just wanted to be a fish. Exist as something else. And they all probably thought it was an accident, too. Then they must have found the windows. Then, instead of accident, they must now think it was intentional. They think I tried to kill myself. That doctor--he's going to have Taylor and Isaac commit me.

A woman enters, leaving the door cracked enough that I can hear what is happening in the hall. She places a tray on the sliding table and begins to take my blood pressure.

"You knew?" Isaac shouts.

A shushing from someone.

"I just found out two weeks ago, Ike!" Taylor sounds exhausted. "You saw his stomach, Isaac. Whatever that's about, he's been at it for much longer than two weeks."

"Why didn't you tell me?" Isaac, trying to keep his voice low.

Defeated sigh from Taylor. "Really, Isaac, what were you going to do? We know how you are. Yes you worry, but Isaac, you never interfere. That's my job. You hunt; I kill."

"We could have gotten him some help, Taylor!" Isaac is pissed.

"I tried. Four or five times. He doesn't want help. You can't help those who don't want it!"

"We could have made him do it!"

"No, Isaac! You can't make him."

"How do you know?"

"Which hospitalization of mine do you want to refer to? The first two where I just pretended to get better so I could go home? You have to want the help, Isaac. You can't force it. It just makes things worse."

I can envision Isaac right now, rubbing his temples with one hand, lightly punching a wall with his other hand as he's leaned back against the wall. Taylor is probably pacing right in front of my door, arms crossed so tightly across his chest you would think he was squeezing the air out of a balloon.

A sigh that must have come from the doctor. "The reason your brother is here is that he apparently attempted to kill himself last night."

"I did not!" What felt like a raucous scream from me, left my body as a painful whisper, that only the nurse heard.

"Your brother is in obvious danger of hurting himself and I strongly advise hospitalization."

The nurse leaves, pulling the door closed behind her. I don't hear them now.

Hospitalization. How much does that word weigh? A quarter of my life? Half? I didn't want to die; I just wanted to go swimming. I wanted to be a fish, existing in a different plane other than human reality. Life outside the fishbowl.

Does Mom know? She'd be here now if she knew. She would be the one in the hall talking to the doctor while Taylor and Isaac paced the floor in here lecturing me on the amount of stress I was causing her. Letting me know, in no uncertain terms, that I weigh too much for her to carry when she had four others behind me to tote as well.

Time passes. It's impossible to tell how long; the clock apparently needs a new batter and I have no watch. But the time seems long and pretty much unending. Twilight Zoneish. The door opens again, Isaac in the lead with Taylor closing the door behind them. No doctor. This is going to be a speech. A talking to. An answer-me session--with Isaac.

"You didn't eat." Isaac notes the full bowl sitting on my hospital tray.

"I wasn't hungry." The jackhammer that lives in my heart is doing its best to crush it's way through my breastbone.

"You have to eat!" Taylor echoes a tone I had used on him a few years back. "The doctor says you're malnourished." He mumbles this, ashamedly. "He says you're too thin…a little underweight." He leans back on the wall opposite of me and slides down until he hits the floor. He rests his head on his knees, looking away from me, at the door.

Isaac, truly exhausted, takes the ugly green chair at the end of the bed. Isaac, unlike Taylor, is unabashedly looking directly at me. In my eyes. With his chin rested in his palm, looking confused.

"Did you try to kill yourself, Zac?" Calm, too even tone from Isaac while Taylor flinches.

"No!" What in insidious question.

"Then what were you doing?" His voice elevates.

"Swimming…." Duh. "Drunk. I just wanted--well that was it. I was just swimming, too drunk to realize that it wasn't a good idea. But I was not trying to kill myself!"

"What happened to your stomach?" He's so disaffected. Taylor begins guiltily tapping the floor with his fingers, trying to pretend he's not a part of this conversation. My throat hurts. And I don't want to talk about any of this anymore at all. I don't answer.

"Zachary!" Now impatient. "Answer me and stop looking at Taylor like he's going to get you out of this. He's already tried." Wha?

Taylor looks up at me. Too-tired eyes, also waiting to see how I will try to explain this all away. A ragged sigh leaves his body and a tear too. This is too hard for him. Too much for my sensitive brother. "The doctor wants us to admit you. He's very adamant about it."

"You can't do that!" Shot out before I have a chance to stop it.

"Actually," Isaac walks to the window, "we can. If, after a psychologist evaluates you, they believe that you may be a danger to yourself, or others, they can hospitalize you for seventy-two hours, without your consent. And after that, they can obtain an order from a judge mandating that you are to remain in the hospital until you've gone through treatment and the doctor's feel like you're better. In other words, you can be ordered to remain in this hospital indefinitely." He looks over his shoulder at me. "So yes, Zac, we can." His voice, his demeanor, disturb me greatly. He reminds me too much of my father right now. Talking down to me, making me an idiot child. Such a burden. Isaac won't hit me though. "That said, tell me what happened to your stomach."

I look, terrified, at Taylor, hoping he would be of some consolation, however small. But he turns away from me. Isaac reminds him of Dad too. Strangely, I want to cry from frustration and exhaustion of this conversation. I have no way out but to tell Isaac. But Isaac already knows. What does he need me for? Taylor already told him.

"Taylor already told you." Grumbled angrily towards the blanket stretched across my bare stomach.

Isaac turns, shocked. "How do you know that?"

Point at the soup, then to the door. "Nurse left the door open. I heard a little of what was said."

Arms cross his chest. He returns to his chair, looking perplexed and fatherly. "How long has it been going on?"

"Look, are you leaving me in this hospital or what?" My turn to be frustrated. "Because I don't appreciate being paraded like a monkey around a bush that'll just lead me to a cage!" Ooh, that was my ass!

Jaw tight. "We just might!" He said that for bitterness and spite. Not because they might. Knives leave his eyes, nonetheless, pinning me to the bed, stabbing my chest again and again.

"Now answer me." Growl. "How. Long?"

"Two months." Gritted teeth. "After that big fight with Beth. When I fucked Abby."

"Why?"

"Why what?"

Taylor is unmoving. Unspoken. I wonder if he's even breathing.

"Why do you do that to yourself?"

"To feel better!" A couple decibels below a yell.

"Why don't you eat?"

"The Crazy makes me sick!" Now Taylor's head snaps up. He recognizes that phrase.

Isaac is taken aback by it. He becomes quiet. The way Taylor gets quiet. Taking in the air and the words and the feelings around him. He considers it. Weighing it against all the other considerations in his mind.

Isaac takes a deep breath. "Give me--give me one good reason why we should bring you home."

Now they are both looking at me. And what answers do I have for them? If I were them, I'd leave me here.

I look Isaac in the eye. Eyes that are so much like my own. Now bloodshot and tired eyes. "I don't know…." A sigh. "Maybe you shouldn't."

Chapter Text

The door opens. Doctor Russel, followed by a younger, fierce looking female toting an ominous looking clipboard.

"This is doctor Fiara." She extends her hand to Isaac, almost as though she knows he is to be the major decision make. "She is head of our psychiatric department. She is here to assess your brother."

Taylor shakes her hand as well. "Nice to meet you."

"You must me Zac, then?" She looks at me, leaning her forehead in my direction, with a harsh-sounding voice, cigarette induced maybe? But she's got a kind tone.

Smirk. "Someone has to be."

She laughs a little. No one else does.

"Listen, doctor," Isaac speaks up, cutting off any other exchange between the doctor and I. "We've been talking, and we don't feel that Zac needs to stay. Taylor and I honestly don't believe he was trying to kill himself."

"It's not his style." Taylor, like he's talking about clothing with my mother.

Patronizing smile from the woman. "I do appreciate your concern for your brother, but I honestly believe I would be a better person to make that decision."

"I'm sure you would." Taylor, surprisingly, snaps sarcastically. "But the fact is, he is our brother and as our parents aren't here, he is in our care. We are not trying to say that he doesn't have his issues--"

"--Because he does." Isaac, in for the steal, with a harsh glare at me. "And for those issues, he will be receiving outpatient care." Another pointed glare at me. "So, we would greatly appreciate it if you would just sign his papers and let us take him home."

Fiara's eyes flare with insult from my brother's indignant tone. "You do realize that I have the right, and power, to call social services, right? Furthermore, I can have him mandated into our ward where he would remain indefinitely until we feel he is ready for release."

"Yes ma'am." Matter-of-fact Isaac. "We do happen to understand that." This time he glares at Taylor. "We are well versed in those laws." Taylor looks away sharply. "However, even if you were to speak with him, you will also come to the conclusion that he is not suicidal."

"He has his problems, yes." Taylor's face pleads with her. Unfortunately, Taylor's face doesn't seem to be working for him this time. "We very much recognize that he needs help. But my brother and I are very sure that he does not need to be hospitalized!"

Doctor Fiara throws a hand in the air, ceasing any further objections. All the while I have watched this circus of round-and-round objections with disaffected fascination. I should care more about this. Worry whether I can be spending the next months of my life in a hospital, locked away from my family, from Beth and Nick. Blessedly locked away from my father. But I don't. Instead, I'm just sitting here, watching my brothers go blue, for the worth of their arguments is buying them nothing with this doctor, who is absolutely unmoving in her decision. Feeling nothing but still and not caring.

"It's like this." Fiara, setting her clipboard on the sink. "Your brother will go nowhere--until I speak with him and make the decision for myself. It is wonderful that you two apparently have a great amount of concern for your brother; however, what you do not have is a professional opinion. I spent ten years in school. So while your proclamations of his non-distress are truly moving, they do not count. Right now the opinion that counts is mine and mine alone. There is a cafeteria on the first floor that makes a great cup of coffee. If you would like to go down there, we can call you back up when I'm finished. You are also welcome to get something to eat or whatever elsewhere. But know that Zac is not leaving this hospital until I have spoken to him myself--alone--and made my own decision!"

Isaac huffs angrily. Taylor closes his eyes and expels air from his nose harshly. They stomp, mumbling inaudibly, out of the room followed by Doctor Russel who nods at doctor Fiara in a professionally cordial manor.

Fiara heaves a relieved sigh. "That went well." Nervous laugh. "Let's start over, huh?"

Nod.

"Hi, I'm Doctor Katie Fiara." Puts her hand out for me to shake. I take it.

"Zac Hanson."

She takes up her clipboard and sits down in the ugly green chair. Her hair is bright right and twisted up. The kind of red that makes you think of an Irish girl. Brown, bored looking eyes. Not really thin, a little chubby, sort of like Samantha. Dressed in a navy pantsuit.

Looking up from her clipboard she has been reviewing for a few minutes. "Can you tell me what has been happening in your life lately, Zac?"

Shrug. Look away. Why do I have to? Through the window I see palms being lightly rustled by the wind. Sun is out, illuminating the deceptively blue sky. A sky the color of hyperlinks on the internet. That violently rich blue, spread out so expansively, you feel it may take you over.

Clears her throat. "Zac? Can you tell me about your life right now?"

"We haven't been doing much." Still watching the cloudless sky. "We've just been working on some demos."

"You're a musician?" Jots something on her board. "Do you sing or play an instrument?"

"Both, actually." An unexplainable sigh leaves me. "I sing and I play drums."

"Wait?" She jerks her head up sharply. Looking at me like she should know me. "You--and your brothers--MMMBop, right?"

Rush of rage floods my chest. "I wish people would let that fucking song go." I grumble, half discernibly. She makes another note. Probably something stupid about aggression. "Yeah." Angry snap. "That was us."

"Anything else?" Why doesn't she just get a cattle prod? "Girlfriend trouble? Family problems?"

"I don't have a girlfriend currently." A small misshapen cloud pushes by. "And I'm pretty close to my family. We're really just focused on finishing our demos. That's about all."

"You guys are pretty far from home right now, aren't you?" Chewing on her pen. "You're from Tulsa, right?"

"Yep. The big ol' town of T."

"Do you miss it?"

"The town? No, not really. I miss my friends and my family, though."

"Do you still live at home?"

"Yeah."

"How is your home life?"

"It's fine. I have a huge family."

"Do you get along with everyone? Your parents and your siblings?"

"Yeah, we get along fine." Frustrated. "Listen, this small talk is getting annoying. Would you mind getting down to business?"

She nods conceding. "Fine, fine. How about you tell me what happened last night?"

Shrug. "It was Isaac's birthday party. I got really hammered and decided I wanted to go swimming. Apparently I was a little too drunk and I drowned. End of story." And as far as the drowning went, that was the end of story.

She chews her pen, trying to swallow my story, attempting to determine if it was really all that cut and dry. "Your brother's say that you've been severely depressed." Flippant shrug. "They also say that you've been very moody and aggressive. And just from looking at you, you obviously don't eat properly. Can you explain any of these things to me?"

God this is agitating. Beyond necessary agitation. Stay silent as she makes another note.

"All right then. How long have you been cutting yourself?" She looks me in the eye, trying to dare me not to answer her this time.

"Two months." And I won't say more than that. I refuse. It isn't any of her business. What the hell does she know about it anyway?

"Why did you start?" Still looking at me with a face reminiscent of Isaac.

I remain silent. Stoic.

"Zac," lays her pen down and interlocks her fingers. "You are in a very precarious position with me." That got my attention. "See this pen?" She holds up a plain ballpoint Bic. "In it is the ink that will mark this chart concerning your stay or your release. All I have to do is annotate your records such that you are a danger to yourself and a potential danger to others--"

"--Listen, lady." Snapping and boring my eyes hard into hers. "You are free to make threats at me until you're so breathless that a nurse will be calling for oxygen." She's taken aback. "You're not going to phase me. I'm so indifferent to what you might be able to do to me, that I don't give a shit if you keep me or let me go. Okay, fine, I might need help. But you lock me up here, go ahead a reserve two beds on that floor of yours for my brothers as well!" She is completely silent, too shocked to say anything to stop me. "The scrawny one with the blue eyes--Taylor--he has a little boy. He hasn't been away from Ezra more than a day or two since he was born! Do you know how long we've been away from home?"

"No." Sounding like a frightened child.

"Three. Weeks. And the other one with the curly hair--Isaac? He has this girl friend. Phenomenal cellist. To Isaac, God hung the stars so that girl would have something to continually smile at. He hasn't been away from her longer than a week. If you keep me here, they are forced to stay here with me. There is no going home for them without me. Isaac already told you that I agreed to outpatient therapy." It was more that I was told I would be going to therapy. "So you want to keep me here, fine, you're the professional. But could you at least make sure I'm sharing a room with Taylor, because Isaac snores."

Her lips purse out. "It's obvious you three care very unselfishly for each other."

"I guess it happens when brothers are your band." Proud smirk.

She smiles back. "Give me a half an hour or so. I'll be back."

When my brothers return, they carry with them my favorite: McDonalds. Cheeseburger with fries and chocolate shake.

"Do I really have to ask you to eat this?" Taylor, holding the bag in front of me.

"No!" Like he's an idiot or something. Snatch it from him and begin eating as my brother's watch somewhat approvingly.

As I'm inhaling my fries and ketchup, Fiara returns.

When she sees me eating, she comments. "Trying to sway my decision?"

Mouth full of food. "Mo." Swallow with a sip of the shake. "I just really like McDonalds. Do I have to stay?"

A smile like regret. "I don't want to release you." I suddenly feel the urge to throw-up all of my inhaled food. "I think you very much need hospitalization, Zac, suicidal or not."

Taylor, who has been standing beside my bed sharing ketchup with me, suddenly clutches the bars on the side of my bed and Isaac collapses into the ugly chair. Now, I am no longer indifferent.

"What?" A growl from me.

Puts her hand up. "I don't want to release you. However," Huh? "I am going to release you. But there is a major stipulation to your release and if you do not follow it, I will have you hauled back in here."

"Okay." I'm nodding my head, willing to agree to anything.

She nods as though she had expected that would be my response. "I am only doing this because I feel that your brothers will watch over very well." Isaac lets out a happy sigh of relief. "So these are your terms. You must go, immediately, into weekly therapy. This is not a matter of a promise to your brothers. You must do this. As soon as you have decided on a therapist, which must be in the next forty-eight hours, both you and your therapist are to contact me and let me know when your first appointment is. If this does not happen, I will call social services and admit you to this hospital with a court order to keep you here until I feel you are ready to leave again, understand?" We nod. "And at that point, I won't care about Taylor's son or Isaac's girlfriend or your record company, alright?" Nod again. "I'm going to bring you a list of doctors in this area. Do you guys have any questions?"

"I do." Taylor, nervous. Her eyebrows raise. "We, uh, we're supposed to be going home soon. Probably in the next week or so?"

She chews her lip for a second. "Well, have him go as many appointments as possible while you're still here. Once you've returned home, and have chosen a doctor there, have that doctor contact me. I'll bring you my card; it has my e-mail, fax and phone number on it."

She shakes hands with my brothers.

Then with me. "Thank you." Sincere and humble.

"You're welcome." Sincere as well. "Best of luck to you guys."

Once she's gone I look immediately to Isaac. "Are we going to tell mom?"

He shrugs. "No one else knows. None of the public anyway. If there had been, she would have known by now whether we had told her or not. So I guess we can just keep this between us. She doesn't need the stress."

I love my brother.

"Sounds great, boys!" Madge's voice comes in through the intercom as we run our last song one final time before beginning the recording. "But Taylor, can you come up about a third on the final chord? It sounds flat. And, Zac, baby, you're rushing the bridge." I nod, approvingly accepting the comment. "Want to run it one last time?"

We begin the song. An upbeat piece mainly, lyrically, pinned by Isaac. It's one of those feel-good, grow-strong and believe-in-yourself type songs that people love. I think he wrote it for Ezra.

It's been a week since I was released. We settled on a Psychiatrist just out of med-school named Selena Ezell. My first appointment was two days after my release. I have to see her again tomorrow afternoon. And in about two days thereafter, we will finally be boarding a flight for Tulsa. Madge will finish mixing the demos and send them to us for approval, after which, we will send them on to Arista. We really should just start our own company.

Most of my first shrink session was spent talking about my childhood--minus the bruises sustained by my father. "I feel some hesitance from you," she told me, "about your father. Why is that?" I told her that it wasn't hesitance; I'm just not very close to my father, I said. Momma's boys, the lot of us, I told her. She didn't believe me, but I don't care. She told me that she wants us to spend our second and final session discussing my career. Purposeless. This is a bunch of shit. I don't see the point in me going through all of this. What is it going to prove in the end, anyway? That I'm just a permanently fucked up kid and there's nothing anyone can do for me. She has told me that once I'm home, I have forty-hours to contact her with my new doctor's information and she would then fax my information to him or her. Ugh.

In other, more entertaining news, apparently I tried to sleep with Madge. Ambitious little shit, aren't I? Kissed her and was working on more and I don't remember a damn bit of it. I don't remember anything except going into the pool. I wanted to be a fish. What the hell was I doing in her room anyway? She told me this story as we were sitting around Madge's kitchen the day after I was released. We were playing connect-the-events-leading-to-Zac-drowning. After she put a stop to my overshooting my league, she suggested I take a cold shower while she went back downstairs to make me some coffee. I guess I thought a cold swim was a better idea. She doesn't seem too affected by it all, though. Same old Madge. I doubt, though, that she'll be inviting us to any pool parties any time soon. Damn what a memory to lose.

The song ends.

"Sounds great you guys!" Madge gives us thumbs up. "Ready to start recording?"

Taylor nods over enthusiastically.

Verse. Verse. Chorus. Half way through the third verse, I see a face in the door-window that leads in from the living room. Familiar face. Isaac and Taylor look up, but then the face is gone. Few more words and the face returns. The feeling creeps in like watching a truly scary movie. Terror. Stop playing. It's Angel.

"What's wrong?" Taylor, frustrated.

Nod my head toward the door. "Angel's here. She's in the house."

Taylor's dumbstruck. Isaac demands, "who's Angel?"

"That psycho woman from the grocery store." Terrified Taylor. She's gone now. She knows she's been seen.

Look at Isaac. "Also known as angelgreeneyes."

"From hnet?" Isaac, scared now too. "The one that's obsessed with Taylor."

"They're all obsessed with Taylor." I snort without thinking.

Taylor glares at me. "Fuck you."

"You're not my type." Madge thought it was funny.

Madge quickly remembers her self, though. "Where is the crazy bitch? I'll kill her."

"Outside the door." Me. "Or she was."

Madge exits, leaving the three of us staring at each other like we are moments away from wetting ourselves.

What is it with people? Where do they get off? We are just three normal people making music for a living. There are bands I like, but damn. This just gets absurd.

Madge returns. "I don't see her. Isaac and Zac, I want you two to come with me to search the house." Turns pointedly and very serious to Taylor. "I want you to stay here! She's after you. Go into the mixing room and lock the door. Under the counter, right under the computer, is a panic button that calls the cops, okay?"

Taylor nods.

I look at her like she's crazy. "Why do you have a panic button in the mixing room? Shouldn't be somewhere logical like your bedroom?"

Smack to the back of the head. "Look smartass, I'll explain later. Just come search the house with me!"

Madge takes off for her bedroom. Isaac starts looking through the kitchen and living rooms. And I go into the guestrooms off of the living room.

My search turns up nothing but a couple of plainly decorated rooms with empty closets and a great view of the cliff.

I return to the living room to see a police car pull into the driveway, coming somewhat fast.

Shit. Run for the studio.

Through the glass I see her, advancing on Taylor who is already backed into the corner with no out options possible. I think that's a knife I see behind her back.

Instinctively I reach for the doorknob, but it's locked. She must have picked it to get in. Must distract psycho girl. Smack the glass several times. "Hey, crazy bitch! The cops are here!"

Taylor looks relieved for only a second as he realizes she is undeterred by this remark.

Isaac enters. "There's some secret way in. Madge is showing the cops right now."

Point to the knife. "She'd better hurry!"

Isaac hits the glass. I think more for fear and frustration than to distract, but distract it does. She glares at Isaac as though to say he's next.

Amid the intense stare down, I notice a small crack of light forming near the floor not too far from Angel's feet. The sound proofing is being pushed open and I see the head of one of the policemen push through. Angel doesn't seem to notice the movement going on behind her. She moves very quickly in on Taylor now, and it looks like she's shouting something at him. She's pointing her knife straight for his stomach, moving it back and forth, conducting an orchestra of fear in his face. Roughly half an inch or so from his stomach, Taylor snatches her hand and yanks out the knife throwing it to the floor. Right after, the cop grabs hold of her shoulders, yanking her backwards away from my brother and towards the door.

"LET GO OF ME!" Shrill female voice floods the room, causing Isaac and I to plug our ears. "YOU BELONG TO ME!" I hear her shout despite my covered ears. "TAYLOR!"

Taylor leaves the mixing room. He is shaken and shaking, looking at Isaac for an answer, then to me. We have nothing for him. No explanations whatsoever. Only thankfulness from all three of us that it was over now.

"You have the right to remain silent." A cop voice from the other room.

Madge now enters to hug Taylor as tightly as she can wrap her arms around him without suffocating him. "Are you okay?"

He shrugs. "I guess. It just, you know, goes with the territory."

She rubs his back like Mom has always done for him in times of great stress.

A cop enters the room.

"I want breaking and entering!" Madge practically shouts before the policeman has a chance to form a word with his mouth.

"And stalking!" Isaac.

"Attempted murder too." Me.

"I...I just want to go home." Taylor, in a sigh so woeful it could have made even a hardened criminal feel pity for him. "And I want to call Mom."

We gave our statements to the policemen. Starting all the way back to the problems Angel had caused on hnet. After that, Taylor relayed the events in the mixing room. Apparently, she slid in just a couple moments after we had left the room. We shouldn't have left him alone. He hadn't even had the chance to duck under the counter to hit the panic button before she started working on the lock. She was nice at first. Telling him that she loved us and had been our most faithful fan. That our music meant everything to her. Then she delved deeper into the psycho stalker stuff. How she had always been in love with him. She thought he was beautiful. Once she even read in her tarot cards that they would be together. But then he went and knocked up Natalie and messed up everything. How dare he marry that stupid, ugly bitch. She, Angel, was so much prettier and could have treated him so much better than slutty, homely Natalie. First, Angel thought that she couldn't live in a world where there was no chance for her to obtain her angel. But a thought occurred. How poetic, how perfect, would it be for them to die together. Then he would no longer have to suffer himself to be with Natalie and they could be together forever in the heavens. Because the only person he could ever be with for eternity, was Angel herself. What a basket case.

Madge, still rubbing Taylor's back, instructs. "You guys go home for the day. Go get something really good to eat. Rent movies or something. We'll finish this song tomorrow, okay?"

"Won't that put you behind?" Taylor, concerned.

Madge cinched him tightly in a sideways hug. "Nah. Don't worry about it. I just want you guys to recoup from today and we'll just finish tomorrow."

Taylor nods, agreeing. Like he was really going to fight her on this.

"Wait!" Isaac points to the space of light near the floor in the mixing room. "What's up with the secret entrance?"

Madge lets out a hearty laugh. "Well, about five years go, the studio was robbed. Bastards took thousands of dollars worth of equipment. After they finished clearing the studio they were on their way up stairs to get to me. Two big fakers too. I was awake. I knew they were in the house, but I couldn't move. I knew they'd shoot my ass. At the time, I had no phone up here. And as one was raiding my studio, the other was in my house, so there was nowhere for me to go. I was trapped. Well, I knew they were coming after me because I heard one of them shouting something about 'checking for the chica upstairs'. So as they were on their way up the stairs, I jumped the landing into the studio." We all have instant reactions of ouch. She laughs. "Yeah, broke my left leg. Anyway, I crawled as best I could into the mixing room and hid under the counter. There was no phone in there and no way out either. I knew they had left, but I stayed in that room until daylight, trying not to pass out from the pain in my leg. After the mess was over, I of course, installed a security system. And decided that I wanted a place I can hide and be able to escape from if it were ever to happen again. I know it's unlikely, but you know, better safe right?" Nod. "So I had the wall behind a couple cabinets cut out and a panic button installed under the counter. And of course, I now have pillow pile right under the ledge, to try to prevent a second broken leg. The cabinet door can only be opened from the other side with the key." She pulls a necklace out of her shirt.

Disbelieving laugh from me. "You're a freakin' genius, Madge!"

Proud grin. "I know, baby. I know."

That evening we took Madge to dinner with us and caught a movie at the theater near her house. We were only stopped by a couple people as we entered the movie. It was fun and at the end of the night, after we drove Madge home, she pecked my cheek and wished me sweet dreams. Why god, am I so young? She could be perfect for me if she didn't have a conscious. But no, I'll probably wind up marrying Delancy or something.

And yesterday we finished the last song. Today we're packing our bags for our return to Tulsa. We'll all eventually have to return to California when Angel's court date is set, but honestly, that ranks dead last on our list of worries for the moment.

Last night we cleaned the house. Washed our linens. Mopped floors and vacuumed. Our clothes have been washed and rooms straightened. This morning Taylor and I cleaned out the kitchen of all the perishables; taking them down to a soup kitchen across town. We replaced our credit cards and keys in the security box in the bathroom, in the cabinet under the sink, under a pile of towels. And Isaac called the gardener to resume care of the yard.

My brothers and I are currently sitting at the counter in the diner at LAX waiting for our flight. As we swill stout coffee, eating too-sweet slices of pecan pie, we watch Andy Griffith reruns.

Last night Madge hosted a small farewell-for-now party--sans alcohol. And the pool was completely off limits. It was really just Madge, the three of us, and couple mutual friends. Madge cooked up some righteous ribs and she made brownies just for me, gooey and full of chocolate chips. Yum. We sat around her living room with music in the background just telling life stories and laughing. Enjoying the last of our quality time in the land of stars and dreams. The stardust and heartaches. Contributor to my Crazy.

It was late when decided we should really be going for it was to be an early day the next morning. She hugged Taylor and Isaac goodbye first, leaving me for the last.

"If you were a few years older, baby," she whispered to me in our final hug, "it'd be you and me. I couldn't turn you away. But damn, you're a cute kid!"

"I'm not a kid, Madge." I wiggled my eyebrows at here, not really thinking it was going to get me much of anywhere.

She gave me a smile painted in such remorse, it kind of hurt. "Maybe not in that head of yours." She tapped the side of my head softly with her fingertips. "But chronologically and compared to me, you are. Be good, 'kay?" Nod, poutingly. "Aw, don't look at me like that! Go back to Tulsa and you'll find a good girl and forget about me."

"Madge, no." Tapped the side of her head. "If you really believe that, you're mental. Maybe in a few years I could come back around and marry you!"

She laughed greatly at that. "Now who's mental? Go home, baby! You'd better write every so often. And I'll see you guys when it comes time to do the whole shebang?"

"Of course." We hugged tightly. And before I left I had one last question. "Am I the only person you call baby?"

She grins. "Not the only one...but you're the one I call baby the most!"

Her lips placed a fine chicken peck on mine as she hugged me one last time and sent me on my way. Damn chronology.

"Flight 153 to Dallas now boarding." Over head announcement during an episode of The Munsters. "Flight 153 to Dallas is now boarding."

Isaac stands abruptly, excitedly. "Well, home, here we come!"

"Finally!" Taylor sighing contentedly.

I remain quiet, reveling in the thought of finally setting my feet on my Tulsa soil. For all the baggage I drag around from that place, it still the place I call home. Finally, we are leaving all of this behind. All of the happenings here will probably be forgotten--minus the orders of the shrink because I can't get that lucky--for the rejoicing of our return home. My thoughts get me lost in the hoping that Beth can hold on just a little while longer. The happy zing of knowing I'll see my mom again soon. Chase my Zoë around the house as we begin to decorate for Christmas; her high pitched little voice ringing out in shrill happiness in making me run after her for cookies; shopping for gifts with Jessica and Avery; shaking boxes with Mackenzie; and helping Mom cook our favorite holiday foods. My December has begun. Maybe this will be a good month.

We are seated in our chushy first class chairs. Me next to Taylor and Isaac right behind us. Taylor's already pulled down his blanket. He's so damn cold natured.

After take off, as I slowly near sleep because I've seen the in-flight move a hundred times, Isaac sits up, leaning over our seats. "I have something to tell you guys."

Taylor groans. "Can't it wait?"

"No." He sits back, forcing the two of us to look over the backs of our chairs to listen for his announcement.

"Well, what is it?" Me. Impatient because I want some sleep for once.

Isaac allows for a piece of dramatic silence. But then Taylor looks at him as though he's five nanoseconds from strangling him.

"I'm moving out."

Shocked. Both of us.

"You're--WHAT?" This scream feels like it may split my chest wide open. "You can't leave me there with dad by myself!"

Isaac shrugs. "Leave with me."

Whoa. Leave home? Mom? The kids? Despite my father, I'm not ready for that yet.

"I can't." In a hopeless breath. "Not yet."

Isaac nods; he understands. Taylor, looking too pale, turns front ward again, closing his eyes and falls quickly to sleep. I'm not far behind.

Our layover in Dallas lasts only a couple hours. At least an hour of which we spend in the Northpark mall. We pick up gifts for the kids there. A new Prada purse for Jessie at Neiman Marcus. Makeup for Avie at M.A.C and some stuff a Sephora. Funny, we made the lady match skin tones on Taylor's face. Whoo, nothing like seeing your older brother sport blush and "lovely shades of rose and coral to accent the eyes". Taylor headed for the first bathroom he could find with his head buried. I don't remember the name of the store, but we picked up a new dress for Zoë that looks like it came from China. Chocolates for Beth at Godiva. A new ride on train for Ezra. A silver Tiffany's bracelet for Natalie--all Taylor's idea. Across the street at Barnes & Nobel we pick up a new holiday cookbook for Mom and a few new Goosebumps books for Mackenzie.

Once we're back on the plane, my brothers fall asleep once more. I plug into my iPod and ride anxiously and quietly until we touch down in Tulsa. The wheels no sooner hit the ground than my brothers were sitting bolt-upright. The three of us exuding anxiousness and happiness from every pour such that I'm sure the rest of the passengers on this plane must feel the surge along with us.

Our family is gather with joyed looked on their faces, the anticipation making the younger kids antsy. Mom looks moments from tears.

Avery holds high in the air a sign. "WELCOME HOME HANSON!"

Samantha, dressed in a very nice dark red silk top and long black skirt, waits quietly behind Mom with a couple joy tears slipping down her chubby cheeks. She has a small bundle of roses in her hand for him.

Natalie looks happy, standing there in an Abercrombie tee shirt and worn jeans. Ezra screams happily for Taylor, who immediately grabs up his son, hugging him as tightly as he can, spinning him in circles. After which he swoops in on Mom, hugging her as tightly as he had his son. And finally going over to kiss Natalie, who seems too relieved at the fact that he's finally noticed her to really be a bitch to him about it.

And all this while, I'm getting love from my siblings. Jessie crushes my neck, so happy that we're home, she's humming. Avery leaps on my back as Mackenzie crushes my waist so harshly all my breath rushes out.

This could easily be considered one of our best homecomings. Except Beth and Nick are nowhere.

As soon as I realize this, I see a great pregnant, dark brunette blur rushing straight for me. Followed closely by another brunette blur, who is actually taller and lankier than the first. And both blurs are headed right for me.

Zoë jumps down and Mack jumps away in time for Beth to smash directly into me, sending both of us to the floor with a wicked thud and a chorus of laughter.

"Miss me?" I muse, staring up into a familiar and missed pair of hazel eyes, filled with so much unadulterated happiness, the flecks of color twinkle like God gave Beth a couple of small, green galaxies for eyes.

"Not really." Breathless, silly sarcasm. "You were just blocking my path to Taylor!"

Everyone laughed. Except Natalie.

Beth gives a snort of laughter. "Oh--get over yourself Nat! It was a joke!" Natalie's nose scrunches skeptically. "I don't want Taylor's scrawny ass anyway. He's too girlie!"

We all laugh again, while Natalie stares at Taylor indignantly.

Taylor, who is busy balancing his squirming son on his hip, feigns insult. "I prefer the term 'flamboyant'!"

Mom lets off a great peal of laughter that comes as a greatly welcomed sound to everyone. We haven't heard her laugh like that in years.

"I was only kidding, Natalie!" Taylor, still trying to quit laughing, tells his disapproving wife.

Beth pokes my tickle spots. "What'd you bring me?"

"Nothing." She knows I'm totally full of shit.

"You did so!" Continues poking. All I can do is laugh and squirm, getting myself nowhere.

"UNCLE! I brought you Godiva!"

"Whoo hoo!" She flops over and hugs me. And I lock my arms like a stronghold around her, knowing that I missed her more that I would be willing to let on to anyone but Beth herself.

"Hey, where's Dad?" Isaac asks. I see him wrap his arms around Samantha in the same manner I had just done with Beth.

"Grama's." Avery rings out matter-of-factly.

Mom sighs. "Your father's been dealing with hnet all day. That--Angel--the whole community knows about it."

"What?" Taylor.

"How?" Me and Isaac. At least they didn't manage to hear about the other incident at Madge's house. Much better they know about this!

"She was released on bail." Natalie rolls her eyes, annoyed. "Then she went into the forums--member and public--telling this stupid story about how she just wanted to say 'hi' to Tay and that you guys had her arrested. She was trying to get pity from the other members."

"None of them believed her though!" Samantha, in her little-girl's laugh. "They've banned her." Mind you, Samantha's never paid much attention to the band, let alone our fans and the goings-on of hansonnet. And we all give her a shocked look. "What?" Giggle. "I pay attention. I do care, you know?"

Isaac kisses her cheek. I envy them.

"Beth." Lightly press in on the sides of her stomach. "You're crushing my hips. Your pregnant ass has to get off me."

She wiggles her butt for playful spite.

"Get off!" Laughing.

Nick gives her his hands and pulls her off of me. She's gained a lot of baby in my absence. Doesn't look as close to due as she is, but still a significant amount. When I've gotten myself off the floor, Nick and I do the guy, handshake-hug thing.

"Glad you're home, dude." He says, and lowers his voice to a whisper. "Beth's getting a little bitchy."

I laugh. "This is different from any other day how?"

We laugh and Beth gives us a suspicious look. I pull her back towards me with a smile that's reflected back in her face. Her little hands rub my back as she hugs me in return, squeezing my sides tightly. "I missed you." She whispers to my chest. And I kiss her forehead because that's our thing.

It's good to be home.

Chapter Text

Four days later, Nick and I are parked in Beth's living room watching another Johnny Depp movie. Beth is still pregnant and over due by a week. Her doctor says Beth has nothing to worry about and that she should stop trying to rush things. Beth managed to pick the one doctor that doesn't believe in inducing unless there's a danger. Beth curses the doctor's name several times daily.

Beth's house is decorated for Christmas with the tree in the corner, stuffed with boxes to overflowing. Lights hung everywhere. Stockings on the chimney. The lot of it. Beth, however, is under the influence of Scrooge and the decorations could be a bunch of dead leaves and garbage for all that she cares about them. She has spent the last few days with us, refusing to leave the house, making us watch movies with her. Of course, it's our job to go get the movies-a-nd we'd better have the right ones when we return, even if she had no suggestions for us when we left the house to get the movies. Thankfully, Johnny Depp's been in a million movies. She's been entertained by him for two days now. She's in a brunette phase. She'll want Keanu Reeves soon. Or Mark Wahlberg. I'd like to gauge my eyes out now. But then it'll all go right back to her beloved Brad Pitt. And as much as we dread this cycle, Nick and I do this because we love her. Because there's no one else we'd suffer this much for.

And for our efforts, Mrs. Linda makes sure the fire is always lit and that there is a constant supply of food around for Nick and I to gorge ourselves on. As long as it keeps Beth from screaming at her, Mrs. Linda doesn't care that we have practically taken up residence in her home.

Ben has found a way to avoid Beth's wrath as well. Snow has been falling lightly. This of course is fine by Beth. With everyday that passes she becomes more and more irritated. Tired of being pregnant and ready for it to be over with. She wants to dance again. To begin her preparations for Juilliard. She'd even be willing to go back to work. So long as it meant she wasn't pregnant anymore.

"Put in 'Sleepy Hollow'." Beth barks as the credits for Edward Scissorhands roll upwards. Upwards like Nick's eyes as he's being commanded again.

Nick looks at me.

"Your turn." Mock regret.

Comfortable and not really wanting to move. "I put in both the movies before that one."

"Rock, paper, scissors!" He feigns determinism.

"Would one of you children just put the fucking movie in?!" Beth, high pitched and highly irritated.

Nick flashes her a pissed off look. "God Beth. It's not our damned fault. If it means that much to you, how about getting off your ass and doing it yourself!"

Beth's eyes flash angrily at him. But then her lip quivers. Here it comes. A huge wail with tears to accompany.

"Don't Beth." Nick instructs, unaffected. "It doesn't work with me. I don't take your shit like he does." Nods at me. "You're not going to bellow at me like I did something wrong, especially when I've been here with you, listening to scream at everyone including me, when you don't get your way. You're pregnant Beth, not an invalid or a child."

Are you shocked? Don't be. When they fight it's always like this. I let her have her way and Nick doesn't. If he's wrong, he'll admit it. But if he's not, this is a common scene.

"Yelling at us doesn't make your situation any better." He begins yanking open movie cases.

"Yeah, well." She pouts, wiping away the tears. "It gives me an outlet for my rage."

He grimaces, disapprovingly. "Sleepy Hollow you said?"

Sniffle and nod from Beth. He puts the movie in the player.

When he's finished, he takes a seat beside her, as we're all on the floor on a large palette of blankets and pillows and sleeping bags, and kisses her cheek. A rush goes through me. A rush of fear and jealousy. A rush I don't understand. But I move closer to Beth, taking a seat behind her and wrapping my arms as tight as I can around her stomach and hold on like there is a great vacuum waiting to inhale her and rob me of her. Mine, dammit, mine.

Nick grabs the poker from the floor and adds a couple more pieces of wood to the fire. Warm and comfortable, my breathing soon matches Beth's. Slowing soon and without meaning to, I fall asleep.


The title screen of the movie is playing, and has been for an unknown amount of time. It's nearly midnight. Beth is still asleep and Nick, beside her, is snoring. Her little thin fingers a lightly interlocked with his.

I push up on her back so I can sit up, and slowly slide out from behind her. She stirs but doesn't wake up. Nick does though.

"What time is it?" He yanks his hand away from Beth's, looking caught in something. But I don't say anything, because I'm tired and the dim light of the room could have just made it seem like a funny gesture.

"It's almost midnight." I lift Beth up from the floor. She wraps her arms around my neck, putting her head on my shoulder. "Don't you have to work tomorrow?"

He yawns. "Yeah. Shit, I better get going. Night Beth."

She flaps her hand at him. "Night Nick. I love you."

He pats her head. "See you tomorrow."

I nod. "See you tomorrow.

The door makes a soft click as I make it to the landing on the second floor. Beth is still relatively unmoving as I deposit her onto her bed, covering her up, and going to start a fire.

After the fire is burning and has begun to warm the room, I sit in the over stuffed chair Beth has sitting by her fireplace. On the opposite side of the mantle sit her hospital bags, that seem to be almost as anxious as she is to be done with it. I watch the fire for a while, with an empty head, listening to the sounds of Beth's breathing and the creaks of a house being brushed by the winter winds.

"Zac?" A ghost-whisper of an innocent girl that I used to know. A girl unbittered by the atrocities of an idiot. Now so settled into the quiet, her voice makes me jump.

"Yeah?" Thickly. "What's the matter? Did your water break?"

Her eyes roll. "No. Come sit by me?" Her eyes look at her feet, pointing to where she wants me to sit. And I do it.

She slides down to the end of her bed and puts her hands on the sides of my face, looking at me, searching me, trying to find something that I probably don't have.

"What's the matter?" I ask again.

"Nothing's the matter." Her hands are soft and cold on my hot face. "But, well, I want to ask you something, Zaccy. I need a favor."

Sounds frightening to you too, doesn't it? "What?" I swallow so hard it hurts. Something tells me I should be afraid of what she's about to ask.

She only offers a cautious smile in consolation. "It's a big favor."

Impatient. "What is it, Beth?"

A sigh of frustration and still cautious face. "I've made it through every old, stupid wives' tales I know of to try and have this baby. I walked. Ate spicy foods. I even took Ben to the fair so I could ride the Ferris wheel because of that whole high-altitude thing." Amazing, she never takes Ben anywhere voluntarily. Desperate girl. "I've tried it all. Except for one thing that's supposed to work almost every time."

I try to think of what it might be during this pause. It's on the tip of my tongue. I know the answer.

"You ever see that episode of 'Friends'?" She asks, pulling my attention back towards her.

"Um," laugh, "I've seen a lot of episodes of 'Friends'? Isaac now owns a couple seasons on DVD. Great middle-of-the-night entertainment." Smile proudly. "Joey's my hero!"

She laughs. "Figures. Did you see the one just before Rachel had Emma?"

That was a funny episode. "Yeah. She's tired of being pregnant. She walks, eats spicy food, but it doesn't work. So she eventually convinces Ross to have se-ex…with-her? What are you trying to ask me, Beth?" My body feels like a foot falling asleep with hot pin-pricks everywhere. And there are no words in my mouth and none in my head. Just a picture of that Friends episode.

Beth looks terrified. I think I can hear the thunder of her heart, rattling out of control. "I know it sounds crazy." Yeah, just a little. "But please?" A sad, despairing, desperate whisper. "I'm miserable and doctor Martinez said it would work." Her hands pass over my face again and again, a silent plea for me to follow through. "Please do this for me? Please."

Beth, by definition, is not a virgin. But she is in the sense that she's never had sex with anyone else. She has always said that she wanted to wait. That's right--I've been with four women, but not one of them was Beth. Delancy, a one-night-stand named Sarah, Elise (a girl I dated briefly after Beth), and Abby. My male hormones are all for this. And if I were disconnect from myself, I would assume that Beth and I should be together and all that other over-romanticized movie-ish bullshit. Me Dios, can I do this?

"I don't know Beth." Pull her hands down from my face. "I don't know if I can do that with you."

"You slept with Abby." Scathing like hot oil. Geez. Preverbal slap in the face.

"Fucking hell, Beth." That really hurt.

Her eyes are flashing over with anger and reflections of the fire behind me. She's not sorry she said it. Because she knew it would hurt. She knew it would get to me.

Shrugs her shoulders. "You slept with Abby in a stupor." Takes my hands. "You know me. You love me. And you will do this for me because you love me."

And she's right.

You'd have done it too. No man could have seen her face and told her no. Even if Beth weren't my best friend she would have easily been able to charm her way into what she wanted.

It's been five hours now. Her water broke nearly fifteen minutes after. But she didn't want to leave immediately for the hospital, having seen too many episodes of Maternity Ward, knowing it would be hours before she had the baby. Instead, she left the room to take a shower, asking me to re-light the fire. When she returned she smelled soft, and sweet, and familiar of flowers.

There came a strong feeling into my stomach. There is something to be said for sleeping with your best friend. A girl you've loved for what seems like all of your time on earth. It is a tremendous thing, unsurpassed by any affair one can have prior to the experience. There are no words I can give to this other than I think I may love her more now than ever. That said, we still wouldn't work together.

For the hours that passed between then and now, I lay in her bed, pulled close to her, with my arm around her belly. She slept off and on as the contractions began to come. Around six this morning, they started coming around twenty minutes apart.

The house was still quiet, save for the movements of the wind, when she turned to me. "I think we should go now." Smiling at me.

"I'll go get your mom." She grabbed my arm as I moved to leave her room.

"No. She'll just make this a noisy mess." She sat up, swinging her legs over the side of her bed. "Let's just go, you and me. Once I've checked in, then we'll call her." I moved my head to protest. She put her hand on my mouth. "Please don't fight me. This is the final battle of my war; don't complicate it more, Zac."

"Fine." Huffy. I got out of her bed and picked up her bag as she went to brush her teeth and get dressed.

Quietly, we slipped from the house in my car, unnoticed and undeterred. Icy rain sloshed all over the windshield as I drove in the silence of reflection. Definitely a nicer silence than those that happen between Taylor and I. Beth dozed most of the way.

We arrived without commotion into the emergency room over an hour ago. Beth was signed in, her doctor called, and moved into the room. All the baby machines were connected and an IV of something. She can now only have ice chips until after the baby is born.

"Should have had a cigarette on our way over here." She laughs now that the nurse has finally left the room.

Flop into a wood rocker. "Your Aunt Sarah's going to be overjoyed to have a baby suffering from nic-fits."

She rolls her eyes. "I never smoked enough. Only once or twice a day. Damn I'll be happy when you can't give me shit about that anymore."

"I'll still give you shit." She flips the television on. "Only from now on it'll be shit about lung cancer and emphysema."

She grunts. "You don't do that to Taylor. And he's been smoking a lot longer than I have."

"Yeah well…." Shit. I have no argument for that.

"Oh, speechless are we?" She laughs. "Maybe we should call my parents now?"

"What's this 'we' you speak of?" No way. Not me. I'm not calling.

"I can't very well get out of the bed to go call her now can I?" Looking at me with that moron eye again.

Shake my head. "No, Beth. There's a phone right beside your bed. I'm not calling your mom. This was your idea, Elizabeth Corine."

"Chicken shit." She pouts with an underlying smile.

"Look who's talking." Nod towards the phone. "You better call her. She has to call your Aunt Sarah."

"Zac?" Five-year-old whiny.

"Make sure she brings a clip for your hair." Shaking my head. "I'm not listening to you bitch about your hair while you're pushing."

It's been hours now. Six hours. Beth has reached five centimeters and she's asleep again. I've drifted in a out, being brought suddenly back to consciousness each time a nurse walks in to check on Beth.

Her Aunt Sarah should be here in a few hours. My mom is in the waiting room with Beth's mom working on a scrapbook they've been working on for sometime now; it's for Sarah. They could of course work on this in the room with us, but Beth has become very whiny, cranky and bitch and will only tolerate the presence of others for short periods of time. Except me. If I flinch, she knows it and wants to know where I'm going. If Nick were here we could at least take turns playing "let's test Beth's motion sensors". He, however, is still stuck at work.

This is going to be a long damn day.

6:18. The sun has long since gone down. She's made it to seven centimeters. Everyone's here now and Beth accepts visitors in bunches of three at a time for no more than ten minutes at a time. They're all ready to be out by then anyway. She's really bitchy. C'mon three centimeters.

8:32. Almost eight centimeters, but not quite. I'm hungry. Nick's turn to entertain Beth.

10:24. Just over nine centimeters. Beth is starving and eating ice chips faster than we can bring them to her. Her contractions are even more painful now and so she's crying and no one other than Nick and Mrs. Linda brave entering the room.

11:44. Almost there the nurse just announced. She should be ready to push soon. Beth is now awake more than she is asleep and watching The Wizard of Oz, which Nick brought for her. I feel her eyes on me now as I'm slipping off to sleep.

"What's the matter?" Mumble, feeling sleep close in around me.

Looks away, towards the window. "Nothing."

"I'm half awake Beth." Yawn. "I can't decode. What's the matter?"

"It's just…." Chews her lip and rubs her belly. "It's just that this seems so surreal. Like the person I used to be, old, sweet, happy Beth is watching from out that window waiting for this to be over. So I can go back to normal."

"You'll never 'go back to normal'." Which was said before I could stop myself. Her face is blank and white with realization. "I'm sorry, Beth. I--"

"--You're right." A tear. A second. Third. "I won't ever be normal again."

"Beth, look." Dammit. What'd I have to say that for? "You're not going to be the same. You can't. But don't do this now. Don't start falling backwards now. You have Juilliard now. Don't go running back into that shell you crammed yourself in after it happened--because it means he wins." Now the dam has broken and she's an over flowing river. "You're still Beth. You're freaking out because it's almost over and the last physical wound is about to heal. Unfortunately, this final wound is half yours. Do not back out on life again Beth." Ah. I remember a quote. "You saw Lord of the Rings, right? The first one?" Everybody's seen Lord of the Rings.

"See it?" She snorts in amongst her tears. "I've read it three times."

My eyes roll. "Fine, then you should remember the part where they're lost in Moria? Frodo says he wishes the ring had never come to him?" Nods again. "Gandalf says to him something like, 'so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you'. You should take that to heart Beth."

A faint smile in her red, tired face. "You are my greatest friend, Zachary Hanson. I love you."

Smile back. "I love you too, Beth Andrews."

We listen to the sounds of the baby monitor thumping out a drumbeat of heart-sounds and sit in the still quietness. The door cracks open with a slight knock.

"Hello, Beth." It's the little Asian nurse, Amy. "You should be close to ready now. How are you feeling?"

"Tired and hungry." Beth seems a little less grumbly now. "But fine, I guess."

"You've reached ten centimeters!" The nurse announces very happily. Beth was checking as Nurse Amy was just leaving her shift. She was surprised to find Beth still here and still in labor when she returned. "I'll go call Doctor Martinez. You should be able to start pushing soon."

My body shoves itself out of the chair in an excited jump. "I'm going to go tell your mom!"

The only people in the waiting room now are Beth's parents (her brother is staying with a friend), her aunt, and Nick. They all go to tell her good luck as I run down the hall to call my mom, who is still awake with a sniffly Zoë.

When I get back to the room, Beth has cleared everyone out. It's now just the two of us, the doctor and a few nurses. The doctor looks tired and ready to be done for the day.

"Hello again." Doctor Martinez smiles. "So you're the lucky guy that gets to be here." I nod. "Alright. Now this is what I want you to do." She pulled Beth's leg up, baring all her girlyness to the world. And Beth's face goes terribly red. "Okay, I want you to hold her foot in your hand, making sure you keep it pulled up, got it?" A reluctant smile and forced swallow and a nod. "Alright, Beth, remember what we talked about, push down and make sure you breathe. Ready?"

Beth nods and it begins. The beginning of the end. A cliché, but it's the only way to put it. Even if things aren't exactly normal again, they'll return to something similar. We go out on weekends. Make routine trips to OKC and Tulsa. Watch Beth dance--a lot. Once she is out of this hospital we are free kids again.

Beth continues pushing at this kid for almost a half an hour, at which point she begins to cry. "I can't do this anymore." Her face is red as a candied apple and covered in sweat and tears. Her eyes are exhausted. I wouldn't want to do it anymore either.

"C'mon, Beth." Martinez coaxes. "I know you're tired and I know this is hard, but you can do it. C'mon girl, keep trying. It shouldn't be much longer."

Fifteen minutes later, Beth lets out a horror-movie scream. I dropped her leg in surprise. "GOD THIS FUCKING HURTS!" Possibly a higher pitch than her scream. Her hand is clamped around mine so tightly, it's white. Oh, maybe turning purple. Fun.

"Damn Eve and that apple." I find great amusement in the statement. Beth doesn't. Look, my hand is turning blue…black. "OW!" She lets go.

"Not. Funny. ARRRRGGGGHHHHHH!" Tears come and mingle with the sweat on her face.

"I can see the head!" The doctor announces, sounding like she's discovered the lost city of Atlantis. "Keep pushing Beth, it shouldn't be much longer!"

With a tired, sad sigh Beth begins pushing again. She pushes and she pushes and she pushes some more. After another ten second round of pushing, Beth sucks in a large amount of air. Imagine the shock when she screams again instead of pushing. "THIS HURTS! Why won't you listen to me?! THIS FUCKING HURTS!"

Doctor Martinez gives her a perplexed look; then she starts pressing on Beth's stomach. "Owww." Beth cries. I understand now all the things I've ever heard about a mother having to see her child in pain. I'd take Beth's place now if I could.

"Beth, I think the baby is stuck." Martinez's fingers are still pressing in on Beth's stomach.

"WHAT?" Roar from Beth. The nurses flinch.

"Calm down Beth." Doctor looks Beth in the eye. "You're going to send your blood pressure through the roof. Then we'll really have problems. I know you're in pain--I have two kids of my own. But you have really got to calm down. Comprede, amiga?"

Beth takes a large breath. "Okay." She is scared. Extremely scared.

"You watch that show on TLC so I'm sure you know what a vacuum is." Beth's eyes get bigger. "Yeah, I know. But if we're going to get the baby out that's our best option. It's too late for a c-section, bien?"

"Sí, señora." Beth sniffles. Her face is scorching as I push pieces of hair away and try to push off some of the tears. I might cry as well.

"You're going to be fine." Whisper in her ear. Push her hair back. Her tears continue to come in droves and I am helpless. There's nothing I can do but stupidly stand here and push her hair out of her face and just hope she'll get out of this all right. Nick should be here. He'd know what to say.

When the door opens, a nurse is followed by a wheeled contraption I assume to be the vacuum. Martinez assembles it and sits on a rolling chair in front of Beth.

"This is going be uncomfortable." A regretful look.

"Can't get much worse." Beth mumbles in return.

"Ready?"

"I guess." She looks back at me. Put her foot in my hand and wait.

In about five minutes, maybe more, a little head covered in black hair emerges with the vacuum still on its head.

Smile at Beth. "The head's out, Beth. You're almost done."

As the rest of the baby's body is pulled out, Beth emits another glass-shattering scream, which is answered by the doctor's announcement, "It's a boy! You have a boy, Beth." Beth could only cry some more.

The nurses took the baby to the cleaning table. I follow them over to get a look at him. Ten fingers, ten toes. Two eyes and a nose. Black curly hair and tiny ears. Wailing like every newborn baby on television ever has. Beautiful.

"I'm going to go get your mom." Put a kiss on her forehead. "You did good, Beth. I'll be right back."

Run dead on for the waiting room. "It's a boy!" Shouting stupidly, like the kid's mine or something.

"How's Beth?" Nick cuts everyone off.

"She's good." Am I glowing? "She's very tired and smelly." Only Nick and I find this amusing.

"What about the baby?" Aunt Sarah.

"He's perfect."

"How much did he weigh?" Mrs. Linda. "How long was he?"

"Oh. I, uh, I was too busy counting fingers, toes and eyes?" I am a moron.

Aunt Sarah stands excitedly up from her chair. "Let's go see her."

Mrs. Linda lets off a cynical laugh. "Queen Elizabeth? Let us see her without prior permission? I doubt it."

Sarah looks at Beth's mom. "Linda, don't be stupid. She just had a baby. I'm sure she wants to see you. Let's go!"

Nick leads the way into the hall. However, we were met with a sight we were not expecting at all. Doctor Martinez is about a foot away from the waiting room door looking too somber to be telling us anything good. And ten feet behind her Beth's bed--with Beth still in it--is being wheeled quickly from the room.

"What's going on, Mirasol?" Mrs. Linda's known Doctor Martinez for years. "Where are you taking Elizabeth?"

"Go back into the waiting room, Linda." Martinez is first to move towards the room.

Nick and I instinctively begin to take off in Beth's direction only to find her disappearing behind elevator doors when we turn the corner in the hall.

"What happened?" Nick charges like it's my fault.

"I don't fucking know." Defensive. "She was fine when I left the room."

"Maybe you shouldn't have left her?" Was that venom?

I look at him, non-verbally questioning his accusation that this is in someway my fault.

"I'm sorry." He shudders. "I just freaked out." Hesitates. "Let's go find out what the doctor has to say."

"Where'd you two go?" Martinez demands when Nick and I return to the room.

"We wanted to see her." Nick cowers.

"She's in the OR." Martinez motions for us to sit and takes note of our scared looks. "I have to make this quick. Beth began bleeding shortly after the baby was born. Some blood after birth is normal, but Beth was bleeding too much. I think the baby may have torn a hole in her cervix under the strain of her pushing. Then when we were pulling the baby out with the vacuum, it might have made the hole bigger." She pauses here, presumably to allow us a moment to let the thought get into our skin. Begin to haunt our imagination. "If I'm right, she should not be in the OR very long and should be fine as long as she doesn't lose anymore blood. If the blood is coming from somewhere else, then it will take longer. I will try to have a nurse keep you updated." She patted Mrs. Linda's hand. "I'm going to take care of her Linda. I helped bring her into this world…the baby is in the nursery as Baby Boy Andrews. Go see him."

Martinez left the room. Leaving us in a shockwave of fear and uncertainty. And somewhere, three floors above lies a beloved brown-haired, hazel-eyed girl, afraid and alone. Out of my reach. Out of Nick's reach. But mostly out of her mother's reach and not one of us can save her. All because nine months ago some asshole thought she was a toy.

Chapter Text

We have paced this floor in a touchless dance of worry, and, for my part, rage. Rage and fury knowing that she could be dying. Alone. Circle after circle, driving everyone else out of the room as our pacing only intensifies their worries.

"I want something to drink." Nick, like he is speaking to himself. Stops mid-circle. "I'm going downstairs for a pop." This biological need is the only thing bringing him around to the realm of the living. He trudges, a stoic warrior, out of the room without waiting for me to respond. I'm thirsty too.

Down to the first floor. Quiet, but not completely still. Move towards the cafeteria where Nick stands in front of the machines, gawking at them as though he had never seen one before. I don't know whether to allow him this moment of disconnectedness or snap him back out of his head. Just as I decide for the snap, he reaches for money in his pocket. An epiphany look comes across his face as he jingles change. Yep. He's gone mad. Completely insane.

"What's wrong?" Nothing else to say.

He pulls his hand up from his pocket, therein lying about a dollar's worth of change and eight yellow pills. Looks up at me with the same epiphany-face.

Shocked. Speechless. Waiting.

"They're Tara's." His drug-addled stepsister. His voice is still shocked, like he's wondering why this solution hadn't come to him before.

"--You're buying her drugs now?" Incriminating. Hushed.

Slack-faced, with innocence. "She's grounded. She can't get them on her own right now. She can barely afford them."

Tara is sixteen and the oldest of Nick's two stepsisters. She is a lot like Delancy, only Tara has a heart. Able to break and to mourn and to cry. She is quieter too. Her mother is overly critical and Nick suspects that her father is an incestuous pedophile. Unlike Delancy, and despite her criticisms, Tara's mother does care about her. She worries for her daughter's drug use and affinity for delinquency. She tries her best to discipline, but Tara is pretty unaffected by groundings and the removal of privileges. She seems to just wait them out, quietly, in her room with her drugs. Now Nick has taken to supporting her problems.

My face takes on an unintentional look of disapproval.

"Don't." He pushes quarters into the machine. "Like you and your brothers have never done anything for each other. Maybe it wasn't drugs or whatever, but you've helped them. You'd be in line behind me buying the shit for Jessie if your choices were that or wiping the puke off her face or whatever." Pushes in the last quarter. "What do you want to drink?"

Off-guard. "Dr. Pepper?"

He cracks open the bottle with a loud, fizzy hiss and swallows one of the pills. Hands me the bottle, following with an open offering hand. "Valium?"

Answer him with a look of horror.

"You did ecstasy with Delancy and you're worried about a little bit of Valium?" Still waiting for me to take the pill. "If we stay awake all night we'll just get more and more pissed off and want to hit stuff. So take it."

Warily, I pull the stupid pill from his hand and swallow it with Nick glaring at me like a brooding parent.

"Now what?" The pill is just barely down my throat. I am two steps ahead on our way back to the elevators.

"Go back to the waiting room."

"And…"

"And what? It's a waiting room, dumb ass. We wait."

*     *     *

Whap. Fucking hell that hurt.

"What the hell?" The ability to speak precedes all my other senses. A blurry, reddish outline hovers in front of me. A woman, it seems, with her hands on her hips.

"Get up!" A hiss in my mother's timbre. "I've been yelling at you for ten minutes, Zachary. I was beginning to think I needed to get the doctor."

My head lolls as I sit up. Room comes slightly into focus as I grunt and stretch.

"Did you take another one of Taylor's sleeping pills." Eyes are furrowed into mine. Her tiny voice infuriated, impatient, incriminating.

Across from me is Nick with a strung-out face that must look like mine. Our eyes meet, exchanging looks of regret.

"Yeah mom." Deep, sleepy yawn and a lie to cover my consumption of an illegally obtained benzodiazapine. "I took some when we were in California."

An extremely reproachful look. My pseudo-truthfulness has taken her by surprise. But she won't lecture me here. Unlike my father, who would relish in the opportunity to make an example out of me.

"Beth has been asking for you and Nick for an hour now." Still sounding impatient.

"She's okay?" My heart jumps. I sit completely upright. "What happened?"

"A hole in her cervix, like the doctor said." She sits beside me. She is tired, sounding matter-of-factly. "You need to go see her."

All of my muscles give a tug as I pull myself upright in a stiffness of sleeping too many hours across waiting room chairs. Great idea, Nick.

Nick jumps up abruptly and begins stretching like he's about to run the hundred yard dash.

We round the corner into the hall looking at each other with very bloodshot, tired eyes. Nick gives a peal of laughter. "We are serious pussies. Tara takes them two at a time."

Beth looks pleased, relieved even, to see that we were behind the opening door. A look like it's been years since she last saw us. She smiles, but it fades.

The light of a cold December morning filters through the blinds of the sterile hospital window, sending a glow over the back of Beth's head, her hair now braided with blue ribbons. Must have been her mother's idea. Picture perfect little girl, always. Beth looks tired and disgruntled leaned against her upright hospital bed. She's still wearing her hospital gown and still sporting the IV with a pile of fleece blankets over her legs.

Aunt Sarah is in the rocking chair I had occupied the night before, cooing to a blue cotton Winnie the Pooh blanket, completely ambivalent to our entrance. Mrs. Linda, also ambivalent to us, is sitting in another chair that was apparently drug in for her, filling out announcement cards. I can't see what she's named him, but it's really long.

Sarah sees us finally, with a new-mom grin. "Hi!"

"Morning." Me.

"Hi." Nick.

"Good morning, boys." Mrs. Linda with a weak smile.

"Morning Mrs. Linda." Nick and I return a second off from each other, sounding like an echo. With a tired, but respectful sound.

Mrs. Linda pushes the roll-away table from her slowly, as to not send the cards flying everywhere. "Sarah, I think we should go get something to eat. I'm starving." She's tired and probably lying. But it is a gracious lie. One of generosity. That takes into consideration her daughter, who seems to be translucent and fading out of existence. Sarah recognizes this and nods, leaving her chair to take the baby to Beth. Beth recoils, drawing away from Sarah as though her aunt were a snake.

"Give him to Nick." Beth sounds almost disgusted and continues to draw away. Nick just looks shocked to hear his name.

"Beth…." Mrs. Linda coaxes.

"Mom…." Beth's eyes cut across the room in an angry glare. Flails her hand in Nick's direction. "Just…give him the baby."

Mrs. Linda leaves the room, a huff in her wake and Sarah looking confused. She gives the baby carefully to Nick and reluctantly leaves the room.

Nick takes the rocking chair and I take the under-cushioned chair Linda had just been in.

"What's biting your mom?" I had to break the silence.

Beth's head turns sharply in my direction as though my just speaking had been of great insult. "She's tired." Her voice just sounds dead, though. "Sarah got a call this morning. Her husband's been hired for a job." I think he works construction. "Her flight leaves tomorrow afternoon."

"I thought she was staying for, like, a week?" Drum my fingers on the arms of the chair.

She tugs as the ribbons in her hair. "She was. But his new job is out of state or some shit. Sarah wants him to see the baby before he leaves."

"Oh." No idea what to say now so I let the quiet come in under the crack of the door and encompass us.

Nick is rocking the chair staring at the baby with wild fascination. The baby is staring back, blinking at a stranger's face with a familiar voice. Beth looks on them apathetically. Almost disgusted. As though she wished Sarah would just leave, take the baby with her, and never come back. And I'm sure she does wish that.

Nick looks up. "What'd she name him?"

"She didn't." Beth finally yanks loose the braid on the left side of her head. "She asked me to do it."

"Oh." Nick nods. And after waiting for a minute for an answer that doesn't come, he asks: "So…what'd you name him?"

"I named him after me."

A snort of laughter leaves me unexpectedly. "You named him Elizabeth?"

"No, idiot." God she's bitchy today. "I named him Andrew--my last name without the 's'."

"Yeah, I got that." Snapped back. "Middle name, cranky ass?"

"That is his middle name." Her gaze goes back out the window. "Sort of. And I named him after you two morons. Because. Just, just because." She pauses and looks at the gaping stares from two stunned boys being sent out to her. "Zachary Andrew Nicholas. That's his name. Sarah calls him Andy." She goes quiet again as though she were almost refusing to speak.

The quiet again. It lasts for a long time. It doesn't really seem to affect Nick as he is intensely enthralled by the baby who now carries his name. But it is here between Beth and I, passing glances at each other. Ambivalent, eye-passes, watching each other's agitation level drop. Trying to come back around to civil. It reaches bearable as Mrs. Linda and Sarah return from their lunch outing. Nick is now half-asleep, rocking the baby quietly. Their return is met with an unhappy face from Beth.

"Nick." Her voice, quiet for so long, comes out gargled.

Nick doesn't move.

Clears her throat. "Nick!"

"Huh?" Nick jerks awake. "What?"

"Go ask the nurse if I can go outside for a few minutes." She looks defiantly at her mother.

"Beth, it is freezing outside." Sarah, innocent to the ways of Beth and her mother, speaks with concern.

"Give the baby to Sarah, please, Nick, and go?" Beth yanks out her other pigtail, pulling out the ribbon and pulls all of her hair back into one unruly ponytail. "Zac, get my jacket, please?"

Nick pokes his head out the door and asks someone, I guess her nurse, if Beth can go outside for a few minutes. "She's bringing you a wheelchair and an extra blanket." He looks at Mrs. Linda and quickly looks away. The way you do when you've just defied your mother and, though you know you're going to get away with it, you feel bad anyway.

"Elizabeth," her mother's uneven tone is sad and telling that she is exhausted of fighting. "It is the middle of December. How about you just go into the lobby or something? Or down to the cafeteria and get something to eat with the boys."

"I want to go outside." Beth swings her pale, thin, dancer's legs over the side of her bed. "And smoke. The nurse apparently thinks it's okay, so I'm going."

In came the nurse and a few unceremonious minutes later, we were out in a sitting area that is probably very nice in the spring, but in the cold and damp of the winter is just dead and bare. Beth is on cigarette number two and we haven't said anything to each other, swapping speech for people-watching. There's a couple, with a ring of family, leaving the hospital with a new baby girl. Pink blankets and roses and diaper bags and a car seat. They're too far away for us to hear exactly what they're saying, but we don't need to hear it. They are all smiles and joyfulness and bellyache for Beth to watch. Nick and I don't move or say anything. The three of us just sit in uniform attentiveness to this happy family with the perfect baby girl and the store bought attachments. Beth exhales a long cloud of white, fogging the family from her view, cutting them out so she doesn't have to recognize their existence any longer.

"Are you hungry, Beth?" Nick shivers, pulling his knit scull-cap tighter around his ears.

She answers in an ambivalent shrug. Nick looks at me at a loss for what to do.

"C'mon, cafeteria food sucks, but it beats going back to the room for right now?" She doesn't even answer me. I shrug back at Nick. So we sit there for some time continuing to watch the passing cars and passing people.

Some long time passes as we sit on the freezing benches, wishing for warm blankets and a fire. Wishing for the happy winter we knew last year. Last Christmas, after all the mandatory parties and family gatherings had passed, we went to New Orleans with my brothers. We spent New Year's on Bourbon Street and between the three of us, we can connect some very funny events that might be the whole puzzle of what we did that night, but we'll never actually know. We ate too much food and did a lot of walking. We had so much fun. Like kids are supposed to. If this is growing up, it's overrated.

Mrs. Linda walks outside in a long suede coat carrying a white hospital blanket, scanning the sitting area for us. Without speaking, she wraps the blanket around Beth's shoulders and kisses her forehead.

"Boys?" She smiles at us, nodding her head in suggestion for us to step aside of Beth and have a chat with her. We follow for about fifteen feet away from Beth, who is watching us. "You two are family to us; I think you know that?" We nod. "But I want Elizabeth to spend time with family-family. Sarah's leaving in the morning and we need time together. Just a couple hours, okay? It'd be great if you could come back and watch a movie or something with her later on. But now needs to be family time. Okay?"

"Okay." Me.

"Yeah." Nick.

"Thanks." She rubs Nick's shoulder in assurance and goes back to Beth, pushing her wheelchair towards us.

"Any movie requests?" Pulling my own skull-cap down.

"Dogma?" It was probably the first thing she thought of. I know that movies would be the last thing I was concerned about if I were in her place.

We watched her wheeled away, both of us knowing that she'd rather just leave with us than have to suffer hours of pseudo-happy playtime with her family.

"Are you hungry?" Nick's breath moves out in a fog. "Because I am. And I want some egg-drop soup."

So we leave in search of Nick's soup, arriving half-an-hour later at a nondescript Chinese restaurant near the center of town. We are seated and eat quietly beside a large window in a back booth. The restaurant is decorated for Christmas, which I find ironic as most Chinese tend to be Buddhists. But if you look hard enough, I guess Santa could pass as Buddha in a badly designed red suit. Fake snow has even been sprayed into the window corners and in the front is a fake tree with fake flocking and tacky plastic ornaments and fake presents. Fake, fake, fakitude. Merry Fucking Christmas to you too, Buddha.

Nick is the only one of the two of us who is actually hungry, and still he is only picking at his food, every so often picking up that strangely shaped spoon to slurp in a mouthful of soup. We watch the window like a television. The cold in Oklahoma can been seen in everything. The steam leaving the mouths of people and their putting tailpipes. Stiff, dead (or dying) tress, holding to dry frozen ground like centuries-old monoliths, forever holding the secrets of the years that have passed since their days as saplings. Scarves and hats and gloves to curb the cold that still comes in under the cracks, turning all the fluids in your body to ice. Silence and bitterness come in from the fat gray, dappled clouds that won't tell if they are hiding snow or rain. But either one is imminent and about to ruin your day. The cold is in the dead leaves puppies carry around in their mouths as they search for sticks buried beneath the unraked yard. Even blinking Christmas lights seem to show that the cold has moved into these flatlands. Like a welcome sign. The cold is everywhere.

The sun is beginning to creep down, turning the horizon into a sprawling rainbow, the blue fading into the night coming in behind it from the east and the last of the red light of day retreating to the sun in the west. We watch the sky move, bringing with it clouds that begin to sprinkle snow, until it is dark.

"Let's go get Beth's movie." He suggests once the last of his soup is finally drained from his bowl.

It's quiet outside her room when we return. She is snoring lightly in the empty, hot room. Her family has left.

"Should we wake her up?" I ask, holding the movie in my hand.

Nick thinks about it for a minute. "No. Leave the movie. I need to get home anyway. Tara's probably freaking out by now."

Nod. We leave the movie on the rolling table and leave as quietly as we had entered, parting ways to go home. I haven't seen much of my family since we returned from California. I haven't slept in my own bed in four days.

My drive home is long and slick. A desire to let the top down and fill the car with the increasing snow comes over me, but I let it pass knowing it's just an over romanticized idea. Besides, it would take hours for the car to fill with snow. The thought of it, though. Feeling the ice land on my face, onto my eyelashes, like minute summer snow-cones resting on my face and tipping my hair. Filling in the emptiness all around me.

Taylor's car is in the driveway. Most of the windows are lit and I know just from years of experience that my house is alive, especially so in my absence, and will remain so for several more hours when the last of the glasses of water have been had. When mom has given some sort of love, whether by hug, kiss, or word, to each of us. The fires have been extinguished and the lights on the tree turned off. Jessica's radio has been forcibly turned down and Avery's soccer ball left in the back yard. Mackenzie's favorite video game shut off and Zoë's dolls placed in their box to sleep. Isaac, Taylor and I used to add to the bedtime frenzy, but we are grown-ups now.

"The way-ward son saunters home," an unwelcomed nasal voice rings out from the living room, "remembering that he has a family of his own."

"Satan give you a day pass, Natalie?" Her nose flairs as she smirks. She is on the floor with my nephew and youngest sister watching the latest from Disney. I've said worse to her in the past. Much worse. She refocuses her attention on the kids and the television, making me the argument winner and leaving me free to see what else is happening in the house. Kitchen's always good place to start. Always something happening in there.

My other two sisters are in the kitchen brewing up something that smells sweet.

Avery greets me with a happy, excited smile. "Hey, Zac! Want some raspberry tea?" She rushes over to hug me. "We've got that lemon stuff too that Mom likes."

"Any hot chocolate?" Unexpected enthusiasm. It comes when you have younger siblings

Jessica, who seems quietly happy to see that I'm home, nods. She pulls the pot away from the stove, looking at me now with a disheartened face.

"You seemed happy to see me a second ago." Pull cups down from the cabinet. "What could have changed in three nanoseconds?"

"It's just…good to see that you remember us." She smiles sweetly.

Avery, always able to sense confrontation, and possessing the foresight to run far, far away when Jessica has started an argument, leaves via the dining room door.

"What is it Jess?" I unwrap the tea bags Avery has left on the counter, placing them into cups waiting for hot water. And wait for Jessica's tirade to begin, which takes an agonizing fifteen seconds.

"Why won't you let her go?" Steam bubbles up to her face, her face looking right through it to me.

"What are you talking about?" Knowing damn good and damn well what she is talking about. "Do you want some toast?"

"No." Curt. Jesus, she is just like Taylor. "Beth, Zac. You still puppy after her like she can't have a life without you--or that you can't have a life without her."

My toast pops up and I go to the fridge for jelly. "I'm not arguing with you about this again, Jessie. I want to eat my toast in peace. Play a video game with Mack or something and go to bed."

The spoon in her hand clinks annoyingly around the side of the mug as she stirs in cocoa powder and slides it across the counter to me.

"Who said we're arguing?" Sips her tea in a countess fashion that makes me want to slap her. "All I'm saying is that you've been home nearly a week and none of us have seen you since you got off the plane. She talked you more while you were gone than we did. And she wanted time with you as soon as you got home. And she said she needed you. So you scramble off and cow-tow to her like you have for years now, not taking anyone else into consideration."

"You and Taylor are just alike, you know that?" Cram the last of my toast into my mouth, swallow some hot chocolate, getting increasingly pissed off. "Why do you pull this shit on Jessie?" Trying to keep an even tone.

"Because I love you." She has nothing to try against. She plainly feels calmly rectified in making this argument. "She's just as bad for you as that Delancy girl. She's just got a better outside. I know she's your friend and you love her, but it's not as platonic as you're trying to convince yourself it is--"

"--Shut up, Jessie!" Heave my half-empty cup aimlessly and it shatters as it hits the dining room door. A shocked "oh!" from the other side says Avery was eavesdropping.

Taken aback, it takes her a moment to respond. "You idiot." Her face is flushing red. "You know she's never going to lov--"

"I SAID SHUT! UP! JESSICA!" Rage is now in me, at the core of me, commanding my movements as one commands a remote control car and I lift Avery's full tea cup into the air and throw it, smashing it into the same place as the other cup. Ready to tear things to pieces, I move for the door, but it opens after my first step. It's Taylor.

"GET OUT!" Jessie screams in unison with me. Now this is a true to tradition Jessica and Zac fight.

She steps in front of the door and rounds in on me again. "Zac she's--" She stops, apparently preventing herself from saying something. "--You're waiting for something that is never going to happen.

"I'm not waiting for anything Jess." My body gives an unwanted shiver of anger.

"Yes you are." Her red face looks on me with shock, telling me that this is something she thinks I should have seen about myself but haven't. "You're waiting for her to fall in love with you. She doesn't love you, Zac. Not that way. And you're blind--"

"--Fuck you, Jessica!" I want to shove her to the floor. I want to kick her. I want to scream in her face and knock her teeth out. But that would make me my father. "Fuck you and the supposedly perceptive horse you rode in on. Now get the hell out of my way."

"Running away again?" She steps aside.

"Damn you." I say to her over my shoulder. "Damn you right to hell."

Taylor's on the other side of the kitchen door as I burst through it, coddling my younger siblings up the stairs.

"No, Mackenzie, don't get dad." He gives me a pissed look. "Go play a video game."

The kids are taking their time moving up the stairs looking at me with frightened cherub faces waiting to see what I may say--or worse--do to them. Like I would throw cups at them too.

Taylor is huffing, staring at the kids with a parent's gaze, waiting for them to be out of sight before he begins speaking. And it takes him three attempts to begin speaking, but this is because of anger.

"Youhaveanappointmentinthemorning." One word, one breath, really angry. He won't even look at me. He's still staring at the stairs in pretend worry that one of the kids will come back down. "It's at eleven. Your file from Doctor Fiara is in your big suitcase."

"I'm not going." Now that, got his attention.

"Excuse me?" He crosses his arms. His skinny, girl's arms. "Going isn't an option."

"--Taylor?" A voice booms from the top of the stairs. It's him.

"Yeah dad?" He pretends to be having a polite conversation and that he's not about to lash me.

Dad takes a step down. Another and another. And Taylor takes two steps up.

"Is something wrong?" He takes another step down.

Taylor's head shakes no. "We're just talking about some things that we need to do tomorrow, that's all." Taylor's rationality doesn't seem to be curbing him and he begins to say something, but Taylor jumps in. "You know what? Zoë's probably about ready for her second glass of water. I was supposed to bring it to her and Mom's in Mack's room trying to fix his Game-boy." Dad only seems to buy this a little. "Really, there's nothing going on down here. Just Zac and I talking about tomorrow, right Zac?"

"Right." Hot air shoots from my nostrils.

Silently, reluctantly he moves back up the stairs. Taylor remains on his stair, looking down on me like one would imagine God looking down on them when they've sinned terribly. "Did you forget about the hospital, Zac?" His voice is hushed now and less angry, having nearly escaped a much worse confrontation. "Isaac and I covered for you again to get you out of there and back home so that you wouldn't have to deal with anything worse." A look up the stairs, implying my father. "And they let you out on the condition--"

"--That I continue therapy." So bored. If he thinks I've forgotten, he's wrong. I just don't care. "And if said therapy is not continued--"

"They take you back." He takes a look around. Looking for ears. Any ears. They're all capable of reporting us to the Parental Gestapo. "Then it's your bag to explain to mom…and dad."

"They're releasing Beth--"

Anger welled, he shouts. "--Fuck Beth, Zac!" Did that. Next suggestion? "Let Nick handle it. Better yet, let her family handle it. You can't treat this with the same lax, I'll-get-around-to-it attitude you treat everything else with."

“I’ll just reschedule.” What’s his problem? As long as I eventually go.

Above our heads a pair of feet scramble across the carpet. Mackenzie trying to escape bedtime.

Taylor glares at me intensely, a look that would suggest that he was about to deliver a big ol’ “fuck you”, but that’s not Taylor. He’d rather just look intimidating.

“Good night mom.” He bellows, making me jump off-guard. Surely he’s about to lecture me about responsibility. Taylor always lectures me about responsibility. Mom yells “good night” back to him. “See you in the morning.” When he’s finished, he looks at me. “We are on a plateau, you and I. One more step towards the edge and I cease to care if you fall off because it is your own feet that will have carried you over.” Shoves past me and slams the door as he leaves.

I feel paralyzed, standing in this hallway all alone. Metaphors are more painful than just-plain words. Because they are meant to establish a picture in you that will not leave. A still shot frame to be permanently emblazoned on you. A mark, for good or bad, that you are not supposed to forget. And I cannot forget this picture. Not only is my brother giving up on me, I can see it too.

A few empty minutes later, I shrug off the thoughts of apologizing to Jessie—because what the hell do I owe her an apology for?—and conceded to go to bed. The second floor is now still as Zoë, Mackenzie and Avery were all mandatorily in bed. The air up here is warm from the fire places in my parent’s room and from Isaac’s. Though the picture window at the top of the stairs, I see the snow giving off a preternatural glow, given to it by the full moon and the lit-up windows of the first floor. The trees are giant sugar cookies, dusted with powdered sugar. It releases a Christmastime feeling that stays harbored in me through out the year until it is unleashed by something seasonal enough to allow it passage. The feeling is smaller this year, but still there. And it gives me a smile all the same.

My parents are moving around in their room, talking, but I don’t stop to speak. My bedroom door has been closed since I left and inside my room is cooler than the hall, being only heated by the central heat and not being welcomed to join the fire-warmth the rest of the floor has enjoyed. The suitcases that came home with me from California are still sitting where I left them, unpacked. Sitting on my bed is comforting. Letting the chill of the room seep into my skin and down to my veins, meeting eventually with the marrow of my bones and the chill that hides there always.

From my closet, I pull down my heating blanket and plug it into the outlet behind my headboard. Go to my door and lock it and pull a tee shirt from my still-open closet. Yanking my now two-days-old shirt away from my body, I glance at my healing windows in the mirror. Several of them are now almost completely healed. Several more are only half healed. And I am too tired now to make anymore. So in place of making new, I ruin the old, scratching them harshly with dull fingernails. They drag slowly across my barren, bony chest and sunken stomach, satisfactorily ripping my flesh open. I feel like a savage, whose only lust is for blood and how much more can bring forth using only his hands. Dots of blood now make my chest look paint-splattered. My ribs are countable and protruding. Even my cheekbones are now beginning to become unhealthily prominent. I am becoming physically hollow. And I still don’t care.

Tap, tap. “Zac?” Mom.

Momentary panic. Lift a black tee shirt off the floor, not caring if it is clean or dirty, only that blood won’t show through the black. Still tugging the hem down, I open the door. “Hi Mom.”

Christmas often does well for Mom’s disposition. She seems to sing and glow constantly, like one of Tolkien’s elves. She is a constantly rolling vile of hope and happiness. Her azure eyes sparkle up towards me with a feeling of joy I haven’t seen in her face in a very long time.

“How’s Beth?” She follows me to my bed as I crawl under my hot blanket and sits beside my feet, massaging them.

“I guess she’s as good as she can be.” Eyes are beginning to flutter with sleepiness.

She looks me in the eyes. “That’s good to hear.” She stays quiet for a few minutes and I start slipping off to sleep. “Isaac found an apartment today.” Her happy sound wakes me up again. Well, that is she would appear happy if it weren’t for the sadness of another child leaving home. “It’s nothing special really. It’s in Tulsa. You would never know that someone famous lived in it. It’s plain, but you know your brother. He likes things simple.” Pushes the pad of her thumb into my arch. “Oh, and Jessica got an audition for the Tulsa School of Performing Arts.” Despite my sleepiness, my mother is about to continue ever onward with this family bulletin. Everyone gets these from their parents if they’ve been away long enough. And often you get the bulletin because your parents don’t know what else to say to you. “It will be strange to have one to the kids in a school. A proper school. I’m so used to being their teacher and directing their education.”

“Just think of it as Jessie dancing eight hours a day instead of going to school.” She smiles at my comment and pats my leg.

“I guess you’re right. Down to three.” This last bit she mutters to herself. “Mack and Avie have soccer all-stars tryouts next week. Avery’s coach says that if she doesn’t make it, he’ll eat his cleats, spikes and all.”

My eyes begin to stay closed longer than they stay open. Not that the familial update isn’t enthralling or anything.

“And Zoë—” But I don’t get to hear about Zoë because Dad has just come pounding into my room.

“Why are there two broken cups on the kitchen floor?” The inquisition begins.

Awake now, unfortunately. “It was an accident.”

“Two cups?” He says as though he’s greatly intrigued by this. “One cup maybe, but two? No. And there is tea splashed all over the wall?”

“I said it was an accident.” Sit up. If he wants a fight, let’s have it then.

“Avery said you and Jessica were fighting?” Arms snake up and cross his chest, two horrible reptiles making their way across an icy stone wall, hoping for a victim to feed their venom.

I remain still, hoping that he’ll just go away and Mom can continue to lull me to sleep with updates on my family. He is still looking at me, nostrils flaring waiting for me to explain myself. Finally, when he can tell that I’m not giving up any information, he turns to leave, but adds in a grunt, “good to see that you’ve remembered your real family.”

“What?” Stand up, taking a step closer to his back. “Like family matters to you?” Over my shoulder I hear Mom sigh, that same sad sigh that she had buried under all her Christmas cheer. “You were so eager to shove us out the door to make you another dollar and then you didn’t even have the balls to face us once we got back home!” By the end of this, I’m screaming.

He swivels around to hit me. It’s like that scene in Spiderman where Tobey McGuire is fighting with that Flash guy and he pulls away in enough time to see Flash’s fist move in slow-motion past his face. His fist flies over my head as I duck and back away.

“Walker!” A shrill shout from Mom, but that isn’t the voice that stops his advance. As he is closing in on me and about to deliver another right-hook, a little girl in the hall says, “Daddy?” It’s Zoë. A little girl horrified at the sight of her idolized father ready to strike down on his insolent son.

Mom bolts from my bed, lifting Zoë off the floor on contact, running her hand over the top of Zo’s head. “What are you doing out of bed, sweetheart?”

As mom comforts my frightened sister, Dad and I continue our stare down until we hear a bellow from mom.

“Walker! Go to bed!” Robotically, he turns and leaves, slamming my door behind him so hard that a rush of cold air washes over me.

“Dr. Snider’s office, how can I help you?” A bright female voice crackles in my cell phone. It is 10:20 in the morning.

“I’m sorry this is short notice,” take a right turn out of my drive way, “but I’ve had a family emergency and won’t be able to make my appointment.”

“And what is your name?”

“Zachary Hanson.”

“Would you like to reschedule for a later date?”

“I’ll have to get back to you.”

“Okay, thank you Mister Hanson and have a nice day.”

Hit the end button on my cell phone and keep driving—trudging is more like it. The snow makes the drive into town even longer.

The snow is like one ongoing camera flash under the light of the morning sun. No one said much to me as I left the house this morning. Jessica treated me as though I did not exist at all; while Avery just spent her time ducking away from me every time I got close to her. Zoë looked at me like she wanted an explanation for last night. Mom’s sigh seems to have returned for good and the only one who had anything to say to me was Isaac.

“Your doctor’s appointment is today at eleven.” He was toting another box down the stairs to his U-Haul.

“Rescheduling.” I called over my shoulder on my way back upstairs to the shower.

He set the box down on a step and came back up. He reached the bathroom door as I was shutting it in his face.

“Can’t you be responsible thing,” his face in the crack. I knew I was going to get a responsibility lecture from someone. “Just once? Instead of the typical, self-serving, impulsive Zac-thing?”

I answered him by turning on the shower.

At 11:15 I finally arrive at the hospital, passing Mrs. Linda and Sarah on my way to Beth’s room.

“Good morning, Zachary.” Mrs. Linda looks a little better rested today, but not by much.

Sarah offers me her hand. “It was very nice to meet you.” She is carrying the baby in a car seat and a large diaper bag over her shoulder.

Shake her hand. “Nice to meet you too.”

“I’m taking Sarah to the airport and I’ll be back in a little bit.” Mrs. Linda digs her keys from her purse. “Will you please help Beth pack up her things? They’re going to discharge her as soon as I get back.”

“Yeah, okay.” They turn to leave, but an impulse tells me to stop them. I never got to hold the baby. “Hey, Sarah…Aunt—Mrs. Sarah?” She turns around laughing, eyebrows raised in anticipation of whatever I’m about to ask. “I know you have a flight, but would you mind if I held him, just for a minute, before you leave?”

Mrs. Linda checks her watch, but Sarah moves directly for me.

From the blue corduroy covered plastic, I lift the baby and looking at his face. Slides pass in my mind as a picture-show of the life he could live here with us. Beth, his mother, Nick and I like two doting uncles. A small, asymmetrical family. A first day at school. Vacations at Disney World and trips to Europe for the food and to Australia where he’d want to pet the kangaroos. Christmases with Mom’s cookies and playing Santa as he rips open a myriad of gifts. Soccer and drum lessons. Story time and drawing on the walls. A first hair cut and Beth fussing over church clothes. The three of us trying to teach him to drive. It would be an unconventional life. But a good life of comfort, love and smiles.

Cradled in my bony arms, the way I would carry Zoë for hours, he grips my finger. His newborn-gray eyes roam and blink. And he looks at me for a moment. He looks like her. I don’t want to let him go. I want to carry him back to her. And let him live his life in my utopian epiphany.

“Zac?” Sarah breaks my thoughts. “We have to go, kiddo. It was really great to meet you.”

Reluctantly, I put a kiss to his forehead. “You’ll always have us.” I whisper to him and let him go.

Inside Beth’s stifling room, I find her and Nick standing in the middle. Bundled tightly in his arms, she turns her red-rimmed eyes to look at me with an awful sniffle and a horrifying hiccup, the sound of a girl who must feel as though her insides are being dug out by a dull mellon-baller. She pulls away from him sharply and rushes to me. Her spring-curls are pulled away from her blanched, white face with a large clip. For the first time in many months, she is wearing jeans and an old, oversized, long sleeved tee shirt with holes cut near the ends of the sleeves for her thumbs to stick through. The fragility with which I viewed her before the incident that led her here is now intensified infinitely. Her uterus now empty, Beth seems to have taken down the wall she had put up, casting her emotions into isolation, has fallen, now allowing for the heartbreak of losing her child to creep into her system. All the unwillingness to acknowledge this child as half her’s and the wanton inability to admit that she did care about him is now breaking her down. She has nothing to show for all that she has suffered but all these tears that won’t stop.

Her small arms encircle me, tiny boa constrictors, squeezing around my bony waist. A girl afraid of falling away. And I hold to her as tightly as I can. Her tears begin to soak through my shirt, the salty-saline stinging my wounds. As her chest heaves and jerks her cries become vocal, turning eventually into screams. Her screams are like echoes into the Grand Canyon, rattling every organ held by the peritoneum and causing my heart to skip beats with each new wave of screams. And as she pours her pain into my own hollowed out body, all I can do is to hold her, rubbing her back.

Nick comes and wraps his arms around her shoulders, kissing the back of her head. My sad, shattered-glass girl. What a family we could have been.

Chapter Text

Nearly a week until Christmas. Nick’s house is being over-hauled in preparation for the company Christmas party. The Vitara’s host the party every year, cars stretching all the way down the road, tables full of the traditional foods and some concoctions of whatever caterer that has been chosen for the year. Free flowing, unquestioned alcohol and loud seasonal music. When we were younger, my brothers and I often sang for these parties. After which we would sneak a punch cup of white zinfandel under one of the white clothed tables, sharing sips, feeling rebellious. We would do the same at Dad’s parties.

The morning is cold, feeling like the gnawing of a teething puppy. Nick and I have been recruited to help with the party preparations of moving furniture around, hiding valuables, stealing food when the cook isn’t watching the pot. This has been our chore since we were twelve. But since we were twelve we’ve run around these parties unchecked because everyone else was too drunk to care. Or they just thought we were cute.

Beth is silent about the baby. She doesn’t talk about it, pretends it didn’t happen. Thus, against medical advice, a week later, she went back to work and returned to private dance instruction and practicing with a vengeance. She dances some three to eight hours most days, depending on work. After eight hours, her mother goes to the school to make her come home. Her feet are blistered and bloody. The little weight she picked up didn’t stand a chance at staying on. She doesn’t eat much. And we don’t complain or chastise. Beth might stop breathing if she doesn’t dance. She’d completely fade from us. So I watched as she returned to the medieval body-tax of dancing without quarrel of what it might do to her body.

Nick is helping Kristen, his step-mom, dress the long buffet tables with red and white linens. Anthony Vitara, his dad, is clearing snow from the sidewalk—again—with a large, mass-murderer type shovel and a box of rock salt. People I don’t know are scurrying around, like hot wheels on a battery-powered track, decorating three separate Christmas trees, hanging things from the ceiling, placing knick-knacks on tables and mantles and surrounding them with poinsettias. Such an ugly flower. And poisonous.

“Zac?” Nick bellows from the last table to be decorated, yanking the table cloth up and down before he and Kristen set it on the table. “Will you go check on Ry and Tara? Make sure they have their bags packed.”

Ryanne, the younger of Nick’s two step-sisters, is on her pink satin comforter, playing a Mary-Kate and Ashley game on her Gameboy.
“You ready to go to your dad’s, Ry?”

She presses a button, and looks over her shoulder, smiling. “Yep.” Waves her Gameboy around at me. “Look, level seven!”

Smile and laugh like I do with Zoë who is proud of these sorts of things too. “Good job! Your dad’s going to be here soon, okay?” She nods. “Do you need me to carry your bag downstairs or can you get it?”

“I’ll get it!” Then she returns to her game.

I close her door smiling. Kids make you feel fuzzy.

A couple feet over, Tara’s door is decorated with stickers, pictures, magazine-cut quotes. Bands she loves, her friends, artwork. A lot of readable, visual, palpable sadness, asking without using the words, that passers-by visit some other room. Anywhere, anything, just not into there. I knock.

“What?” An angsty teenager, blaring music loud enough to bury her thoughts from the surfaces of consciousness. “Go away.” I open the door.

Shocked she yanks around, facing the door, and grabs onto her right, unbraceleted wrist. “I said ‘GO! AWAY!’” Viscous, red liquid begins to creep through the cracks of her fingers, down her forearm. Her body twitches. Her face becomes mean, angry, and red. “What do you want?” Growl.

But I don’t know what to say. What did I want? Without anything to say, I lift up my shirt, trying to tell her that I am not afraid of her blood, nor am I shocked by it; I am only surprised to see that I am not the lone sufferer here.
Her angry face fades to unreadable slack and she jerks a towel decorated with tropical fish from the floor, wrapping it tightly around her wound, that must go pretty deep to bleed that much. “It scares him.” She’s looking everywhere but at me. Trying to explain something that doesn’t need explanation. You’re sad too. Still too shocked to say anything, so she keeps talking. “You know? He doesn’t, you know…he….” Her jaw tightens. “He stays away.” Turning away as I see tears coming, she closes and locks a jewelry box. I see her scars now. Scars that are probably greater in number and in years compared to mine. Her scars climb like three house planks up her thin legs, from her ankles up into her skateboarder shorts, presumably they continue to climb up under her black, threadbare A.F.I. shirt and back down under her stacked plastic bracelets and arm bands. She looks back. “Don’t tell Nick?” Thick, sad, secret-telling voice.

Still speechless, I nod my head in agreement, promising her my silence. Knowing that I have the same vow from her.

“Are they ready?” Nick is looking up the stairs as I’m half-way down.

“Ryanne’s ready. Tara—” Choke. “—Tara needs a couple more minutes.”

“They’ll be down in just a second, then.” He says to someone I can’t see yet.

At the bottom of the stairs there is a short, stern-looking man, dressed nicely in a long sleeve, collared, button down, gray linen shirt and a pair of khaki Dockers. He doesn’t look like a pedophile. And Tara looks just like him.

Nick and I stand, staring at him like guardsmen watching a dangerous criminal. Cutting his throat with our eyes as he sifts weight from one foot to the other with increasing nervousness.

Thump. Thump. Thu, thu, thu, thud! “Daddy!” Ryanne had just dragged her suitcase down the stairs. She charges at the molester, wrapping him in a squeezy hug.

He hugs her. “How’s my baby girl?”

“I got to level seven today, Daddy!” Her face is radiant. If one of us were an artist, I’m sure we’d paint her.

“That’s great.” He kisses her forehead and in my periphery, I see Nick flinch and shudder. “Where’s Tara?”

“Right here.” A dead voice from the stairs. Tara continues to descend the carpeted stairs until she is two steps up and standing right behind Nick. She has on a black hoodie now, boasting the name of some band I’ve never heard of. Her bright pink backpack is slung over one shoulder and her checkerboard socks climb out of her hand decorated green converse high-tops. She chews her lip, looking scared.

“Don’t you think you should put on a proper pair of pants?” The Dad suggests. “It’s the middle of winter.”

“I’m fine.” Tara mumbles, looking at her feet, shoving her fists further into her hoodie pockets.

Tara’s father starts to speak. Nick beats him to it though.

“Ryanne, give me a hug and go get in the car, okay?” She does as he asks, giving him a hug around his legs and he kisses his hand and presses it to her forehead. She grabs her bag and charges out the door with the loud sound of a suitcase being drug across the ground.

“Coming, Tar—” The dad starts again only to once again be cut off by Nick.

“Hey Tara?” He looks up at her. “Did you remember your toothbrush?” It’s obvious he’s stalling, having conceived something. And though Tara doesn’t look like she was in on the plan, she goes quietly back up the stars.

Nick pops his shoulder against the banister, pushing himself towards the molester. “I’m picking them up tomorrow. Early. And if she’s crying so much as one small tear:” pinches his fingers together to demonstrate a small tear, “I will gut you…proverbially. But you’ll wish I’d done it with a knife.”

The dad makes an unafraid, bemused face.

“Nick?” Kristen calls down the hall from the kitchen. “Has Scott gotten here yet?”

“Yeah.” Nick steps back. “He’s standing right here.”

Kristen comes down the hall, bleached hair yanked back in a clip, looking stressed. And she doesn’t look any happier to see him than Tara. “Hello.” He nods back at her. Must have been a bad divorce. “Nick will be early to get the girls tomorrow.”

The man smiles. “He just informed me.”

“Oh, good.” Totally oblivious. “Well, Tara seems anxious to be home early. She’s going to the movies or something with her friends tomorrow.”

“I thought she was grounded?” Scott raises his eyebrows.

Kristen sighs. “That ended Monday.”

Tara appears at the foot of the stairs. “Got it.” Holds up her green and clear toothbrush. Her voice is soft and quirky and shy.

Kristen gives her a smile of pity. “Tara, I wish you would dress like a girl. This punk-rockstar stuff isn’t very flattering. You’re such a pretty girl.” Which might just be the reason she hides it under layers of clothing. Kristen puts a hand of short fingers to her daughter’s downcast face. “Maybe after Christmas is over, you and Beth can go shopping or something? Get you into something more feminine. Something so everyone can see how pretty you are, okay?”

“Can I stay home tonight, mom?” Tara sounds as though she trudged up a large amount of bravery to blurt that in front of her father.
Kristen and the pedophile look shocked.

“Tara?” He says, like he’s hurt or something. Sick fuck. “You haven’t seen me in a month.”

Tara looks urgently at her mother. “Please mom. I swear, I swear to God, Mom, I won’t drink anything. I’ll stay right beside you or with Nick and Zac the whole night. Please, Mom? Please?”

“Not after last year.” Kristen gives her you-remember-last-year eyes. “You did this last year and I let you stay home.” She glances over at me. “And you remember what happened.” They found her in a small cemetery five miles away from the house, asleep in a tree, wearing boxers and a tank-top, with a baby blanket under her head. She was treated for hypothermia and grounded for a month.

“Mom, please?” She’s desperate.

“Let her stay, Kristen?” Nick speaks, without any fear. “She can hang out with us and Beth.”

I nod, hoping to see Kristen sway.

“Sorry, guys.” Kristen shakes her head. “I’m sorry Tara. I don’t know why you’re so desperate to stay. You hate these things anyway. Now get your stuff. Nick is going to pick you up in the morning.” She hugs Tara’s shoulders, not receiving a response.

“C’mon Tara.” Father Demento opens the screen door. “We’re having dinner at Grandma’s tonight.”

“I love you, Tara.” Kristen, trying to convince her daughter that she means well by sending her off with the villain.

“Love you too.” If it hadn’t been so quiet between us at that moment, no one would have heard her. She moves quietly out the front door.
Nick bought her a dozen valium yesterday to help her through the weekend. In her pocket now there are eight.

Beth finally turns up late in the afternoon to offer what little help she can be now that Nick and I have done everything else. Which means that she’s only stopping in to say hello before she goes to change.

“How’re things going?” Beth picks a celery stick up from one of the prepared trays. Crunch.

“Done now.” Nick looks disapprovingly as she reaches for another piece of celery. “Where have you been all day?”

“Dancing.” Beth twirls a couple circles around Nick.

“Jeez, Beth, you stink!” He isn’t kidding. “And that food is for the party, cow.”

“Fat ass!” She looks offended, but laughs and takes another big, crunching bite of her contraband celery. She looks up at me, mouth full of green vegetation and laughs, “’oo fink I swell?”

Snort. “Yes, Beth, you smell.” And a shudder. “If my mom taught me not to talk with food in my mouth, I know yours did.”
A big, fat, food filled grin comes back at me with a yucky vengeance.

“Hello Beth!” Anthony Vitara bursts into the kitchen. “How are you?” He takes a smell of the air. “You’ve been dancing all day haven’t you?”

“ARG!” Beth throws her arms into the air. “I’m leaving! Next time see if I try to help.”

“Help what?” I ask. “Eat all the vegetables before the party while smelling the place up with sweaty, dancer’s armpits?”

Her eyes flare and I’m not quite fast enough to stop the punch she delivers to my arm. “You’re a jerk!”

Laughing, I remind her. “But at least I’m not a smelly dancer.” Another punch to the same spot ensures that I’ll have a bruise there.
Beth stomps out, followed by a chorus of laughs.

“Will she come back?” Anthony asks.

“Yep.” I nod. “She’d come back just to be spiteful.”

“Oh.” He nods that way people do when there’s no retort for something other than to just change the subject. “Well, Kristen sent me to tell me that your dry cleaning’s here and that you should go get dressed.”

A swish of light peppermint green enters the house through the back of the kitchen. Her dress is sleeveless under a black jacket that kept her warm during her walk here. Her long, dark, corkscrew hair is pulled back just over her ears with sparking barrettes. Her feet a barely covered by a pair of open-toed satin heals, dyed to match the dress. Her bare skin shimmers in the light, no matter what direction she turns in. She looks a little anxious as she shakes snow flakes from her dress and brushes them out of her eye lashes.

“What took you?” Nick yanks at the tie he’s been bitching about from the time he put it on.

Her jaw drops. “’Hi Beth. You look nice, Beth. You don’t smell anymore Beth’.” Mocking. “Why does it take you so long to get your stupid face out of the mirror after you’ve gelled your hair? It just takes a while sometimes!”

I kiss her forehead. “You look nice, Beth.”

She kisses my cheek. “You too, Zaccy.”

“You look beautiful, Beth.” Nick moves to hug her. She pulls away.

“You could at least pretend you meant that.” She’s pretending to be mad.

Roll my eyes. “Can we act like a married couple later?” They looked shocked. “Get over it. What’d you bring for us, Bethy?”

“Malibu and coke.” Predictable. She peeks open the bag slung over her shoulder. “And there are some graham crackers, marshmallows and chocolate, if someone remembers to light the fire this year.” She’s eyeing me.

Shrugging. “I was drunk.” Sometimes, that’s the only good excuse you’ve got. Go with it. “I brought Vodka and cranberry juice.”

Nick shudders. Gags. “The smell of vodka still makes me want to puke.” Made him sick last year and he’s never drank it since. “I brought Seagram’s Seven and Seven-Up.”

Nick and I had hidden our contraband in an ice chest, hidden under a tacky, poinsettia and ivy table cloth in the small family room that serves as our VIP room every year. Lock the door of the room as we enter and exit to escape the grown-upness of a party we’re supposed to be enjoying. We never enjoy it. Small talk with these people makes us miserable. They’re often backbiters trying to climb the proverbial corporate ladder. As soon as we close one conversation, we’re rushed into another, fellow employees marking the other’s shortcomings like lines on a growth chart; year by year; day by day; mistake by mistake, pardonable to the face but unforgivable in quiet, Christmas party conversations. The Vitara’s themselves have been bitten. And we just walk away. Not listening. Hear no evil. And after our fill-lines have been met, we pass silently into the confines of a room with large, snow scene windows, an entertainment center, and a small fire place, the mantle with pictures of the kids. Happy, American family.

The kitchen has lost the clamor of the mid-afternoon now that all of the food has been set out, being served by the catering employees. Nick yanks off the slate-gray tie that he is still complaining about. This side of the swinging door is soft, dormant and sterile white. We watch the door. Waiting for the invite to join the festivities. Apprehensive of the banal people awaiting us. Supposedly we’re a popular party attraction. Aren’t we cute. If we had a Dim, we could be Alex and his droogs, sitting in the Korova Milkbar, about to partake of our night’s quota of the ultra-violent.

Nick is the first to move to the door. “Coming?” Seems he’s asking Beth, more than the both of us.

Beth cinches her nose. “We’re skipping this next year. I’d rather be at home, wallowing.” Takes up her bag, winking at me for luck and love, and leaves the room.

A horrifying blast of chatter and music crashes on me when Nick opens the door. Makes me think of Madge’s and leaves me wishing for a loft to hide in. Alone. Undisturbed. Maybe lacking the swimming incident, though. Air stalls in my chest. I am afraid of going out there. Afraid of facing the same faces of all the years before. Afraid of feeling exposed as I step out of here on my own, waiting for the time when I can appropriately call it quits and find myself at the end of a vodka bottle and pass out watching the snow fall on the trees in a crystalline, silent symphony, marked by the shining of the street lights, with the added emotionality of passing cars.
Off I go.

I’m listening to conversation about sports that I can’t follow. Football was never interesting to me. But I pretend to be interested. Not interested enough to be asked my opinion. Just enough to be noticed. So that my appearance counts. I’ve been at this pretend for nearly an hour. Agony, oh agony. The last conversational stop concerned politics and the economy. Lasted there about two minutes. Before that was the grandiose talk how the company’s stocks were stacking up next to bigger, unrelated corporations. And the evening began in a group discussing some classic movie I’ve only seen parts of. Don’t even remember the title.

When I’m lucky, I can catch glimpses of Nick or Beth in other parts of other rooms, looking as lackluster-enthralled as I am. Sometimes they see me too. Sometimes I have to go back to pretending I care.

For another hour I waif in and out of conversations, never saying much; to protect my fragile display of cheer. No one notices. Moreover, no one cares. We’re novelties, passed from room to room as trinkets. Children are meant for seeing, not hearing.

Beth is a couple people over from me talking about dancing as I’m talking to a couple of guys about the state of soccer in the United States. Nick’s dad is talking about the controversial violence that haunts the soccer followings in other countries when I overhear something being said in Beth’s circle.

“You know, I could have sworn you were pregnant.” A pug-faced woman in snot green eye shadow and a pukey purple suit places her hand on Beth’s arm. Like what she just said was a caring statement in polite conversation. “You had a little belly on you at the Thanksgiving thing last month.” She is looking at Beth. Waiting for Beth to say something. Beth is stalk still. Flushing red. And I swear I can hear her heart screech to halting.

Without the formality of excusing myself from the enthralling talk of the world state of soccer, I move quickly to go save Beth, whose explosive temper is surely about to set in and get her in trouble.

“Hey Bethy.” Her bare shoulder is scalding to my palm. Her horrified glare is still stuck to her face when she looks at me. With as convincing a look as I can gather up, “let’s go get Nick?” Now a blank face answers my question. “C’mon.” And the woman is looking at me like the insolent, rude person that I am. This is when I noticed that Kristen was standing a couple people over and had never even attempted to vie Beth out of this question.

I pull Beth away, trying to pull her back from her rage. But as we take a few pushed-through-the-crowd steps away from the group of women, I hear that same woman begin to talk.

“Don’t those three ever separate?” Incredulous, talking to Kristen. Do they know we’re now eavesdropping, both having lost interest in our search for Nick?

“Only if they have to.” Kristen says sweetly, as though she admires our friendship. “Zac was gone last month on some rockstar business. You would have thought that their last puzzle piece was missing!” They laugh. Good to see we’re entertainment.

“They remind me of those Harry Potter kids.” A thin woman, sipping a dark red wine comments. She looks like she just fell through a 1980s outlet mall and fell through every fashion faux pais on the way down. “Zac would be that silly red-headed boy…Ray?”

“Ron.” Beth, muttering hotly under her breath. Her body is tense. Shaking slightly with anger.

A prettier, dressed-down Sarah-Jessica-Parker looking woman looks to Kristen with an interested face. “Do you ever wonder if anything—you know—weird is going on between them?”

Stunned by the insidious question, I wait for Kristen to speak. Beth yanks away. A stealthy three, four steps elapse. Grab for her arm and miss three times. Desperate to avoid an awkward scene.

“She was pregnant, wasn’t she?” Some unseen woman says. No one answers. Because they see her now. The way her body shakes. Shudders. And the flaming red of her skin that could melt snow. Claudia staring down the fledglings in the Theatre de los Vampires.

Beth, I see in slow motion, begins to open her mouth. Carrie covered in pig’s blood. About to set them all on fire and roast her marshmallows above them.

“Beth.” Not a shout, but I know she hears me. She ignores me. “Elizabeth Corine!” Looks over at me as I step right behind her, putting my mouth to her ear. “Leave it. Let it go.” They’re looking at us as deer and we’re driving the truck to send them to the processing plant.

Beth’s eyes are all arage. Mean. She could slaughter all of them and never lift a weapon. Leaving their bodies to be picked over by the next wandering group of gossip vultures. Tug her wrist but she won’t move. Tug twice more and she gives. In her wake, the hens disband. Seems they’re afraid the executioner has a dull axe.

Beth is quiet and limp as I drag her through the house trying diligently to get to the small, locked room. We pass the partiers as ghosts, unnoticed. Unwanted.

Beside the door is a small telephone table. Under the doily should be a key that is not there.

Knock on the frosted-glass door. “Nick?”

“Yeah?” He turns down whatever he’s watching.

“You took the key, dude?” Beth bashes her head into my shoulder.

A second later, he opens the door, surreptitiously looking around.

Beth, annoyed, shoves past him and I follow behind her as Nick pushes the door shut.

“What’s wrong?” He says to her back. She’s already digging around in the cooler.

“Don’t ask.” I mouth as I hear Beth shoving ice around.

“I thought you said there was some tequila in here?” Before we answer, she pulls a gold-labeled bottle from the ice. Cracks the lid and downs a mouthful. “Holy fuck.” Her jaw bone yanks in reaction to the stout alcohol. Takes another swallow and puts the bottle on the floor with a loud clunk. She looks up at us. “What’ll it be, boys?”

She pours drinks for all three of us. And we sit, sipping in silence our first round. Then she pours a second round. And follows it with another shot of tequila.

“Save some for the rest of us.” Nick yanks the bottle away. “I thought you hated tequila?”

Beth looks away. She’s thinking about those women. She’s thinking about her baby. Far away from her. She’s thinking she’d like to be senseless by morning.

Nick takes a swallow from the bottle and passes it to me. And so it goes.

“So the prince says, ‘Sorry Cinderella, but the royal dog ate the other one!’” Hyena fits of laughter make the room ring like a loud, brass bell. The joke probably wouldn’t have been as funny if we had been sober. But fuck it; we’re not.

Much less noise reaches us now from the outer parts of the house. And if all those people weren’t wondering about us before, they are surely wondering about us now. Several anonymous people have come to knock, in vein, on the locked door. Inquiring who was behind it. And what was happening behind it.

The tequila worked quickly on Beth. And for a while she became the girl she had been last Christmas. Giggling and dancing to the radio we knew was too loud. Singing off key, as loudly as she could. Her flush of anger turned into a flush of laughter and mock jitter-bugging with Nick and I. And a whole lot of alcohol. She began to tap without her tap shoes. Her bare feet slapping the floor in rhythm. Her face, so happy. Then came the Dave Matthews song that had been playing that night in her car. When he came to her window and took her away. She stopped dancing. I tried to turn it off but she started crying. Sobbing. And we couldn’t touch her because her sharpened metal edges would have cut us in half. She cried for a long time. Holding my hands with her head in his chest. Time passed and she grew quiet and still. The radio was still on and she got up to dance again. She danced with me; she danced with Nick; she danced with the dead spaces of the room with her bare, abused, scarred and blistered feet. Her body always seems to have its bones removed. A liquid peach, wrapped in leafy green silk, sequin dew and dark Spanish moss hanging down her backside.

Now, late into the night, we are still, lying in the floor watching the snow glide to the ground from its suicide height. Headlights swing and fade on the wall and the only sound in the room now is the low rumble of the stereo playing jazz-style Christmas songs.

“I wish I were Jewish.” Beth sighs, hiccupping the smell of alcohol into the air.

“I wish I were independently wealthy.” Nick retorts.

“I wish I had pony.” Horses are cool, right?

We giggle and fall silent again enjoying our alcohol-numbness. I hear the scrunch-swish of Beth’s dress as she crawls across the floor, placing her head into my hole of a stomach. My fingers automatically begin to run through her curly hair. Nick lays down, feet close to my head, parallel to me and takes her hand. The room gets quiet again. My eyes flutter several times. The things Jessie said to me replay with every pass of fingers through her hazelnut hair. Doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Stupid girl.

The sun is coming up. I’ve been awake—I don’t know how long. Watching the light of the east chase down the darkness still lingering in the west. Chasing after my thoughts, pushing them towards Madge, wondering if Christmas is going any better for her. And in drag thoughts of Delancy. How much vodka and percocet is it going to take to get her through Christmas? This is a wicked time of year for those who have forgotten how to look forward to it. Why you ever looked forward to it in the first place.

At some undeterminable time during the night Beth woke up and went to lay on Nick’s stomach. Her feet are swimming in the hallows of my stomach like a child kicks ambivalently at a small pool in the back of a grassy, summer yard. The floor is covered in candy wrappers and empty glasses. Empty cracker boxes and bottles. Pillows and blankets are tossed around us but not actually in use. Nick is snoring and Beth’s feet are twitching. There are no sounds coming from the rest of the house.

In the silence and solitude I fade back down into sleep. Swirling numbness, it’s divine creation coming from the spirits cast around us. I’m not sleeping long when a knock comes. Pretend to be asleep. The knock continually comes. Fifteen times. Nick grumbles and stretches but makes no move for the door.

A few knocks later. “What?”

“Open the door, Nick.” It’s his dad.

I crack my eyes open to see what goes on. Nick haphazardly shoves Beth to the floor, waking her up. She casts him a sore look and crawls over to me, placing her face in my stomach.

His dad’s face says that the room is in a state of dismay that he expected. “You need to get this cleaned up and go get your sisters.” He smiles and nods a good morning in my direction and leaves.

Beth’s eyes are puffy. Like she’d been crying all night. More like she’d been drunk and hadn’t have enough sleep to make up for it. Nick looks the same, but worse. And I undoubtedly look just like both of them. My body feels sluggish. Unwilling to move from its uncomfortable spot on the Berber carpeting.

Nick has left the room. Beth sits up, pulling her knees to her chest. Her sad, swollen eyes flutter and she is looking at me. Last night did more damage than good. And Beth’s heart may just be more broken than it had been before. Her fingers crawl across the floor, her fingernails tapping out an unorthodox beat ads they make their way to my hand. She wraps her fingers around my palm and squeezes it. Squeeze back. I want to hold her, but I know this all the closeness she’ll allow for today. Nick returns with a large, black garbage bag.

A couple steps behind him enters Kristen. Beth looks up at her with an unreadable face.

“Beth,” Kristen looks to be on the verge of tears. “I’m sorry. What you heard last night—”

“—I don’t care.” Beth gives her an ambivalent smile. “What do I care about those hags and their suburban, social-ladder climbing mouths? They are jealous. I have more than them.” She stands and walks to me. Kisses my forehead. “I love you, Zaccy.”

“I love you too.” A gurgled whisper.

She kisses Nick’s cheek. “Love you, Nicky.”

He kisses her. “Love you too.”

Beth moves towards the door, looking at Kristen. “There’s your weirdness Kristen. We love each other. It’s that just fucking odd?” She pauses with a snide smile. “Tell your ‘80s faux pais friend that she’d better watch out. I don’t want to have to perform the Avada Kedavra curse on her.”

She looks at me, eyes knitted together. Astounded in the puddle of hurt she allowed to spilled on Beth’s feet. “The death curse in Harry Potter.” Whisper as we listen to Beth’s heels quickly click their way to the front door. She looks absolutely lost.

Nick shrugs his shoulders. He still doesn’t know what happened. “We’re leaving as soon as we pick up.” I tug at my dirty shirt. “And we change.”

We leave the house bundled in down jackets and gloves. Snow meets my calf as we push our way out the door. No one got up to salt the sidewalk this morning.

During our slow, quiet walk to Nick’s snow-covered car, I notice a far-off green blur moving quickly around Beth’s yard. And I know that in the winter, in Oklahoma, very little grows or moves and is that shade of green. The blur is Beth, dancing fervently in the snow. Stop moving, and so does Nick. Her hem is gathered in her hand. And she would seem graceful, but there is anger in her juts and struts and swirls and jumps. She spins in motions I cannot name. She’s cut a clearing in the snow. And though I cannot swear it for the distance, there may be blood in the snow. I wonder if dancers get that thing that runners get. Runner’s high. After running for so long, their bodies no longer feel the pain of it. Has Beth’s body just stopped feeling the pain in her feet? Maybe she’s just too angry to care.

Nick’s distant sigh is visible in the cold morning air. “Don’t normal women sit around for six weeks after they have a baby?”

“Yeah.” I nod. “Normal women seem to do things that way. But—”

“—Beth’s not normal.” Nick starts toward his car again and after a moment I follow. She is still dancing in circles as we pull away.

As Nick drives I recant what had happened the night before. He’s disappointed in Kristen. But what can be said for a woman who is so tragically myopic she continues to send her daughters off with a sexual predator. Missing continually the fear Tara exudes. Tara who wears her pain like her pink-plastic bracelets and stripped knee highs. Tara who buries herself in benzos and blood. Tara, the truly broken. And we drive to save her for at least one day.

In a neighborhood of one Jones’ house after another, we pull into a driveway boasting two BMWs. The yard is covered in snow and the flowerbed is dead. A tree in the yard must be an evergreen. It’s the only living thing for blocks. A tidy neighborhood. A neighborhood painted a dangerous color of pretend. Everything is perfect on the outside.

Nick puts the car in park. Ryanne bursts from the door with the smile Zoë has. Happiness for the presence of her sibling. She leaps as Nick pulls her up from the ground. There is quiet chatter between them.

“I hate you!” A jaguar-scream rages out of the door proceeding a tear-stained, disheveled Tara. Leaned against the car I can see the purple rings around her arms, just above her elbows. She is running from him. Her body slams into mine. Like she expected to keep going. My arms go around her instinctively. Because all I can envision is Jessie. They’re almost the same age.

Here he comes. Disheveled as well. Shouting. “Tara Nicole! Get back in this house before you wake the damn neighborhood.” Ryanne has begun to cry.

Nick turns his back on the pedophile. He hands Ryanne over to Tara. “Get in the car.” He turns back and from the second floor I see a face looking out on the scene. The she closes the curtain.

“She is not to leave this house.” Scott, the menace, looking like a poor man’s Richard Gere, speaks through a tight jaw. And Tara stares at him. Wide-eyed. The proverbial deer in the way of a speeding eighteen wheeler. “Not until she apologizes to—”

There was an amazing crack as Nick’s fist plowed into the pedophile’s face. Blood gush and Nick swings again but Scott manages to duck. He takes a swing a Nick and misses.

“Nick!” Tara, shocked, bellows out for her brother. She pushes Ryanne’s face into her shoulder, trying to hide it from her. “Leave it. I want to go home.”

It was late for that. Nick hit the man’s breastbone, knocking him over. Kicks him. Twice. A third time.

“Nicholas!” Tara screams and Ryanne cries harder.

The people across the street are looking out their window. But no one leaves their door.

Nick pulls his foot back to deliver another blow and I push away from Tara. The tormentor rolls into the snow, coughing and Nick begins to kick him again. I yank him backwards. Staring him down. This is someone I’ve never seen before. And he’s never seen me. But he steps backwards. Leans over and whispers. “You won’t touch her again, you foul demon. You will rot in Hell. God and Satan burn you twice if you’ve done it Ryanne.”

He turns to see Tara. To see her holding Ryanne who is so terrified by all that she was not allowed to see, she is screaming the cries of a small child. A pitch that only God himself can understand and quell. He kisses Tara’s forehead and the back of Ryanne’s corn silk hair.

As we pull away the monster is rolling on the ground, clutching his ribs. Coughing blood into the snow. And not even his wife has come to help him.

*     *     *

Christmas Eve and the house is full to bursting with my family. It’s like cramming play-doh into a strainer and waiting for it to begin squirming out the other side. Kids are screaming from every corner of the house. Leaving messes that sprout like weeds. Weeds that have spawned sugar rushes.

No effort has been made on my part to look festive. No effort to actively participate. The only ally I seem to have is my Grandma. We never do wrong in her eyes.

Ezra is in a new pair of arms each time I take a second to look around. Doesn’t he look just like his daddy? Natalie’s such a sweet girl. Someone needs a diaper change! Mackenzie is hamming anyone who will look at him longer than five seconds. Zoë and a few of the younger kids are building snow forts in the front yard. Jessie’s in the kitchen and the other members of my family are continually floating. They don’t float in my direction. And I’m fine with that.

The thought of retreating to my room, to spill some new blood, becomes enticing. Mull this thought as I stare out the back door, arms wrapped around myself. Out in the snow are memories of our old snow forts. Before the days of Hanson and fans and tours. In the days when they resented Taylor for the stresses he caused. And back before that when we were too small for babies or cutting. Too small for Ana and too small for The Crazy. Mom would take us sledding; all the kids in the neighborhood down in the park, racing to see whose garbage can lid was the best. Who could throw a snowball the farthest. We were cute kids back then, selling doo-wap hits, a smile a piece.

A warm berry smell comes up behind him. A loud sip blurries the memory of playing capture the flag with Jessie’s Strawberry Shortcake pillow cases.

“Remember that one Christmas?” Her voice is small and light and filled with the sort of happiness that is induced by a fond memory. Jessica hands me a cup of hot chocolate. “Nana made that. It’s the kind with the chocolate bars.” The taste is thick, rich. It is the truest taste of Christmas that I know. “We built forts. Me and Isaac against you and Taylor. You two were kicking our butts—”

“—Until you two unleashed the hot-water filled super soakers and wasted our fort into oblivion?” Laugh. That was an interesting Christmas. “So we got you back by lobbing the left-over stink-bombs?”

She giggles. “Mom grounded us from our presents for a week.” And we both laugh. Mom was so pissed at us for that. She mumbled repeatedly that she would never get the smell out of the house. But she didn’t tell Dad. To our relief she said the culprit was a skunk.

The house buzzes behind us but this is our moment. No baby’s squeal or adult discussions were going to draw us out of it. And a sort of silence is between us, liquidating the wall we’ve had thrown up between each other since the tea incident. Definitely a happier silence than those that haunt after Taylor and I. Her reflection in the window is sweet, with a far-away smile and I know that she’s replaying that scene. She and Isaac with their heads bent back in triumphant laughter as Taylor and I scattered like drowning ants. She and Isaac ducked behind a wall of snow as they were rebuilding, never expecting that the balls of snow now taking out their fort contained soon-to-explode stink bombs that would soon send them coughing and running for air. Taylor and I rolled in the snow for a long time laughing at them.

“Are we making peace, Jessie?” We sip simultaneously from our mugs.

There’s a smile in our reflection. “You know, I think we are.” My reflection smiles too. “I should have poured my tea kept my thoughts to myself.” Notice that she hasn’t apologized for what she said. Only that she said it out loud. A little girl’s voice calls out her name from in the house. “I told the kids we could watch the Grinch.” She grasps my hand and smiles to my reflection. “I was glad you were home.”

She walks away.

“Jessie?” She turns to face me. “I’m sorry too.”

Her smile, the smile passed on to her and Taylor from our mother, comes gracefully and it hits me like a happy memory that I cannot place. She blows me a kiss and she is the little girl that used to hang out the bus window, bidding us to have a good show.

With little noise and little notice, I pull open the door and slip into the backyard. Pushing away the snow with my boots, I clear the back porch and make it into the yard. The sun is strung up low in the sky, hanging like the most grandiose tree-topper. The grand star. Pinned up against the winter sky. In the winter the sky changes. The blue is clear, like a pair of haunting blue eyes. It’s not the royal, hazy blue of the summer than hauls in the heat. Pristine in its hanging like the mural over the Sistine. And somewhere between the purity-white burring my feet and the highlighter-blue swaying above my head I get lost, standing in the middle of the yard wandering through my mind. I am not searching, neither am I finding. But somewhere amid the gray between and not caring that a chill has surrounded me.

I should apologize to my brothers. I should have made them apologies for Christmas presents. Taylor’s would have had to be infinite. Insurmountable.

In his unending regiment of tough-love, he forced me into my first appointment with the psychologist two days ago. They had an opening when Taylor called to reschedule my appointment; he took it. Came up to my room in the early light of morning, yanking my blankets away to the floor and barked orders at me until I was helpless—not to mention freezing—and was forced to go. He was prepared to do whatever he needed to get me to that appointment. Maybe even tied me up and smuggled me out. He stayed the whole time. Filling out the papers I refused to look at. Answering questions about my medical history. Stoically, I sat there, ambivalent, occasionally staring at the doctor. More for boredom than for anything else.

He asked me a cliché battery of questions. How are you feeling today? Fine. How long have you been cutting. Not long. Your brother reports that there are some possible domestic troubles, can you elaborate on that? His relationship with Natalie?

I gave as many one-word answers as I could get away with. Vague as I could and taking as much time as I could to answer and he was as bored with me as I was with him. Finally the interview had ended and I trailed out behind Taylor, the quiet, still child he would rather I be. One who would listen and do as he is told without question. I let Taylor schedule my weekly visits before we left.


Snow crunches behind me and I am pulled out of my muddied thoughts. Warm, boney arms slide around my waist, her quiet breath spilling into my vertebrae. Her familiar nose presses into my c-spine. Her mouth makes an “O” around a bump in my spine before she turns her warm cheek into its place. The kiss passes under my skin and warms the cold cavity of my body. In the snow, I see her shadow. The top of her head between my shoulder blades and the lengthy waves of her tree-bark colored hair. Behind her is Nick’s lanky shadow, tossing a snowball into the air.

My fingers, longer than hers, but thin as dead, knobby branches, clasp over her cold hands, locked together over my stomach.

“You’re so skinny.” An astonished whisper. “Where’d the rest of you go?”

No answer. Watch the snow clouds that are beginning to come in from the west. Cautiously slipping criminally past the sun, who wasn’t giving off much warmth anyway. The sounds of squealing, happy, Christmas-spiked kids echo in the tress, having jumped over the house, resounding out from their front-yard invasion. The backdoor is pulled open.

“Hey kids.” It’s mom and I can tell, without looking, she is smiling a real smile.

“Hi Mrs. Hanson.” Nick’s shadow is waving towards the house. Beth’s face pulls from my spine and I watch her grayed outline wave back at my mother as well.

“Nana was just asking about you two.” Nana loves Nick and Beth. They are honorary members of the Hanson family to her. “You’re going to stay for dinner, right?”

“Yes ma’am.” Beth calls back, just loud enough to be heard.

“Well, hurry inside. We’re sitting down soon.”

My friends’ shadows wave and I hear the door shut again. Beth’s face is back in my spine.

“What’re we waiting for?” Nick sends a loose snowball sailing over my head. “Christmas at your house is the best adventure of the year.”

But I don’t move and neither does Beth.

“I want to get out of here.” Rub Beth’s hands to garner as much heat from the friction as I can.

“Not before I have a piece of your Nana’s ham.” That thing about getting at men through their stomachs is true.

“Not out of here.” Open my arms to signify that I don’t mean out of my house. “I want out of this town. Away from Tulsa. Out of Oklahoma. I want…a vacation…or something.”

“You just got back?!” He tosses another snowball over my head. Were the mood better set, he’d be tossing them at Beth and I.

Turn around, encasing Beth in a tight hug. “That wasn’t a vacation.” Cynical laugh. “That was forced labor. I want to go away and not care what I do when I get up in the morning. I want to go…drown in people. And forget I call this place home.” Beth snuggles a little tighter to me.

“We could go to Dallas?” Nick shrugs ambivalently. “We could go ‘drown’ in Deep Ellum? There’s always a million people there.”

“Deep Ellum gets boring after two days.” Beth baulks the idea. “I want to go to New Orleans again.” Longing in her voice. “I want—”

“—You just want to cram your face with beignets!” Nick looks longingly at the food-filled house.

Beth cuts her eyes at him and he returns the favor.

“New Orleans sounds good.” Shrug, because I don’t have a better idea. Body shudders; Beth doesn’t give off much heat. “We’ll do New

Years on Bourbon. Eat really spicy food and get trashed.”

Nick smiles. “So when would be leaving for this ‘drowning’?”

Take a couple steps so that Beth and I, arm-in-arm, are standing beside him. “Tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

It’s cold here. Not the snowy cold of Oklahoma. But an irritating, wet cold that won’t rain and can’t snow. It’s like putting on a wet shirt that’s been left out on the clothes line for a while. No one here seems to care. Life flows slowly. It constantly murmurs, in a meld of dialects that can be identified as nothing more than southern. And the smells depend on what street corner you happen to be on. Decatur smells like food and river-water. Bourbon smells like piss, puke and sex. Royal is my favorite. It smells like fine, old furniture, housing memories like run-down buildings house rats. Canal street smells too much like the real world, being the edge of the quarter. New Orleans cannot really be described. Only felt. And it feels like a wanted breeze on my bony cheeks.

We were much like stowaways in our departure. We slid into each other’s pockets claiming to be staying at each other’s houses. I’m supposed to be at Nick’s; Nick at Beth’s; and Beth with me. Nick and Beth left my house after dinner was through to pack-up a week’s worth of clothes. I packed my things and we drove into Tulsa that night. Stayed in a hotel. And the next morning—--this morning-—we caught our flight. We have a couple days before they realize something’s up. Then a few hours before they realize that we’re gone…and we’re gone together. Doesn’t matter, though. Our cell phones are off. Locked in the complementary safe, in a drawer, in the entertainment center of our hotel room. And under one of the mattresses is Nick’s laptop he insisted on bringing. “Just in case.”

They are napping. She’s in one bed and he’s in the other. Laid down beside her but I couldn’t sleep. Which is no shock, really. Disentangled myself and walked out to the small, two-seater patio that over-looks the pool. There are a couple of kids running around the tarp-covered pool. Surely it’s iced over. Maybe not. The winter weather here is so strange. Louisiana weather is much like a temperamental old woman—-you never know what to expect until you get up in the morning. The chill gets caught in my chest and makes me cough. The fog from my mouth, in its billows, amuses me for no particular reason and so does the sound of those kids. Their laughter is echoing out of the courtyard, shaped like a square. The sound must flow out, over the centuries-old sides of this building and it must be the only thing that has remained the same here. The sound of children never changes. And no matter who you are, it settles you. Makes of you a still being, content if only momentarily. I wonder what Zoë and Mack are doing this very second.

A woman bellows from a window above me at the children. The laughter stops and my stillness, true to its fleeting nature, is gone. Back to the tumults of myself. The cold makes my bones hurt. I haven’t cut in weeks. And if I could, I think I would do it now. But the privacy such a horrid thing requires is not available to me. So I think I will continue to sit out here, in my t-shirt and jeans, allowing the chill to cut through me.

Through the crack in the door, I hear the swish of sheets and the movement of light feet toward the mini-bar. It opens. Closes. And those dancer’s feet are coming towards my door, standing ajar so I’d know when she was awake.

She’s wearing an old flannel shirt of Nick’s. Sweat pants and mass of sleep-frazzled hair pulled back in, presumably, a rubber band. In one hand is a miniature bottle of Crown Royal and in the other a Coke. She cracks open the Crown, pops the coke and pours a shot of each into her mouth, shakes her head, and swallows. Her face contorts and she lets out a soft, “ahh” before doing it again.

“Sleep well?” Bemused by her still contorting face. She drains the last of each container.

A blithe smile comes after her face is done convulsing. “Can’t complain. Nick snores a bit, though. Did you get any sleep?”

Shake my head. And all she has to offer in return is a pitiful look, before looking back down at the empty bottle. “I’m hungry. Let’s go wake-up Nick?”

Her tiny fingers lock easily around my wrist. Not long ago she could have never gotten her fingers around my wrists, let alone yank me upright (which is what she’s just done) for the weight and muscle. But now, I am a featherweight with her.

She climbs onto the bed she had been napping in, does a couple show-off movements and then leaps onto Nick. If that bed had been a pool of water, she’d be in a lot of pain. He doesn’t flinch; as though he had been expecting her to do this.

“Get off. Beth.” He shoves at her from under his blankets. “I’m sleeping.”

“C’mon.” She tugs the covers. “I’m hungry!”

He doesn’t move. Then, a movement so sudden it makes me flinch. Nick rolls Beth over and pins her to the bed. He’s looking at her. In the eyes. Intensely. And if I weren’t so blinded by my own confused feelings about her, there may be a look of love floating between them.

“You are fucking obnoxious.” He pinches her cheek so hard she yelps. He smirks. “Serves you right.” He tosses a pile of blankets on top of her and gets out of the bed. “Sleep good?” He asks me.

“Didn’t sleep.” Ambivalent shrug. “Get dressed. We’re hungry.”

Beth bursts from under the covers, hair frizzier than before. “No, you don’t have time for a shower.” As though she were reading his mind.

Out in the streets the light from gaudy tourist shops washes the sky and colors our surroundings in purple, green and yellow. Permanent Mardi Gras. Beth is a little moth hopping from light to light. From one intriguing shop to the next. Life in New York should be overwhelming for her. She runs her fingers along the exterior of every building we as though each brick, every piece of wood, is telling her its history. We walk quietly down the Rue Toulouse, three little ghosts.

Her eyes could light the Quarter for the energy her fascination puts out. We pass a couple of kids tap dancing to a guy playing a harmonica. “We could do that!” Her face is glowing. “Nick could play guitar and Zac—-you could get one of those five gallon buckets, and—”

Nick’s face is amused with whatever he’s about to say to her. “-—And you’d what? Sing?” He leers at souvenir mask and laughs. “’And I know that my heart will go on and on!’” Off key. But sounding quite accurately like Beth.

She fires off an insolent look for lack of a comeback and walks off a few feet ahead of us. We travel on in our insulted silence up to Decatur.

I can’t remember the name of the street that forks off Decatur, but just past that is the river. I can smell it. The city feels comfortable. I have no fascinated regard for it. Not like Nick and Beth. This place is an old vacation home and no matter which direction we turn to next, I will be home and happy. It feels strange, this revelation, because anyone who has been here enough surely feels this way. Everyone belongs here. It’s haunting. Enchanting. This city radiates a constant lullaby, trying to bewitch you into staying forever. Silent, painless voodoo.

“Hungry!” Beth whines, clutching her belly as though it may cave in past her backbone if she doesn’t eat something this instant. “Hey, can we go to that Patty place we went to that one Christmas?”

“Wha—-?” My eye brows shoot up. “Pat O’Brien’s?” She nods; I groan. “Beth, that’s two blocks back. And the one up here is in the Jackson Brewery and that’s already closed for the day.” I check up and down the street. “We could go to Masparrow’s?” I point to a small restaurant a couple blocks over. “One-dollar strawberry daiquiris?” Trying to sound as convincing as possible.

She shrugs, sort of disappointed. “That’s fine. Can we go to the other place tomorrow?”

“Who cares about tomorrow!” Nick interrupts her pout. “I’m hungry today and I’m ready for a cheep drunk!”

And that’s where it started. Our nights in New Orleans have continued in that same endless cycle. We don’t know what day it is. We wake up in our room every night not knowing how we got there. Vaguely remember where we’ve been. Sometimes she’s asleep on my stomach when I wake up. Sometimes she’s tangled up with him.

Dusk is setting in. So is my hangover. When I crawled from my bed, Nick was snoring with his arms tied around her; they were facing each other, snoring. Both of them. It’s bloody cold out.

The nameless, faceless waitress comes back to my corner table in the Hotel’s lounge. “Another glass of water?”

Water here is nasty. Tastes muddy. “Uh—-no. Can I have a Dr. Pepper instead? With a shot of Crown?”

She smiles, irritatingly genuine southern hospitality. They don’t know how to be rude in this city. “Sure. I’ll be right back!”

Car lights and unfamiliar silhouettes pass the ceiling-to-floor windows. And I don’t see any of them as people. They are each of them, passive, transient beings. They are my thoughts passing around in waves of irritating light shuddered up against the cold meandering winds. They are why I find my consciousness in this little bar. Sure, I’m conscious of leaving our room most nights. But down here I watch the people pass and mull. And usually, when I can keep track of what I’m thinking, I find that I’m thinking about Beth. Was Jessie right? Maybe I’m still intoxicated, I think. That’s easier than placing any sort of stock in what my sister had to say to me in her fit of rage. And every day brings the thought. I wish Taylor were here. I should have mended my relationship with my brother. Even in the heaviest throws of anorexia, Taylor was reachable. He filled me with wisdom I didn’t think I would ever have. Wisdom created by the Crazy. I have that wisdom now. But now he has life on the other side. I need other-side wisdom. I should have apologized.

Shadow after shadow passes. Their reflections are on this side of the windows. Watching me, watching the outside. Beth’s face contorts into a look of sullen pity. Nick is ambivalently watching the people pass. He sees them as people. Not the faceless shadows of the things we have become.

When was the last time we bathed?

“How long have you been down here?” She picks up my half-empty glass of water. Sips and cringes. I shrug my shoulders. “You know, we’ve been gone for almost two weeks?” Stay silent. Looking back into the windows, Nick’s reflection has a computer bag slung over its shoulder. “There’s an internet-café thing down the street. We should go check our e-mail. Then get something to eat.” She swallows. “Get a drink.” What she’s not saying is that she is starting to feel homesick.

The waitress returns with my drink. Swallow it in one long gulp and leave her a twenty. It was a slow night. Bet she’s going to college and needs the money.

It’s warmer tonight than it has been. Damn Louisiana weather. The walk is short. Quiet. The silence is undeterminable. An evanescent phenomenon with nothing to say. Why do we have to go back to real world? We came here. We ran away for a reason. Now they have to go back into it. What I’m not saying is that I don’t want to have to face my guilt.

The café is virtually empty. A Bo-Ho-esque feeling covers the walls. Plays from the overly loud stereo.

“How ya’ll doin’ tonight?” The Creole accent sounds like a language bred from a New York dialect and a southern drawl.

We smile. Beth says, “we’re good.” He offers us some house-special coffee and we each take a large cup. Black for Nick. Cream and sugar for Beth and I.

Nick sits at a table. Checkerboard in the middle. Isaac taught me to play chess but always got frustrated with my inability to plan ahead. Playing on impulse and not intuition or reason like Isaac or Jessie. A mediocre player at best and the only one who will play with me is just as frustrating to Isaac as I am: Avery.

Nick's computer makes familiar whirs and beeps. He pushes it to the center so Beth and I can read the e-mail he’s gotten.

Some big, protective brother you are, you sorry fuck. I can’t believe you’d leave me here. She’s making me stay with that mother fucker for New Years. And you run off like some pussy. What the fuck do you have to run from anyway? Not like he pressed charges. I fucking hate you. I hope you never come home. You fucking coward.

That was the only e-mail Tara had left him. It was four days old.

Can’t move. Whatever has happened to Tara has happened because of me. Words are in my mouth, the way a crater in the concrete fills with water that won’t move.

Beth puts her arms around him, staring up at him. Doe-eyed. She’s feeling like a crater too.

His nose flares. Jaw tightens. His body slackens when he exhales. “Let’s go get some food.” He coughs. Swallows the tears he’s too proud to cry. “And let’s get fucked up.”

As we left the café in a stunned calm, Nick remembered that he had brought my phone to me. Fifty-seven missed calls. Twenty-two voicemails. Twelve text messages. And an instant message from AOL reminding me that it is now ten-cents to send IMs from my phone.

Scrolling through the call log, I find that the missed calls are from my house. A few are from Nick’s house. A few more from Beth’s. There are even calls from Isaac and Taylor’s cell phones. Even Samantha and Natalie have tried to find me. The lot are responsible for the text messages. In sum, they all say “where are you?” I leer at my phone. There are twenty-six voicemails. Without much thought—because if I give it any, I’d throw the phone away—-I began to listen to my voicemails.

“Hey Zac. It’s Mom.” She’s not worried. Not yet anyway. Just wondering where you are. We haven’t heard from you since you went to Nick’s yesterday. Give me a call when you get this.”

The next is a little more worried. “Zac? Beth’s mom just called. She wanted to know if Beth is with you or Nick? Please answer your phone?”

The third was a hang up. So was the fourth.

“Where. Are. You.” Ah, it took five calls for Dad to finally have something to say. Must not have any work for us to do right now. “So help me God, son, if you’re not dead somewhere when I find you, you will be.” Now that is some incentive to call home. There’s dead air. He’s probably trying to figure out another thing to threaten me with. What, Dad, gonna take my drums away? Anything but that! He hangs up the phone.

The rest of the messages to follow are unremarkable. Where are we? When are we coming home? Why don’t we answer our damn phones? And quite a few hang-ups.

By the time I look up again, we’re standing near the end of Bourbon Street, in front of Pat O’Brien’s. Beth has a triumphant grin.

“Yum!” She wiggles happily and enters the restaurant, without waiting for us.

After a couple beers, Nick is a bit more relaxed. In fact, he’s a lot more relaxed.

“So, just for fun, and beer money, we should pretend we’re street performers!” The look on his face would lead one to believe that he thinks he’s had an original idea.”

Beth’s left eye is twitching. “You asshole. That was my idea!”

“Yeah.” He laughs. “But you brought it up when I was sober. It was a stupid idea then. It’s a great idea now!”

Beth’s too tender natured. Any other girl would have slapped him. Instead she takes another sip of her Hurricane and continues inhaling her red beans and rice.

The bowl of jambalaya I ordered steams below my face. The smell would make you drool for days just thinking about it. It’s spicy; Cajun spicy. Cajun spice is so different from the spices you’re used to. Spanish spice kicks your ass the second it hits your tongue. But Cajun spices are subtle. They creep up on you, like the Louisiana rains, and kick you when you least expect it. After a few bites though, my belly feels unbearably full. To pass the time, I watch the people around the restaurant. Most of them are tourists. Their cameras flash at anything that moves. Each has a gigantic, kool-aid red hurricane, the drink to order here. Despite some of the watered-down tourist-drawing decorations, this place is full of southern flare and complete New Orleans. I fucking love this city.

After we finished dinner, Beth drags us up and over to St. Ann Street into a high-priced mask shop. Ornate, brightly painted masks hang on every inch of the wall. Every imaginable shape. Butterflies and demons. Jacks and queens and kings. African faces and Indians, eye-less and mouth-less. These are incredible.

While I was busy gawking, Beth had decided on a mask she wanted to wear for our performance as street performers. Eighty dollars. I feel faint.

After a trip back down to Toulouse to get my guitar and a pair of sticks I just so happened to have in my case. Luck, I tell you. We stole a trashed bucked that used to house some sort of cleaning supply out of the trash from the back of the hotel.

While Nick and I were surreptitiously sneaking around the trash, Beth had gone upstairs to prepare her role as the anonymous, but unforgettably beautiful, street urchin. She came down with her face shimmery-pink and bronzed. In lieu of her dancing slippers, she wore a pair of ballet shoes. Her long, thick black thermal pants nearly covered her toes, over which she wore skirt made of layers of sheer pink fabric, and a long-sleeved black shirt with a plunged neck-line. Her collarbone protrudes and beneath it, ridges of her breastbone. People will think she starved. They pay more when you look like you haven’t eaten in a year. Her frizzy mass of hair is piled on the back of her head, with ringlets that have escaped the twisting hanging off. She laced pink ribbons into her hair. She is the model of a Disney princess in her butterfly mask. Only dirty and half drunk.

We move to an internal rhythm. In step with each other. You only learn this rhythm after so many years in the company of the same people. Because eventually they are the same. Same beats per second. The dynamic levels even become the same. Eventually you crescendo together. Sforzando. Step in staccato. Our downbeats are the same. Tonight our rhythm is slow, but moving. Andante. Beth hums her happiness as she swirls around Nick and I. And I know he is thinking about the same thing. Tara. But instead, we march on in the interest of finding something to drown our guilt in.

We reach Bourbon and set up a few blocks away from Canal. Things are quieter down here, away from the nosier bars. Nick sets my guitar case near the curb, taking a seat beside it and begins strumming and tuning. I sit on the other side. Bucket between my legs tapping an inconstant rhythm waiting for Nick to pick a chord. Beth is already flexing and moving in circles on the tips of her toes.

“You know that old Goo Goo Dolls song?” He’s strumming a song old and familiar.

“Yeah.” I sang the first few lines of the song as he played them. He looks at Beth like he’s wondering if she can dance to it.

“I can dance to anything you can play.”

He starts the song. Beth flexes ballerina. And I tap as I feel moved.

People gather and begin throwing money into the case. Some hesitate and move along. Others stay for song after song. Nick plays and I ask no questions. Beth sweats despite the cold. Well, not that it’s the freezing cold we have at home. More the humid cool of the Louisiana winter.

Beth takes a break after an undeterminable amount of time, going to the Hurricane stand across the street from us. She orders Hurricanes for each of us with extra shots of whatever goes into these miracle concoctions. Five minutes after we finish them she goes back for another round.

We play until the life on the street dies down. Clock in the hotel lobby reads 4:15 when we drag in. Drunk from so many Hurricanes. Guitar case full of coins and some bills we didn’t stop to count. The walls of the hotel blur into the superfluous furniture. We walk past the door of our room three times, Beth howls in laughter. Nick sloppily places his hand over her mouth repeatedly—-to no ultimate avail. My experiences as a drunk have found me quiet, introspective, and easier going than I would have been had I been sober. If I enjoyed hangovers, I’d give up cutting and become an alcoholic.

Once in the room, Nick flops on one bed and Beth fumbles over to the bed near the window. Rolls onto the floor and crawls to the French doors that lead to the patio and pulls them open.

“It’s so pretty.” Her words are typical lush. “The dark sky. You can’t even see the stars, like where we live. Wow. Like…wow.”

“Beth,” Nick laughs. “Beth, just, shut up. It’s the same sky. You can’t see the stars because of all the lights of the city.”

She emits a little squeak of amazement. A ridiculous epiphany.

“Zaccy?” She blurts as though my name were part of her epiphany.

I flop onto the bed she had rolled off of. “Yes?”

“Thank you for bringing us here.” Her head lolled onto the concrete of the porch.

“Thank you for letting us forget.” Nick grumbles. “But we have to go home soon.” His drunk is wearing off. He knows he has to get back to Tara soon or she will never forgive him.

Beth is humming something. She had pulled her pants off as soon as we had shut the door to the room. And now I can see how dirty her feet are. Her hair has become lank from days without washing. I feel responsible. For weeks I have allowed her to become the antithesis of the girl I have loved. In the hopes of allowing her to forget the pains of her empty body, she has lost herself. I have to send her home. I have to return Nick to his rightful family. To the sister, whose hateful letter was the greatest expression of undying love I have ever witnessed from one sibling to another. They don’t even share blood. But before I send her home, I have to clean her up.

Picking her up is like lifting a sleeping child. Lethargic and quiet. She asks no questions and puts up no fight.

She continues her unwavering quiet as I set her down on the bathroom counter and run a tub of steaming water. I turn around to help her get undressed.

She places her hands on my face. They’re rough and dirty, but caressing. “I think I will always love you.”

This statement slightly amuses me. “You think you’ll always love me?”

“I know I will.” Her arms fall back down as her eyes flutter from post-drunk sleepiness.

The tub is full and she’s sitting still. Looking at me. Watching me watching her watching me. Her green eyes are bright red. Her irises have gone flat. Like her curly hair, now fallen and depressing.

“Andrew should be a month old now.” Her sobering voice is flat too. I wait for her to cry. To allow herself a tear. Maybe two. But she just continues to sit there. I don’t know what to say. So I move towards her and begin to tug the hem of her shirt above her head. Her arms slam on the counter as they drop out of her sleeves. She looks down at her flat stomach. Her ribs ripple her stretched flesh. She put her hands over the lower part of her belly, the way an expectant mother waits for her child to move. But nothing moves. She doesn’t look back at me. Not even as I slip my hands behind her back to remove her bra. Or as I slide her panties over her hips. All the noise she makes is a comforted sigh as I slide her into the tub. She flicks the water with her knotted toes, covered in blisters from hours of dancing.

“Zaccy?” Her head lulls to her shoulder as she finally looks at me again. When I raise my eyebrows in response, she asks, “did the Crazy do this to you? Make you quiet?”

The thrilled admiration searing my chest stopped cold. “Uh…” A garbled sound. “Yeah…uh…yes. Yeah.”

She watches me. Her face is serene and unwavering. And we look at each other, blinking occasionally. Communicating sympathies in the quiet.

“Will you wash my hair?” She didn’t wait for an answer before sliding under the water. I pulled a cup from the counter as she came sputtering back up and grabbed the expensive bottle of shampoo she insists is the only thing that helps her unmanageable hair. It makes her smell like oatmeal cookies. She hums contentedly as I massage the shampoo around her scalp.

“Bethy?” Pulling the bottom six inches of her hair from the water.

From the very fringes of unconsciousness she pulled a husky sound from the bottom of her throat. “Mmhmm?”

Douse her hair with a cupful of water. “What does the Crazy do to you?” And another two cups of water.

“I dance too much.” She smiles, knowing that she doesn’t actually believe that she’ll ever dance too much. As she slips down, the water suds as the shampoo leaves her hair and suds immensely as she rustles it out with her fingers. She keeps her eyes closed when she resurfaces. The water smears her make-up down her face. “It makes me cry.” She pulls the plug with her toes. “And I do really impulsive, silly things.” She smiles. “Like pretend I’m a street performer in New Orleans.”

We share a smile. A funny-friendship smile. The kind you share when you have an inside joke. It’s fond. It’s happy.

She stands and turns the shower on to wash the rest of the shampoo from her hair. “Will you get me some clothes?” I nod as she pulls the curtain shut.

I hesitated for a second. Feeling the smile on my face. It made me nearly wish I was home again. Then I heard something hit the wall in the room.

When I opened the door, I found Nick facing me. Enraged. “Goddammit.” He flung a hotel directory across the room with a sweep of his arm across the table in the corner.

“What?” I was too stunned to say anything else.

“Tara’s in ICU back in Tulsa.” This time he’s throwing the café’s menu at the wall and I’m thankful we don’t have neighbors on that side of the room. “She ODed on something and they don’t know if she’ll live.”

Beth walks out of the bathroom, naked, with her hair wrapped in a towel. “What’s going on?”

“It’s time to pack our bags.” I said this to her, not looking away from Nick. “We’re going home in the morning.”

Chapter Text

“What?” That’s her. Voice strung out and garbled. “Who is this?” I can’t seem to answer at first. “I can fucking hear you.”

“I can fucking hear you too!” The sound of her voice almost makes me second guess myself. She can be mean and unbearable when she’s high. But I don’t notice it so much when I’m high with her.

“Well.” Her tone is affronted. “Zac Hanson.” Then she’s quiet. She’s trying to think of something to say to hurt me. Make some attack on Beth. Anything to retaliate. “What do you want?” Apparently she came up empty handed.

“Hi.” Never let it be said that I’m verbose.

“Hi.” Someone in her background asks who she’s talking to. Someone else tells her to get off the phone.

“Look, I know I really said some mean shit. And I’m sorry. I want to make it up to you.” Nick is beeping in, but I ignore it. “I want you to fly into New Orleans. Stay with me a few days. I’ll pay for it. I’ll pay for whatever you want. I want to see you.” She muffles the phone and tells her companions to shut up. I can hear her breathing. “Look, Delancy, you don’t have to, but—”

“—Can I come right now?”

Early this morning Nick, Beth and I were boarding a plane back to Tulsa. We had called our families and told them we were coming home. Mom was the one to answer the phone when I called. She cried and kept telling me how relieved she was that I was coming home. How happy my siblings would be. But as I was following Nick and Beth onto the plane, I began to panic. I wasn’t ready to go home. Too many questions to answer. Too many apologies to make. My father’s fist kept flashing in my mind. I fell behind Nick and Beth. Watched them board the plane. Turned around and walked out of the gate. One of the airline workers asked me if something was wrong, I said I left something in the bathroom. In the bathroom I heard the final boarding call for our flight. Then the announcement that the flight was leaving. I had done the responsible thing. I sent Nick and Beth home to their worried families.

Back at the hotel, I sent Nick and Beth a text, even though I knew they wouldn’t get it until they got off the plane. I told them I wasn’t ready to go home. I apologized. Said I hoped to see them soon. Then, without thinking, I called Delancy. And now she’s on a flight to New Orleans.

To pass the time until Delancy’s arrival—and to avoid ruminating over whether I had made a stupid decision or not—I took a dose of Nyquil and slept.

My dreams were strange. My father’s voice shouting various threats. Natalie and Delancy pregnant. My mother’s a ghost. And the death of someone I’ve never met, but am apparently close to in the dream. All I wanted was to wake up. But I was stuck until there was a pounding on my door.

She had taken the piercings out of her eyebrows. Her hair is longer now. Black, the under-side the color of cherry Kool-aid.

All these years I’ve known her, I’ve never been able to call Delancy beautiful. Beth, with her black hair, green eyes, porcelain skin—Beth is beautiful. But Delancy oozes sex and danger. I am irresistibly drawn to her ability to go through life like she’s never given a damn about anything. It’s what keeps me coming back, letting her in the door (or window); it’s what’s kept me from following my parent’s orders all these years.

She doesn’t smile. She doesn’t say anything. I step aside and she walks into the room. Flings her bags on the bed and opens the armoire. She cracks open a bottle of vodka, swallowing without flinching. She looks me in the eye as she does this, waiting for my reaction, but I don’t satisfy this request.

“Why did you want me?” She says, reaching for a second bottle of vodka. “Wouldn’t Beth come with you?”

For a moment, I hesitate. I don’t want to satisfy her bitterness by not telling her that I had been in New Orleans for two weeks with Beth and Nick. And yet, I felt this need to shut her snarky mouth. “I’ve been here for a couple weeks already. Nick and Beth went back to Tulsa this morning.” She wrapped her snarky mouth around the small bottle.

Hell of a beginning. She takes a couple pills from her pocket and I don’t even want to ask what they are. My cell phone starts ringing and she looks at me, annoyed.

“Did you call me out here to make fun of me?” Her arms cross her chest. “Is that what this is about? Did you just call me down here so that we can fight about her again? So you can make me feel less than her again? You know, despite what you’ve come to believe all these years, Zac, I do have feelings—no matter how many drugs I take—you can still hurt me! And if you called me out here just to—”

“—Shut up, Delancy.” I had no patience for anything out of character. I want to get stoned. Have sex and get stoned again. “If I wanted to make fun of you I could have done that on the phone. Now drop the self-pity.”

She stares at me. Just fucking say something! She pulls a plastic bag from her bra. And hands me a pill with a blue star printed on top. X. We each swallow one.

She yanks off her hoodie. “So where’s the nearest bar?”

Weeks pass. I keep my phone turned off. Don’t return any of the messages the hotel takes for me. She leaves and finds drugs. I don’t ask any questions. Just take what she gives me and let our lives pass in a blur that I can’t recognize. If we’ve talked about anything, I’ve forgotten it. The most I can remember is sobering up and taking more and drinking more. I am finally as lost as I had planned. I don’t care about anything. Thoughts of my friends and family become less and less as I think more and more about drugs and keeping Delancy happy.

Where did this come from? My life wasn’t all that bad. There’s my dad, but even he isn’t enough for me to say I had a bad life. I can obviously take a plane anywhere. Get whatever I want, whenever I want it. I have a softball team of siblings and an incredible nephew. My best friends would obviously follow me to the ends of the earth. In fact, I just sent them back home from the edge. But my feet are still dangling off. There’s no water to keep my feet clean though. And the only thing I have to cling to is a girl who is only still holding on to the world by a fragile branch.

Its late afternoon now. Delancy’s been gone over an hour. She’s never gone this long. If she can’t score some kind of dope in thirty minutes, she comes back and tells me I had best just order a bottle of whisky. Call her cell phone. But her cell phone is on the table beside our bed. So I roll over, pick up the half empty Jack Daniel’s bottle. Down a few shots. Roll over and lull back into sleep.

In my sleep I hear far off yells. Muffled. The yelling gets louder. Wake up. The yelling is right outside the door. When the door flings open, Delancy runs in with her parents behind her screaming. So groggy, I don’t register any of the words they’re using. I register, however, the people behind them. My mother. And my older brothers.

The first audible sounds I make out are, “I fucking hate you!” Screaming coming out of Delancy’s throat. “What the fuck do you want? Go away. Go back to your perfect lives without your little fuck up. You never give a fuck about me unless I’m making you look bad.” She screams so hard her body crumples to the floor. “You never wanted me. You never fucking wanted me. So just leave me alone!” She’s crying. Delancy’s crying because her parents have come to collect her.

“Delancy.” Her mother is a woman of medium height, with fierce blue eyes. Her tears look like they are falling right out of her irises. “Delancy, please, stop this. You need help.”

“Help to get away from you!” Delancy’s thin finger points, like a gun’s laser sight, at her mother’s forehead.

Her father stands back. He’s standing near Taylor, who looks at Delancy the way one looks at someone who is familiar, but not quite recognizable. None of my family are looking at me. For that I am thankful. But I am helplessly paralyzed watching the Elliott family unfold.

“We’ve done everything for you!” Her mother places her hand on a chair near Delancy and leans, heavy and tried, looking at her daughter with a face that is praying for a breakthrough. “You’ve fought us every day since we brought you home.”

Brought her home?

“You took me from my family!” Delancy’s voice is beginning to crack from all the screaming.

“Your family?” Her dad now jumps in. “The family that left you in an empty house, in dirty diapers for days while they sold drugs? The family that would have tricked you out like your older sisters as soon as you were old enough to talk?” His face had turned red and his nose began running. “Yes, ‘Lance, I broke up my brother’s family. We’re the most evil people on earth. We risked our lives and livelihood because we didn’t want you. You’ve got it all figured out. We wish you’d just go back to them. That’s exactly what we want for you.”

Tears burned in the ducts below my eyes. My mother, who was sobbing herself, went to Delancy’s mother and helped her to sit down. Gave her the box of tissues and returned to her safe place behind my brothers.

Tired and broken down, Mrs. Elliott sighs. “Delancy, no child has perfect parents. And we’ve never said anything cross about yours. Only that we thought you deserved a better life. We tried to save your sisters. But you’re the only one we could. We’ve given you the best we have.” She wipes her nose with a wad of tissues. “Now we just want you to come home and please, please get some help for all this drug use. Please, Delancy? Please?” The strain in the last word from her mother’s mouth send the tears out of my tear ducts.

Delancy looks up at me. Detached and angry. “You’re going to let them take me, aren’t you?”

Can’t move. Everyone is looking at me. And I do nothing but look at her and cry. The mystery of Delancy, long eluded, is now etched into the walls of this hotel room. This is what she had hid from me. This is how Delancy had truly been broken. This is why she hated Beth so much. She had spent all these years feeling like she had been damaged most. She deserved happiness most. Her parents weren’t the monsters I had spent all these years thinking they were.

She’s still staring at me. Crying so hard she’s screaming.

“I can’t save you Delancy.” My throat filled with alcohol and bile. Swallow to keep things from getting worse. “I can’t even save myself.”

On the plane back to Tulsa, Taylor sits next to me. Isaac and Mom in front of us. Shivering from the chills and nausea. Drug withdrawals. Taylor ignores them. He shuts off my vent and lets me suffer.

“How’d you find me?” Wish I had my iPod.

He stares at Mom’s headrest as though it’s the one talking to him. “Your credit card bill came in two days ago. So did your cell phone bill with Delancy’s number. So Mom called Delancy’s parents to see if you were with her. They said that she’d been missing a few weeks.”

“What did Dad say?” Flashes of his furious face went by in my brain like frames on an old movie reel.

Taylor finally looks at me. He looks scared. “Dad’s gone to grandma’s. He’s helping her take care of some stuff.”

Turn to face the back of mom’s head rest. “Have you guys heard anything about Nick’s sister?”

Mom turns to look at me finally. She’s tired-looking as usual. “Nick’s mom called when he got home. She was released from the hospital into a behavioral health unit two weeks ago. She should be out in a couple days.”

Nod. “How are Nick and Beth?”

She turns around. My mother’s never been this cold and disconnected from me. I know I hurt her. But she can’t possibly understand why I had to go. It’s mid-February now; I haven’t cut since sometime before Christmas. That’s a triumph, isn’t it? But now that I think of it, I can see my box sitting in the top my closet. With razors I haven’t broken apart yet. Tissue and gauze—used and clean. Safety pins. I should put some alcohol or anti-bacterial gel in there. The more I ruminate about the box, the more I want to cut. I have no more scabs to scratch.

“I have to pee.” I don’t really. But I want away from the hostility. Painful because it’s from Mom. Taylor follows me. “I can pee on my own.”

“Keep walking.” He shoves my shoulder. “I have something to tell you that Mom and Isaac won’t.”

When we get to the bathroom, Taylor stops me and looks back up to Mom and Isaac to make sure they aren’t watching us. “Mom told dad to leave.” Fall back against the bathroom door. “He kept threatening to kill you, send you away, beat you senseless. Nothing out of the usual, really.” He checks again. “When Nick and Beth got home, they said they knew where you were. They wouldn’t tell us though. Dad got so pissed at you, he took your car out of the garage and crashed it into the tree near the end of the driveway.” Taylor’s voice is flat and unconcerned. I don’t know if this disconcerted tone was related to me or to our father. “Your room’s trashed. You don’t have a computer anymore. And he was halfway through your clothes when Mom called the cops.” When he looks again, Isaac is looking. Taylor cuts his eyes and Isaac looks away. “Dad agreed to therapy and Mom agreed that you’re going to live with Isaac when we get home.”

Now I really want to cut.

As soon as we pull into the drive way, I hop out of the car and run for the house. Taylor and Mom call after me, but I keep going. Full speed to my room. To what could have been the only sanctuary left. But now they’re pushing me out of it. Even though I helped pay for this house. If I own no other part, my room is mine. Don’t slow as I pass the living room to see if the kids are here. Echoes of my feet pounding up the stairs hit my ears like tribal drums driving me upward. Once inside, I slam the door and lean against it. This is mine. This is mine. This is mine. My breath is heaving. This room, this space, this is mine.

There are feet pounding up the stairs. Lock the door and move for my dresser. With some effort, the beating on my door to drive me, I move the dresser in front of the door. Even if they get it unlocked, they won’t get it open.

Turn on the light. It’s destroyed. My broken laptop is near the foot of my bed. Looks like he put his fist through the keyboard. Then through the monitor. Overkill. Papers from my desk are all over the floor. Some of them are art projects from my siblings that are now art project confetti. A small painting Jessica had done when she was younger has a hole in the middle and the wooden frame is snapped. Letters from Beth. From Delancy. A few things from fans. It’s all decimated. Shreds of some of my favorite t-shirts lay on the floor outside my closet. He even tore the stuffing out of the teddy bear my Grandma had given me for my first birthday. A new hopelessness sets in. One that knows none of these things I loved will be part of my life anymore. Nothing, except what I manage to find still hidden on the top shelf of my closet.

There was my box. Hidden for some time. It seemed to have a glow around it. My holy grail. Who needs Jesus when you have a box of razors? Opening it felt like opening a new toy. I just have to play with it. My scabs have long been healed. Time for new ones.

Rub my cave of a stomach with alcohol. Clean a new razorblade. It feels like surgery. I’m about to save my own live, by damaging the very thing that keeps it alive. Pull the razor across the middle of my stomach. The sound of it, the feel. Leaves me gasping. Again. And again. And again. Feel out of control. Lose count of the cuts. The blood flows like a rusty river over a bumpy cliff. Contract the muscles and bleed more. A satisfying sight. This, too, is mine.

I lay down. Placing a couple of my shredded shirts over my stomach, I begin to feel sleepy. The pounding on my door stopped some time ago. But a light knock is there. “Zac? It’s Beth.” Too sleepy to move. “Please open the door. No one is with me. It—it’s just me. Please? Zac?”

I don’t know when she leaves. Because I never get up to answer the door.

The next morning, I’m woken up by the sound of someone picking at the lock on my door.

“Taylor, I’m not getting anything.” It’s Isaac.

Taylor grunts. “I guess we could just take the screws out.”

I should feel moved to action. I should feel worried that they’re trying to make their way into my room. I feel nothing. Nothing but cold and still. The shirts peel away from my wounds. Opening them to the sting of the freshOklahoma air. Lay here and let them bleed onto the floor.

Clank. Look up to see the doorknob hit the floor. Someone’s fingers poking through. Then a groan as one of my brothers tries to push my dresser out of the way. Thankfully, antiques were made to be heavy and hard to move. Neither of my brothers are notably strong. Even as I hear both of them groaning as they push against the weight of the dresser, it doesn’t move.

“Dad’s gonna have to do it.” Isaac informs Taylor—and whoever else might be in the hall.

“Dad’s not coming back anytime soon.” Taylor says back. “He’ll come out when he’s ready.”

As I heard them walk away, I imagined this to be a trick. Like in those old Bugs Bunny cartoons where he stands outside the door and pretends to walk away with walk-in-place footsteps that get lighter and lighter. Then Elmer Fudd sticks his face out the door, only to be hit in the face with a frying pan. Or something. I imagine my brothers standing out there, with a net to catch me if I try to escape as they plan where they’ll lock me up now that I have bailed on therapy. Along with everything else. And having Delancy in New Orleans just proves I’m a danger to myself.

After things get quiet once more, I feel my breathing slow down. And I fall back to sleep.

“How long has he been in there?” Beth.

“Almost three days.” Mom.

“We think.” Taylor. “He hasn’t made a sound. He hasn’t come out to go to the bathroom or eat or bathe.”

Have I really been here three days? When did I crawl into my bed? I’m still wearing the same pair of boxers as the day I left New Orleans. The dresser is unmoved. There’s blood on my sheets. On the carpet. On my hands.

“And you’ve just left him in there?” Beth’s voice is scratchy. Like days of sandpaper down her throat. “Three days without water? He’s probably dea—sick. I’m getting him out of there!”

“Good luck.” Isaac. He’s rolling his eyes. He thinks she’s idealistic.

“Beth!” Mom shouts as I hear a pair of feet beating down the stairs. “Beth. He’ll come out when he’s ready.”

“He’ll never fucking be ready!” The front door slams after Beth’s voice.

Five minutes later a loud clang hits my window. Scared, but lifeless, I watch the window. Waiting for the apocalypse to come. Or at least a heavy brick.

The brick came through the glass so hard it smacked into my dresser. Glass pinged as pieces of it were pushed out of the way. Peaks of her delicate fingers came through the curtain. Then her arm as she pulled back my curtains. She leaned in. Looking at me. Angry and bewildered.

My face slid into my black pillow. My knees came up to my chest. And I closed my eyes. Willed her away from this sight. Willed myself to be perfect to her again. Willed myself to stop living. She came through despite my willing. The glass groaned under her. A mourning sound.

The tears, her tears, were audible. All the blood. The gauze and the used shreds of t-shirts. The shreds my father made of our past. Of my life. She wasn’t seeing me. She was seeing the pieces, she shards and the shreds and the pathetic bloody piles of life that I had become. She could see it all now. This is simply the worst moment of my life.

She yanks my shoulder. Hands go immediately to my face. Like willing her away as gotten me any gain this far.

She pulls at my hands. Hers are cold. She yanks hard. When I give, I pull my fingernails down my face catching bits of skin and blood. She slaps me. Again. And once more. Her tears slide over the blood, clung to my skin like caking, clinging red clay. For some time I let her slap me. In the face. The chest. Until she began to beat me with her fists. Then I finally caught her arms with a force I thought I had lost—much harder and I could have snapped her arms. Her chest popped in and out in gasps of breaths. She collapses. Tears across my scabs feel like new wounds. Her body slips down beside mine. She pushes my knees away from my chest and curls near me. As close as she can get without pushing herself inside my skin. I think, if she could, she’d crawl inside me and live for me so that I wouldn’t have to do it alone anymore.

Her face is horribly swollen when her sobs yield. Her eyes flick back and forth, looking at me. With each flick, one new drop of hell fire-hot saline falls off my face. She puts her hands on my face. Frozen, making my skin feel as though it may shatter in the contrast. “What are you?” Her thumbs press in on my sinuses as she wipes tears away. There are no words to answer her with. Instead, I pull her close to me, trying to push her under my skin. Because living has far too much responsibility in it. I am tired.

Her sobs come again. In waves. And my own wet her hair and ear. There are whispers outside my door. Mom tells my younger siblings to go downstairs. Beth holds on. Like if she let’s go, I’ll be gone for good this time.

I wonder where Nick is.

My room is black, save the light coming in from the hole where my doorknob used to be. Beth’s face is finally placid, nearly peaceful if it weren’t for the distress. When her breathing changes, I lean back to look at her in a silent reverence for her strength. She may be made of rigid glass, but she is hard and strong. My own mother never thought of throwing a brick through my window. My mother never interferes.

Her eyes open. She leans back and looks at me. Puts her hands to my face again. “I wish I knew what to say to you.” She swallows what could have been another wash of tears. “I wish you could have told me you were in this much pain, Zac. You were sad; that was easy to see.” She pauses. Brushes my stomach with her fingertips. The pieces of missing skin from my face. “I think I lost you after the rape.”

“This isn’t your fault.” Unlike my stoic heroine, my tears won’t be swallowed.

Places her hand to my mouth. “I know. I don’t know. Zaccy. I’m all out of words.” Her tears came. So did a whisper. “Except—I love you.”

Knock knock.

Beth sits up. “Yeah?” Her voice sounds drowned.

“Beth?” It’s Taylor. “You’ve been in there…f-for a while.”

“He’s okay. We’re talking.” Her hand brushes my cheek once more. “We’ll be down in a little while.”

“Zac?” He’s bent over to the doorknob hole. Looking in only to see the darkness.

Hesitate. Because I have no idea what to say. “Yeah.”

The sigh coming through the hole sounds like relief. Like he thought I was dead. “Just—checking.”

“I’m here.” After that the light came in again and we knew he had left.

She sits on the lid of the toilet while I scrub clotted blood off my skin. Some of the wounds open again. The sting of the water is satisfying.

“Where did you” She flips the pages of a magazine. —When did you…why?”

“Why what?” Rub my scalp, pretending I don’t understand what she’s asking me.

She grunts, frustrated because she knows I know what she’s talking about. “Zac. Don’t play me like a simple little girl.”

“I was shaving one day and nicked myself. That’s when it started.” My talk with Taylor, on the picnic table in California comes to mind. She would regret ever heaving that brick if I talk to her the way I had talked to Taylor. “You don’t want to hear about this Beth. It’s not going to make it any better.”

Hear the magazine slap against the floor. “Fuck you. Answer the fucking question, Zac!”

“I cut for the same reason you dance too much and eat too little.” The only sound now is the water slapping away at the marble wall. “It’s how I let go, Beth. Without becoming a drug addict or alcoholic.”

“What do you call your time with Delancy?” Have I ever mentioned that her glass edges are sometimes venomous?

“Another form of escapism.” Rinse my hair. “Being with Lance is as hard on my body as cutting. She’s just another way to hurt myself.”

In the quiet, I hear the molecules of steam slamming themselves into the wall. Hear the way she inhales them and spits them back out hotter than before. The water is running over my face, feeling like punch after punch.

She’s moving around. Assume she’s going for the door. But it never even opens. Behind me, the sound of the shower curtain being pulled open. Her arms around my stomach. And her skin covering my back. She’s holding on so tight.

She’s trying to pull me out of the drain.

Chapter Text

Isaac’s apartment looks like he took a bucket of ‘50s beatniks and splashed them on the walls. How did I get placed with Isaac? We are the proverbial ships that pass in the night. Never knowing much about the other. Shape and size. Maybe even color. Now we’re forced, side by side, into the same port. I think we’re more confused and confounded by each other than ever before.

It’s late February now. Beth’s Juilliard audition is in a couple weeks. The only person she’ll allow to accompany her to New York is her mom. She says that Nick and I will only make her nervous. Or, in the least, get her too drunk the night before to perform well. Taylor and Samantha wrote a piece for her ballet solo—they, like all of us, assume that Beth will pass her class audition and go on for a solo audition. Also operating under that assumption, my brother’s and I recorded an instrumental piece for Beth’s modern dance audition. She and her instructor choreographed for a week. Dance is coupled with music, the entities hold hands, and meld like blended colors. Everyone knows this. I never really learned to admire this relationship, though, until watching Beth trying to move the right way, on the right beat, at the right time, just to immediately move in some foreign way on the next up-beat. Watching her became like watching little quarter notes that slide from a staff and move as though notes were created to move.

Dad moved back home last week. Mom made him clean what was left of my room. She forced him to replace my computer. He wrote me an apology letter, she said, but put it away somewhere. I’m sure she bullied him into that too. He’ll never be sorry.

Taylor called a few hours ago. The entire family is going to dinner together. And yes I have to be there. He’s got some kind of announcement to make. Wish I were myopic enough to think it’ll be a divorce announcement.

Around the family table, I sit as far from my father as I can. Keep my hands under the table and avoid looking at most of my family members. My scarlet letter is in the shape of a D.

“Grammie!” Ezra flings a pile of mashed potatoes onto the table as he shouts to get my mother’s attention. “Mommy’s making me a baby sister!”

Jessie drops her spoon; Avery’s face looks as though she could vomit within moments; Isaac and Samantha are grinning properly; Mom claps her hands to her face; Dad’s nodding his head proudly; and my two youngest siblings look rather lost. The most I have is the coughing up of the mouthful of water I had half swallowed when Ezra shouted.

Taylor pats his son’s head. “Thanks, kiddo.” He grins at his son, proud. Taylor is everything our father should have been. “Natalie and I are having another baby.”

“Why?” Jessie’s face looks as though she was immediately sorry. The word had escaped her before she could close her mouth again. She just so happened to say exactly what I was thinking. Jessie pushes her chair away from the table. “Excuse me.”

Jessie leaves the room. Natalie looks unaffected by Jessica’s audacious questioning, but Taylor looks hurt. The outsider wouldn’t be able to tell. But we see it.

Mom perks up, to fill in the awkward tension. “Congratulations! When did you find out?”

“A few days ago.” Natalie shovels a few carrots into her mouth. “I took a test because, well, I just knew. I don’t think I’m very far along—I’m going to the doctor next week.”

“You’re having another baby?” Mack turns his head to the side, like a puppy confused by a new sound.

“Is it a girl?” Zoë happens to look like a puppy that’s just been offered a treat.

“I don’t want a sister!” Ezra gives Taylor a pouty face. I remember thinking that a sister would be great. Someone who wouldn’t beat up on me because I was the smallest. Turned out, Jessie could kick my ass harder than my brothers could most of the time. When I found out mom was having Avery, I was convinced I needed karate lessons to prepare for the occasion.

Without any proper excuse, I left the room to find Jessica. In the hall, I see her standing on the back porch. She’s thin, thin from nature and her stern disposition. Her arms are crossed, her hands clutching her ribs.

Open the door, quiet and slow. Her breath escapes her in a white fog, slow and sadly labored. “You know, Zac, I love Ezra like I had given birth to him myself.” Jessie has a voice that draws you in, as though you are walking into a story-telling. And I wait in the chilly wind for the story to continue. “But, you know, the drama of Ezra was so big. Sometimes I wish we’d never happened across Nat.” Her left arm moves to sweep her hand across her face. “A letter came today, from theTulsaSchool. I got in. I wanted to tell everybody over dinner. But Taylor and his drama queen wife…” She inhales, coughs from the cold. “Well, you know how this family is about kids. Who cares about a school when there’s another fucking kid on the way.” She looks at me, face splotchy red. “Like another kid is what they need. They can’t agree about a damn thing now. Dammit, Zac! Dammit!”

Sometimes I think Jessica will one day decide against kids. She’s spent her whole life helping to raise them. Why spend the rest of her life doing it?

She flings herself into a wooden chair and stairs at the trees. She’s probably sharing her good news with them. And waiting for the reaction she deserves.

She stiffens and looks back at me. “If I didn’t think Daddy would try to kill you, I’d ask you to trade places with me. You live here. And I escape diaper hell.”

I wish it were possible. Sometimes facing the shouts and fists of my father can be easier to deal with than Isaac and his disconnected, unfathomable quiet.

Scott, the great villain, Tara’s father, turned himself into the police afterTara’s suicide attempt. The foul, fucking coward tried to hang himself in his cell two nights later. The only person Tara is speaking to is Nick. This is after she screamed and wailed against him the way Beth had done to me.

“She’s in a day program.” Nick flips the top off a bottle of beer. We’re in Isaac’s kitchen, seated at the black-and-white tiled table. He’s visiting Samantha for the weekend. He didn’t bother to share this information with my family, though. He doesn’t want to be my babysitter anymore than I need him to be. “Kristen drops her off at ten in the morning and picks her up at five. It’s like day care for the mentally damaged.” He swills his beer like a hardened man.

Beth has lain herself across the kitchen floor. It was cleaned yesterday. “So what happens to her dad?” She flips over to face Nick.

He swills more beer. “I don’t know. I don’t care. I hope the motherfucker gets prison raped and dies, to tell you the truth.”

Beth lays her cheek on the tile. Her spine shows through her t-shirt, giving me something to watch, as it ridges and falls, in the awkward silence of Nick’s rage.

“And Kristen keeps acting like it’s my fault.” He aims for the trash can after finishing the rest of his beer. The bottle bounces off the rim of the trashcan, lands on the floor, and spins. Beth drags herself across the floor, grabs the bottle and spins it. She’s apparently heard all of this. “She keeps fucking telling me that I knew and didn’t do anything about it. She just needs a fucking scapegoat because she fucking missed it. Good damn thing she doesn’t know whereTara’d get drugs while she was grounded.” Nick isn’t talking to us. He’s telling his story to the spirits of the Devil in the room. Knowing they would delight in his anger and rage. “And my dad just lets her run her stupid mouth until she’s tired of talking. And makes excuses for her. Fuck, man, sometimes I wish we’d have stayed in New Orleans.”

None of us had mentioned New Orleans since I came home. Beth stops spinning the bottle. And Nick comes back from his conversation with the demons. They’re looking at me. And I’m looking as far away as I can see—back to New Orleans, in the bed beside Delancy, she looks up and says, “one day I’ll be the mother of your child.” This memory shakes me. When did she say that? When did that happen? I’m never doing drugs again.

“Zac?” Beth taps the beer bottle she’s playing with on the floor. “Hey, Alice, come back through the mirror.” Tap. Tap. Tap.

“I’m sorry, dude.” Snatch the bottle from Beth’s hand. She gives me an irritated look. “If I knewTara—”

“—Yeah. She had problems.” He talks to the demons again. “She’d have tried whether I was here or not.” Shrugs and shakes his head. “I’d have tried too.”

Beth sits up, back against the cabinets. Her face is pulled together and saddened. “How’d we get here? Weren’t we happy a year ago?”

The day is here. Her bags are piled up in the dinning room, near the door that leads to the driveway. And beyond. Anonymously, of course, Nick and I paid for their four-day stay in the Plaza Hotel. Because I worry at the thought of her staying anywhere else before such an event.

Auditions begin tomorrow. She’s pretending not to worry. But she’s waited for this day since the moment she felt the rise of her body against the tips of her toes. This could be the rest of her life. Or this could be the only moment in life to overshadow the rape. To worsen the loss of her child. This one thing could end her soul.

Nick and I are watching a fat oriental goldfish jettison himself back and forth in Elizabeth Pond. Ben has been through the porch several times toting everything from a G.I. Joe to some irritating new Spiderman wrist thing that shoots silly string at us. Nick carried him upstairs, upside down, after he’d sprayed us three times.

Morning has well risen here. Nick and I slept in the living room with Beth last night, one on each side of her, holding her hands. Enduring another Brad Pitt marathon. And as the morning came, she left us, here beside her pond, to go collect her thoughts. If Beth prays, it’s what she’s doing now. And the God I have not spoken to in so long that I don’t know that he knows me any longer, has heard me call out his name for her.

And the only thing I ask God for myself is what happens to us if she leaves?

She’s downstairs. Clicking through the kitchen. Into the door of the porch. And she’s looking at us, while we watch her. She is our personal Grecian goddess. Her long black, curly hair is partly strung up. She’s wearing a t-shirt and jeans. Classic, timeless. She is our Hera.

“We’re leaving.” Her face has lost the little color it has. Nick and I stand, unprepared to do anything really. Because neither of us, even Beth, thought this day would actually get here. “I don’t want hugs or anything. Just, uh, you know, be here when I get back.” Her hand, just above her belly button, held out the sign for “I love you”. And she walked away.

Why aren’t we moving? Why is only thing we see is that damned goldfish? We watch the doorway. And I’m sure he’s thinking what I’m thinking.

Late the next morning, Isaac comes into my room. “Zac.” Sounds bored and annoyed. “Zac. Get up. You have an appointment with the therapist today. Taylor’s on his way to get you.” That’s right. I still have no car.

“Why can’t you take me?” Spending time with Taylor, even the thought of it, makes me queasy. He hasn’t spoken to me since the plane in from New Orleans.

He walks out.

Taylor ’s at the door before I can pull my t-shirt over my head. He comes and pushes my door open without knocking. “Hurry up. We’re going to be late.”

After he walks out, I say to the air. “I’m going to be late and you’re going to be pissy and hold it against me the whole way there.” Maybe I’ll crawl back into bed. Just to be a passive-aggressive dick.

“Now Zac!” He rattles his keys. He’s talking to Isaac, but I can’t hear. Surely I’m the subject. I’m their burden. Damn, damn, damn little brother.

Mutter to myself. “Fuck off.”

He’s standing by the door when I make it out of my room. He looks like a stranger. Worse, he’s looking at me like I’m a stranger too. And we’re just standing here. Like time has stopped itself in some fucked up form of kismet. This is my brother, Taylor. My ally, my foe. He’s pissed off. But can’t cover up the pity he feels at me. And we’re both angry. Really, he’s just pissed that I pulled the stunt he lusted for but loved our mother too much to even give so much as a false start.

He walks out the front door and I follow. Is this going to be our lives forever? Petulant Zaccy following after the man he’d wished had been his father.

In the car, car seat in the back, Taylor continues his stance of silence. This has to be one of the most irritating things humans can do to each other. Other than the I’m-not-touching-you game we play as kids. Tap on the dash to break the quiet. He slaps my hands. Same thing happens when I tap my knees. Tap my foot and he obviously clears his throat.

“Fucking say something then!” My voice hangs in the small space of a car. No resonant sound. Just stuck to the roof like felt to Velcro.

“Like what?” He shifts to fifth. “You’re a selfish sonofabitch. You’re a goddamned moron who should be dead in the ditches of the French Quarter.” Apparently I kicked in the door and all his hurt, all his pissed, all his thoughts are a full-force rush of water and I have no defenses. “And worst of all, you couldn’t just do this to yourself? You had to bring Nick and Beth’s families into this? They called almost every day while you were gone. And they never had to say they blame you. Because you could tell by the sounds of their voices. You’re lucky Beth’s mother thinks you hung the fucking sky. Because Nick’s step mom kept spouting shit about ‘reckless endangerment’.”

“We’re legal.” Shout back. “She couldn’t have done anything.”

“YOU ARE MISSING THE POINT, ZACHARY!” Rubs his temples. “You packed your shit in the middle of the night and disappeared like ghosts. Anything could have happened…” He’s crying. And it takes me by surprise so much I can’t stop staring at him. “And then you brought Delancy—what were you thinking? You weren’t banned from her drug addled company for no reason, Zac. You have to get tested. Who knows what that girl has? What you could have!” Stop sign. He rubs his temples again. “It’s great you don’t give a shit about yourself, Zac, but what about those of us who do?”

Finally, I have something to say. “You’re a hell of a hypocrite, Taylor Hanson.”

He slams the accelerator to the floor. “I didn’t run away like a five year old.” Yanks the car into a parking lot in front a brick building.

Open the door and turn back to say: “You don’t have to leave home to run away, Taylor.”

Inside the shrink’s office, Taylor lays a packet of paper work in the chair between us. “Sign at the Xs. Mom filled out the rest.”

Standard paperwork. Includes an impressive vitae. Bachelor fromOklahomaState. Graduate of the Dartmouth medical school. Internship with Harvard. And he still came back to this hovel of a place. Mom took the time to place Post-it stickies to indicate what needs my signature. After looking over the vitae, I just flip through and sign everything without caring what I had signed myself up for. Didn’t even look for the guy’s name.

The office is sterile with its stainless steel-framed glass table, lack of pictures on the wall, white curtained windows. Only sign of color in the place is a fake tree sitting in the corner and a table spread of current magazines. Aren’t doctor’s obligated to keep medication advertisements around? Test yourself for this disorder. Are you having trouble sleeping? What’s causing your unimpressive bedroom performance?

There’s a frumpy, irritated-looking woman behind a sliding-glass window. She looks even more irritated when I approach the window the pile of papers.

She holds out her hand without looking up. “Thank you. Dr. Curtis will be with you shortly.” Now she looks up. “I’ll need a copy of your insurance card.”

Look back atTaylor. Who pretends he doesn’t feel me looking at him. “I don’t have one.”

Her eyebrows raise. “You’ll be paying in cash then?”

Shrug. “Uh… I guess so.”

She nods. “Thank you mister,” looks at my paperwork, “uh, Hanson. Please have a seat.”

An echo comes from the hallway as I’m flipping through the most recent People magazine. A woman’s voice, clicking of heels. And a male voice. Here he comes. He’s probably short, squat, and red-headed. Shawn’s an Irish name, right?

Taylor is scribbling in a notebook. He’s done that for as long as I can remember. If he couldn’t run, he ran in his notebooks. Writing songs. Writing out his wish to be empty. Taylor was emo long before it was cool. He’s been wearing girlpants even longer. When I try to sneak a peak at what he has to pour out about me, he leers at me. Daring me.

And before we can even begin ignoring each other, the voices round the corner into the room.

The male, is a kid. Well, he’s probably my age. And my doctor is a woman.

“How am I supposed to go through therapy with a woman, Taylor?!” Punch him in the shoulder because I know I can get away with it.

“You talk to Beth.” He’s punching me in his imagination. “Figure it out.”

The doctor shakes the boy’s hand. Exchanges niceties and says she’ll see him next week. The sound of her voice gives her away as a native of the Sooner state. Her eyes are wide set, dark, stereotypically Indian. Native American. Whatever. Her hair is long and braided. She’s older. Heavy laugh lines and deep crow’s feet. Her skin is lighter than one would expect of an Indian. She’s wearing gray slacks and an oversized pink sweater. Her nose is pierced. And up the sides of her ears.

She looks in our direction, as we’re trying to stare each other down with obvious looks of loathing. “Uh, Zachary?”

Involuntarily, my head snaps in her direction. “That’s me.”

Her smile is irresistibly kind. The way Beth’s used to be. “Good morning! You can follow me?”

The hallway is enough to give one the impression that there is something more barren and lifeless waiting behind the door of this woman’s office. What’s with the depression inducing décor anyway?

The hall is lined with paintings, which is counterintuitive to me, but whatever. Not that the paintings would have improved the look of the lobby area. Each painting seems to be crying for a drop of red. Screaming for an accidental drip of yellow. Even a depraved swish of blue. It’s all just as sterile-gray as everything else. Man this is fucked up.

She pulls open the office door. Expecting something as bland as all the rest, the light comes at me like a white screen in a previously blacked-out theater. My eyes scream and blink in rapid succession. That was unexpected.

Step in, following her. This is not an office. It’s a sunroom. Three of the walls made of glass, looking out into an incredibly manicured lawn and garden. Two small dogs—the little ones that look like Lassie—are playing tug-o-war. A large fountain, an Aphrodite-esque statue, in the middle. Cobblestones lead to the pseudo-goddess. The sight of it makes me want to sit and stare. Not say a word. And gape, with a sort of sedentary wanderlust, at the artistry of nature. I’ve never been this taken by flowers and tress. Moments like this make me remember why I had believed in God.

She laughs behind me. “That’s the most impressive reaction I think I’ve ever had to my gardens. Thank you for the complement.”

Still gawking. “I didn’t say anything.”

“The look on your face is enough.” Hear her move a chair. I assume she sat behind her desk. “Please, come have a seat.” She holds a hand out to a chair. A chair that does not face the window, but her desk, which faces a wall of books and plaques. More knowledge than I think I’ll ever be able to bring into myself.

After another moment’s gaze, I took up the invitation to sit—though I would have rather not moved at all.

“What brings you in today, Zachary?” She looks at me in a way that is nearly indescribable. The way one expects an Indian to look at you. With eyes that can entrance you. Lead you into a story whether it is your will to tell it or not. She has the aura of a shaman and the looks of a chief’s daughter.

Despite this, and the stir in my chest to tell her the truth, my overriding sense of sarcasm and bitterness supersedes. “My brother.”

She smirks. I am obviously not the first smartassed kid to come into this conservatory. “Okay. Fair enough. Then, should I ask why are you here today?”

Prime moment for more sarcasm. But I am paying this woman. So I guess I should at least put some effort in it. Even if the effort I put forth is really, subconsciously, for my mother and her piece of mind. Because I owe her. More than I owe anyone else in my family. She is the only person who I have never truly fought with. The only one who is rarely, if every, griping me out about one thing or another.

I owe my mother for following inTaylor’s footsteps.

“I guess I’m depressed.” Trying to look apathetic. “And I cut. You know? Myself. On purpose.”

“How long has this been a part of your life?” She folds her hands and prepares for my story.

“Since September.” Look out the window. A small dog runs past, chasing a bird. He jumps after the bird. The bird doubles its effort and makes it away. “Not long after I’d gotten out of the hospital.”

Her eyes knit. “The hospital?”

“Yeah.” Clear phlegm from my throat. “A fight with my dad. He, uh, he shoved me down the stairs.”

Chapter Text

It was early August. Not much happens in August unless we’re planning a tour or something. But nothing, nothing was happening. And so I decided to follow Taylor and Isaac up to New York. Natalie and Ezra would be joining; Samantha too. And I had planned for another guest. In a letter to Delancy I asked her to fly into New York while we were there. It sat in a drawer. Tucked a sketchbook with drawings for a t-shirt for hnet. And one day, during that nothing month, my dad decided he wanted to take a look at the designs. Avery was sent to get the book. My brothers and I were playing around in the studio downstairs.

The intercom buzzed. I don’t remember what he said. But, two at a time I ran up the stairs. He met me at the basement door. Flashed the letter in my face and said I wouldn’t be going to New York. Unaware and unable to get my mouth to form, “fuck you,” he hit me. Palm to breastplate. I swear he breathed in every last molecule of oxygen that was forced from my lungs. And I fell. Head, then legs, then head, then chest, then legs, then thud. Then black.

No one talked about it after it happened. My left lung was punctured. A couple broken ribs. Major concussion. When they visited, all they talked about was home. What did I want to eat when I got there. The sketches were good.

Why they protected him—I will never know. Why me? I don’t think I’ll ever know that either. Sometimes I wish I would have died that day. Just to be spiteful.

We never went toNew York.

Beth knew she was in. They’d offered her a scholarship before she was out of high school. The audition was just a formality, really. But it had been every bit of real and impending and frightening as though she were dancing on a thread of hope alone.

Nick and I are leaned against a wall near baggage claim at Tulsa International. Tara’s back is leaned against my shoulder. Her iPod is blaring. Sounds like metal. Who knows with all that screaming. She’s asleep. Over her shoulder I see her morbid drawings. Gothic anime fangoria. And Mom thinks I have problems. Poor kid. Her artwork is beautiful if you can get past the flesh-lusty vampires. Every sketch is her victimization over and over again.

People pass us, avoiding our existence. Occasionally someone looks over, eyes knit together as they glare at me extra-long. After an OSU student stops and talks at me for ten minutes or so, wakingTara up as I stand to take a picture with the girl, Nick forfeits his hat to me. Tara pulls my hair into my eyes, waits for me to sit back down, leans against me, and resumes the sketch she had been working on before she fell asleep.

Screens hanging above the baggage rounds flash the arrival of Beth’s flight. We don’t move. She’ll find us when she’s ready. She knows to search for the pseudo-bohemian almost-nobodies. Isolated from the crowds. Looking like we are part of the wall.

She is half my mind lately. From the day I met her, I knew she would leave. The fact of it has long been boxed. Waiting for the last minute to be examined and felt. And now I have to begin clearing it out. Because Dr. Curtis is asking about her.

Beth is too much of my life for me to avoid in therapy. My friendship with Nick isn’t nearly as impressive to the good doctor. She says we sound like two, normal, balanced guy friends. But Beth is unavoidable. Doc says I say her name, talk about her opinions of my actions too much. She says I’m still in love with Beth. I’m too busy trying to protect myself from it. Too busy pretending she hasn’t moved passed me. That she’s carried on while I’m still waiting. Sometimes I’m quite sure this doctor is a quack.

“Are you guys just going to sit there, or is someone going to help us with this stuff?” Beth’s yanking her suitcase behind her. And behind her Mrs. Andrews is lugging other bags, looking overly irritated with Beth. “There’s still some bags on the round. Will you guys go get them?”

Tara leans up so that I can stand. She leans against the wall again and looks up at Beth. “Did you like New York?”

Emphatic nod. “It was incredible. I have lots of pictures I can show you, later, if you’d like?”

Tara nods lightly in approval of the idea.

On our way to the rounds, Nick looks over his shoulder at me. “How do we always get stuck doing this shit?”

Shrug. “Because we’ve always done it? And we’ll probably keep on doing it for as long as she asks us to.”

Shakes his head. “I have a friend who says ‘one who possesses a vagina possesses the root of all evil’. Sometimes I think he’s right!”

We chuckle as we watch the metal circle round. The Andrews’ bags arrive and we report back.

As we walk to the car, Beth tells us about their suite in New York. Her mother winks, knowing somehow that Nick and I are responsible. She talks about walking throughTimes Square and down Broadway. Wish I could have sent her to a show, but she would not have had the time.

“Oh my God, and you will never guess who was there!” She slams the door as I crank Isaac’s Sequoia. She doesn’t wait for me to ask who. “Abigail Rowland!” Her face, in the rearview mirror is crinkled up in disgust. Her hand is rested in Nick’s. “She made it through every round of auditions until the interview. I was worried I’d have to go to school with her.” She shudders.

“Elizabeth.” Her mother, in a motherly tone, leads into an admonishment. “You were kids when she—”

“—There’s been other things,” Beth leers at me in the mirror, “since then, Mom. And I don’t feel bad for holding all of it against her.”

Mrs. Andrews shakes her head. “Alright,Elizabeth. Let’s drop it, shall we?”

Beth looks out the window.

The snows have long melted away. And Oklahoma becomes a No Man’s Land of weather. Too cold to be spring; too warm to be winter. Wet, dreary, and stagnant. Tara has huddled herself close to the window trying to meld herself with Isaac’s SUV, forever wishing to be the background and not before it.

After I drive for a while, Nick draws himself out of his quiet conversation with Beth to announce something I was expecting.

“Tara and I are moving out.” He looks at Tara—who only seems to push herself further from the limelight and back into the background. And I know how she feels. He pats her hand because its all he knows to do for her.

Mrs. Andrew’s head lazily draws up from the headrest. “How does Kristen feel about that?”

Nick shrugs apathetically. “She doesn’t really like it. But—”

“—She feels guilty enough to let me go.” Tara emerges from the background. Looking frightened at the sound of her voice.

Mrs. Andrews doesn’t reply. The remainder of the ride home is quiet. But a comfortable quiet at least. Comfortable so long as I don’t look in the review mirror and spy Nick looking at Beth looking back at Nick. And I tell myself I am not seeing what I am seeing. Because that’s the only way to keep the car on the road.

Three days later, Dr. Cutis and I are walking through her garden area. It’s laid out like a miniaturized version of a royal garden. A slight labyrinthine feel. Her dogs run up to us and away again, to chase each other, several times. This is the first walk I’ve gotten to take through the yard. It was still too cold when I began seeing her. Throughout the yard are a few Virgin Marys, a Venus, some other random things. The breadth of the thing was also quite impressive. If it were up to me, we wouldn’t speak at all. I’d just keep walking through this place forever. Pretending I were lost in the pseudomaze. But she has to bring up my dad.

“I want to know more about your relationship with your father.” She stops beside a swing, sat before a bubbling fountain. She seats herself. Just out of my peripheral view. The swing creaks and I just stand. Watching the bubbling water like it had magicked itself into a flow of thought from my head. And I stand there watching, with a half-assed hope that she would drop the subject. Instead, the swing continues to creak, I continue to watch, and she continues to wait. Though we’ve never talked about it, she seems to have a sense that after all these years withTaylor, the most dreaded sound in the world is silence.

“There’s nothing to know.” Refusing to turn around, I simply watch my bubbles trying to take myself away from this moment. “He’s a dick with a temper and a fist. The end.”

The creaking slows. “Was it always this way between you two?”

“Yes.”

“And what about your brothers and sisters.”

Shoulders tighten instinctively. What’d she have to go and bring them up for?

“Yeah. Them too. He laid off them when mom threatened him with a divorce.” Bile trickles up my throat. Searing my esophagus. First instinct is to retch, but I override it. “But not me. He’s always hated me. And I’m content in hating him back.”

In the bubbles, I see myself a younger child. Born into the Andrews family instead. Happy, flighty, and twinned toElizabeth. A troublesome pair, the both. Who would we have been? Beth’s childhood was happy. Simple, American, childhood happy. We’d have blown up a dishwasher. Hunted fireflies and butterflies. She’d call my G.I. Joes dolls and I’d have cut off her Barbie’s hair. And the sidelong looks I shoot at Nick now, when he’s not looking, would be nothing more than the looks of an over-protective brother needing to take care of his beloved sister.

Or if Baby Andy had been mine. She never would have suffered. He’d still be with us. And we three, four with the baby, would be a family whole and unto ourselves. Who needs the world around us? Who would need anyone? We would have made a set, the four of us, happy in our inconceivably unorthodox family.

What if I had made my self a happier story instead of this? This nothingness that eats everything. I don’t want to be here.

“Why do you think he targets you?” One of the dogs bounds past me on its way to her. Collar rattles as she pets the dog.

Put my hand in the water. Its cold. Cold enough to feel like razorblades. I miss them. Isaac monitors my shaving. The knife drawer is locked. He is simply satisfied in his belief that he has me protected. What he doesn’t know is that anything is a razorblade if you set your imagination to it. Samantha left a pumice stone in the shower the day Beth came home. Heavy abrasions raked across my thinning skin. Not deep but painful. Irritated and hurting and I continue to scratch them just to enjoy it. Just to feel it, to be connected to that one sharp something that is connected to no one else but myself. Egocentric though it may be, self-injury at least ensures that I’m the one hurting me and no one else.

“Zac?” She’s looking up at me, from my side. “Should we talk about something else? I can see you’re not ready to sort out your relationship with your dad. So what about your brothers? Tell me about Taylor?”

Dear. God. This is never going to end. Dr. Curtis is a nice lady. Fair therapist, I guess. But I hate this.

“Can’t we just call it a day?” One of the dogs licks water of the tips of my fingers.

Her arms cross her chest. She steps in front of me and waits for me to look at her. “Zac, therapy is not easy. People want to believe that you walk in my door once or twice and then your life is immediately better and that’s that. Only, it’s not that. What the media has failed to tell you, and millions like you, is that therapy is not easy. It’s not fun. It is not Good Will Hunting.” Her arms fall to her side and she begins to step into the cobblestone path that leads further into the garden. “If I do my job right, you will walk out of here feeling the worse for ever having walked in.” I attempt to interject. She throws a hand up, and continues walking with me in her wake, trying to hear how she logics this. “Over time, however, it gets better. After you’ve rooted through the things that have caused you pain and made peace with the things you like least about yourself and your life, therapy will make sort of a shift. And eventually, you’ll feel the better for having been in. Then we should make it to the point when you no longer need my help.” She stops. This is the edge of her gardens. On the other side, a house with an impressive landscape. “So, Zac. What will you do? Choose to face yourself? Or go back out the door pretending you approached the mirror only to walk away?”

She looks at me with a placid face. A face that says she is certain of what I will say. The decision I will make. And the eternal rebel in me wants to nod curtly and walk away. But I can’t. The egocentricity that lies in every human drives me. That lure of talking about ourselves. It overrides the deepest seeds of rebellion.

“Taylor.” My chest is caving in. “Is my closest—I don’t know the word. We haven’t been speaking since they brought me home from New Orleans. He…he had…was…an. My brother is a recovering an—fuck. I can’t even say—”

“—Anorexic? Your brother was anorexic?” Her face is light and I feel okay for my inability to name my brother’s disorder. “Do you think that’s why you connect with him so strongly?”

“Yes.”

“And you haven’t been speaking? To the person in your family you feel closest too?”

“We’re close.” She and I near the back door and I know our session will end soon. “It doesn’t mean we always get along.” It doesn’t mean that the silences that happen between us aren’t strong enough to burst every major artery. It doesn’t mean we can forgive each other, or ourselves, from bailing.

In the waiting room, Isaac waits with a piece of paper. “Sign this.” He thrusts the paper at with me a swift, crumpling woosh. “It’s a consent form. For that doctor back inCalifornia.” I think the bottom of my stomach just cracked the foundation of this building. “They have to send some kind of documentation on you today or she’ll have…someone…admit you.”

Sign the paper as fast as I can, shove it at the receptionist and head for the door.

Inside Isaac’s truck, Samantha’s playing with the radio. “Hi Zac.”

“Hey Sam.” Lay across the backseat imagining the forthcoming mundane evening I’ll be spending in my room. Wish I had alcohol. And Delancy with her drugs to drown out the silence.

“We’re having dinner at the house tonight.” Isaac makes his announcement backing out of the parking lot.

“Another Nataylorie announcement?” The nickname is an internet derivative. Taylor and Nat hate it. It makes me almost giddy to get to use it.

Isaac rolls his eyes. Not so much at me, but at the fear of another baby-joy evening. “Not this time. I think Mom’s just having one of those days.”

We drive the forever-length of time to my parents home. Oklahoma has always been my home. The years inSouth America aside. It looks quite foreign these days. Maybe I’m the foreign entity. I am a mountain in the center of flatlands. The pink elephant sitting in the center of the room. These feel-good family gatherings are excruciating. Taylor and I avoid each other. My father, thankfully, ignores my presence. My younger siblings look at me like a bomb. And my mom pretends like she notices none of these things. If there’s one thing I hate about my mother it is that. It’s also what I hate about Isaac.

We drive past the video store Beth used to work for. It’s under new management. Past an arcade where Nick and I would spend hours playing driving games before we got our licenses. On into the nowhere of our parent’s house. Taylor used to run down these gravel roads. For hours. Maybe I would have complicated the lives of my family less if I had just learned to run.

There’s Taylor's car. Top down and looking like I could just take it out for a drive and never come back. Oh the days of stealing Taylor’s car. Damn I miss those days. But I miss my brother’s commiseration far more.

Glide my fingers along my brothers car. His voice is coming from the back of our house. Followed with giggles and the familiar voices of my family. Isaac and Samantha head in the direction of the back yard. Isaac looks back to see if I’m coming.

“I have to pee.” It’s a lie but who cares. Head to the front door. He shrugs and continues walking to the back.

Up the stairs. It’s just—I have to see it. The space in this house that used to be mine. And just as expected. It’s been made over. An over-dressed guest room. With purple walls and a canopy bed. This isn’t a guest room. One of the girls has moved into it. It must be Zoë. Avery would be horrified by the girly-ness of it all. Zo’s bear is on the bed. My baby girl, who’s never had a place of her own, has become the new inhabitant of the first place I ever called my own. And it’s like I never was. My voice, my place, my life in this family is fading away. It’s been washed over in shimmery purple and covered up with a large dollhouse.

“Zac?” Mom’s yelling from the bottom of the stairs. “Are you up there?”

“Yeah mom.” There’s an irritating sting in my eyes as I close the door to my old room. “I’ll be down in a minute.”

From the window overlooking the backyard, I watch my family. My father, looking like a jovial, overgrown child is kicking a ball back and forth with Ezra. Taylor and Natalie look on with delight as Avery cuts in, sneaks away with the ball, and heads towards an empty chair in the yard. As she passes the chair, she does a dance and punches the air. Must be a make-shift goal. Samantha and Isaac are in an animated conversation with Jessica. Zoë runs over to them and jumps in Samantha’s lap.

Why am I even here? The thought of taking off withTaylor’s car is beginning to look good again.

“Zac?” Speak of the devil and he calls your name from the bottom of the stairs. “Ezra’s asking for you.” Ezra has been playing nonstop with Dad for the last ten minutes.

“He’s playing ball with Dad.” Smear my name in the window. Mom’s always hated when we do that. And his feet begin to climb the stairs, semi-muffled by the carpeting. He smells like cigarettes and some cologne I don’t recognize. His face is sprouting hair that needs to be shaved like overgrown grass.

He crosses his arms as he plants his feet next to mine. “I don’t want to talk about what happened. I just want a truce.” I look at him for the first time since our argument in the car. “I had no idea what I did to you, or anyone else, all those years. Until those days after Christmas when you would not turn up. And I’m sorry.”

What’s there left to say after that. No dramatic build up? Or lecture? Or making me feel like the scum that lives under muddy rocks? Either he’s really sorry or tired. Or both. And I have no energy to do anything more than nod my head.

And that was the fixing of me and Taylor. The most anticlimactic moment in our decades of life together ever. And I’m okay with that.

“Just put it over there in the corner.” Tara directs the landing spot of her bed in the apartment she and Nick picked out the week before.

Nick’s dad and I flop the bed down. We’ve been at this for hours. We’re almost finished. Our energy is about out and watching Beth lay on the couch watching Nick’s extended cable package doesn’t help.

Mr. Vitara heads back out to the moving van as I flop into a chair next to Beth. “Too busy being prima ballerina to help?”

Her eyes cut at me like a dull knife. “Nick said I didn’t have to help move. Just decorate. Don’t hate me because you have shoulders like a pack mule.”

Sock her lightly in the shoulder. “You are a pack mule.”

Her nostrils flare as she turns back to the television and munches her granola.

As we finish bringing the last boxes into the apartment, Beth is passed out and snoring. Like a pack mule. Or some animal that actually snores loudly. Tara has laid out on the floor in front of the television and has gone to sleep too.

Mr. Vitara laughs. “Like they’ve been working so hard!”

April has snuck in quietly. Outside flowers are growing along with untamable grass. Kristin has taken to redecorating her kitchen to deal with her loss ofTara. Kristen can’t forgive herself anymore thanTara can forgive her. Ryanne cannot grasp what has happened. Her mother is bitter and prone to fits of screaming. Her sister is moving away and she has no idea what has happened to her father. Mr. Vitara refuses to let Kristen tell Ryanne that her father is in jail. They just tell her that he’s gone away somewhere and no one knows when he is coming back. And sometimes, in the quiet, just before I fall asleep, I wish my own father was sharing a cell with Scott, the great villain. They’d be great buddies.

In the meantime, Mr. Vitara has adopted Ryanne and they have emancipatedTara. The only person she clings to now is Nick. And he will die trying to save her from everything, everyone else in the world. Which is more than anyone else has ever offered her.

Nick plants his butt in the middle of Beth’s stomach. And lays down, his shoulder blades over her face. “Man this is one comfy couch! A little bumpy in the wrong places.” He wiggles as she begins poking him. Surely she’s swearing under the muffling of Nick’s back. Eventually Nick rolls off her and onto the floor laughing. She leaps to the floor and begins tickling him like a mad woman. And they’re giggling in synch with each other. Tara rolls her eyes and walks to the back.

Mr. Vitara aims a pillow for Beth’s head and misses. He catches her on the second try. “C’mon you two! There’s stuff in the truck and I have to make a trip into work later!”

An hour later we have everything upstairs. Pizza’s on its way. I’m playing Nick’s guitar aimlessly. Stumbling across familiar chords. Playing scales. Listening to Nick’s shower water and bad singing voice over his shower radio. And watchingTara kick Beth’s ass at chess. Tara’s leaned against my knee, swaying with it every time I move.

She leans her head back. “Play something we know.”

Look at Beth waiting for a request.

“I’m always up for MMMBop.” She couldn’t even say it without giggling.

Roll my eyes and laugh. “Fuck off, Beth.”

Tara plunks down a chess piece and shouts. “Checkmate, Beth.”

“Dammit.” Beth examines the board. She knewTara didn’t actually have to try to beat her. None of us are good at chess.

The pizza arrives in time for Nick to put in a movie fromTara’s indie collection. Nick laid down on the couch. And itching for a pinch of revenge, Beth laid out on top of him and the giggling began all over again.

Tara hissed a shushing noise and they quit. I laid down on the couch along the adjacent wall. Tara takes a seat in front of my couch. Right in front of my chest. During the movie, her hand creeps up the side of the couch, with her eyes and face still focused on the moving, and intertwines her fingers with mine. It’s strange, but I let it happen. Because I like the feeling of friendly skin against my own.

Throughout the movie, I drift in and out of sleep. Sometime during a spell of sleep,Tara crawls onto the couch. My arm is wrapped around her stomach. Fall back into a spell of sleep.

When I wake up again, Nick and Beth are snoring on their couch. Tara has turned towards me. Her arm across my back and top of her head just under my nose.

“Tara?” Push softly against her shoulder. “Tara, I have to pee.” She nods and rolls softly off the couch.

Two steps into the hall, I hear feet behind me. Tara. She puts her hand in mine and pulls me the length of the hallway into her room. She closes the door and immediately presses her mouth to mine. Pushes me back toward the wall. And I push her away, but before I can say anything she pushes back. I give in. Even the thoughts of this is Nick’s sister can’t stop whatever is happening.

She pulls my shirt over my head and ignores the scabs and the scars. Pulling hers away from her skin I find that her torso looks like mine. Except feminine and curved. And appealing. My hands slide down her ribs to her hips. She moves her mouth along my neck and I try to tell myself I can’t let this happen.

But it is happening. Faster and faster and faster. We’re on the bed. A storm of clothing across the room. She leans in and kisses me. Kissing in return, I roll her onto the bed.

There’s a place in hell waiting just for me. Just because of this moment. And somewhere, in a former life, a witch is reading the remnants of my insides and cursing every future life. That curse had to have led me here. UnderTara. Oh fuck. Literally.

Hours later,Tara’s fallen asleep. Her mouth agape against my chest and I’m watching the ceiling. Tears falling over the sides of my face. I fucking hate crying. But look at what I’ve done. I don’t have to wait until I die to rot in hell. I’m already here.

Her lashes brush my chest. “What’s wrong?” She slides her fingers over my scabs. The way one brushes over glass in great fear of it shattering.

“You’re Nick’s sister.” My face turns towards her, and I try to look at her but I can’t so I look back at the ceiling. “And he can never know…”

She crawls over my stomach to look me in the eye. She stares for quite some time. She leans in. And I pull away. Push her back into the bed and crawl out. “This can’t happen.” Pull my pants on. “Ever. And no one can ever know.”

“Zac, it’s not that bad.” She pulls the sheets up to hide herself. “Nick won’t care. You’re better than any other sorry fuck. You don’t do dope. Or sell it. He’ll get over it.” She looks though she may cry. “Please don’t go.”

But I did go. Not before I saw something that made me want to vomit more than my fear of Nick finding out about the deal I’d just signed with Satan. Beth and Nick. In his bed. Twisted around each other.

Oh yeah. The vomit’s rising in the back of my throat. But it can’t be anything. She’s laid with me in the same way. Benign. I just wish I was him.

Tara ’s moving around. And I run for the door. Why won’t my life end?

Nick’s knees are bouncing up and down without end. Maybe if I socked him in the face, he’d quit. Maybe then we’d have to look each other in the eye. Because we know.

Last night was sleepless and razor-filled. Her name is dug into my skin. It was already there anyway. And after I went to the bathroom mirror and stared at myself. At her name in my skin. There was no way to pretend anymore. I wanted to break things. To tear the building down brick by brick. Heave the pieces at things that would make satisfying smash noises like the dishes in the California house. It was three in the morning and Isaac and Samantha were asleep. So when I was done I went to my room and stared at the ceiling until the alarm clock announced that it happened to be time for me to get ready to watch her leave.

We’re sitting in the airport waiting area waiting on her to get here. My hands drum themselves against the arm rests. And Nicks fucking knees are still bouncing.

Then we both erupted. And the people standing around heard something that sounded like “AREYOUDIDSLEEPINGYOUFUCKMYSISTINGWITHBETHER?!” And then they heard “YES!”

“You’re sleeping with Beth?!” My legs lift me out of the chair.

He pops up a nanosecond later. “You fucked my sister?! YOU FUCKED MY SISTER?!”

“YOU’RE SLEEPING WITH BETH!” My fists ball. Any second now, I swear to God I’ll hit him.

But there she is. Jaw hanging open with her mother directly behind her. Her jaw pops back and forth. Between mad and embarrassed.

“Fucking morons.” A tear falls from each of her eyes and she walks out to follow her mother.

Nick and I run after her. My life gets more like a sordid Nicholas Sparks novel every day. Can’t I just die already?

When we reach her mom’s car she pivots on her heel and slaps Nick. Then me. We’re too shocked to say anything. “Mom…will you take my bags inside while I talk to Tweedledumbfuck,” glares at Nick, “and Tweedledumbass?” Glares at me.

“Elizabeth. Your language.” Her mother lifts her bags and walks toward the airport.

“I am not a fire hydrant.” Her fists are balled up. “You two have been pissing on me, back and forth, for years now. And I love you both. But I can’t say I’m sad to be leaving that bullshit behind.” She looks at me. The weight of her humiliation pulling the corners of her mouth down so sharply. “How dare you act so ambivalent about me and then get mad when you realize I stopped waiting on you. Of course Nick and I are sleeping together. Fuck, Zac, we’re talking about getting married.”

It happens. And I can’t stop it. My fist going across his eye doesn’t sound anything like the movies. As he falls backwards, I kick him in the side. And I know I’m shouting and screaming, but I can’t tell what I’m saying.

She steps in front of me before I kick him again. “Leave. Right now, Zachary, or I swear to God I will never forgive you.”

“Beth!” I cannot will my feet to move.

“I love you, okay.” She pulls Nick up. He limps toward the van. He never even tried to defend himself against me. “But you are so far gone. You’re out of your fucking head and I can’t deal with that right now. So go find some quiet place where you can pull your head out of your ass in peace and let me know when you’ve finished, alright? Now go the fuck home before someone has you arrested.”

An attempt to protest was met with her hand. And then her back as it got smaller and smaller. Through the airport door, Nick at her side fighting about what had just happened. Then she was gone. And Nick was gone. They’re gone. My whole life is gone. And I’m still fucking breathing.

Jessie. Jessica Hanson. My sister knew. She knew about this at Christmas. It’s what started that fight. The screaming, cup-throwing tirade. She knew something was going on.

The speeds I force Isaac’s car into as I drove into the nothingness of home could get me arrested. Taking curves as though they’re part of a straight trajectory. The rocks of our road fly backward like ice from a snow machine.

They’re in the front yard wearing horror-struck faces as they watch me pull into the drive way. The car was still moving when I threw the shift into park and threw my feet to the ground.

Mom’s the first I come to. She’s in front of the door. “Where’s Jessica?”

She looks like she doesn’t recognize me. “Zac? What’s wrong? Shouldn’t—”

“Where. The fuck. Is Jessica. MOM?!” Walk past her without waiting for an answer. Screaming into the house. “Jessica Grace!”

“What?” The sound, immediately from my left, annoyed. She’s paying Guitar Hero with Taylor. She’s winning.

“We need to talk.” She doesn’t answer. “Right now, Jessica.”

“What the hell is wrong with you?” She wins the level and turns to face me. Her smile fades as she looks at me.

“You knew.” I want my lungs to explode. They hurt. “You knew about Nick and Beth.” Rage growing with the pain in my lungs. “You knew. And you obviously knew how I felt because you had no reserves throwing it in my face at Christmas. You knew. How’d you find out?”

I’m a Mack truck. And she’s a doe. Unable to run, she looks at Taylor. And I know how to translate that. Tears that I cannot stop. My unfailing Taylor. My only real savior. I’ve been forsaken by the only person in my family I have ever been certain I truly loved.

Taylor makes a tiny step forward. “She promised she’d tell you, Zac. They were supposed to tell you the night you guys disappeared toNew Orleans.”

“And what?” My face is tying itself into knots. “That frees up your liability to tell me? You’re my brother, Taylor. You should have told me no matter what!”

“You wouldn’t have believed me.” I can tell he wants to shout. He thinks I’m being irrational. “You know you wouldn’t have. You had to hear it from them. I’m sorry, Zac. Please, Zac, don’t—”

“—Don’t what?” A cruel laugh caves my chest. “Do something stupid?” They both try to speak. “Fuck you. Fuck you both. I hate you. I fucking hate you. Rot…just fucking ROT!”

As the last of my scream resonated, I burst through the front door to find my mother more horrorstruck than before. She follows and calls after me as I head back to Isaac’s truck. But I’m in it and speeding down the drive before she even catches up.

Where to go? Where to go? I can’t do this anymore. I can’t live this life. I can’t be this person. I can’t care. I can’t. A gun would be useful. But I don’t own one. And neither does anyone else I know.

Instinct takes me back to Isaac’s apartment. Where the convenience and ease of my own death was an epiphany. Samantha takes Xanex for anxiety. She leaves a small supply in Isaac’s room. Beside his bed.

They left this morning. In her car. Some dinner at her parent’s house.

Peace settled over me. The joy they say comes when one has settled on a suicide plan. Knowing the end is coming. That all this shit will soon be buried in the soil lying over your own casket.

A bottle of red wine sits on the table. As I pass I pick it up. This overdosing thing must be done properly. Take them all at one time and you’ll vomit.

At Isaac’s bedside I find my end. In a ziplock bag Samantha has given me my peace. Ten of them total. That should do it. And if not, I’ll make sure I get it right. After snatching the pills, I go into my room and pull my box from under my bed. Grab my favorite mix CD of angry-sad songs. And go into the bathroom.

Locking the door behind me, it begins when I press play. Watching the timer on the radio, I take a pill every two or three minutes. This is too good to be true. It’s so real. The colors in the room are screaming now. It’s all so alive. And I don’t care. She’s gone. My family has done nothing but betray and let me down my whole life. They left me to my sonofabitch father. But it doesn’t matter now. The last pill is down my throat. And I’m beginning to feel fuzzy around the edges.

With the box I settle myself in for the last stand. The X-Acto knife from my art supply drawer is the sharpest. The pointed tip is dug deep into my arm. Yank it across until my wrist falls limp and unwillingly I yelp. Must have hit a tendon. It doesn’t matter now. Continue up my arm. Until I’m too weak to do anymore.

I am dying. It is finally coming to an end. And there’s no one here to save me. My life has come full circle.

No one’s ever come to save me.

Chapter Text

This has to be Hell. Dante’s Hell. I’m a twisted tree in the freezing cold. What will happen if I open my eyes? If I scream? Am I breathing?

“God, if he doesn’t wake up is it my fault?” It’s my mother’s voice. Can you hear the living in Hell? She sobs and utters nonsense. Then a guttural whisper. “Please, please, please, please, please. God, please, don’t let him die?”

But I am dead…aren’t I?

Lay still and listen. It’s cold. A steady, annoying beep. Something is in my throat. In my arm. Why the fuck aren’t I dead?

Opening my eyes is hard—-only because I don’t want to. Because I failed. How do you fail at suicide? I ate ten Xanex with a bottle of wine. Cut my arm open like a Thanksgiving turkey. Why. The fuck. Am I alive?

There’s my mother. Frail as Taylor. Looking at the palms of her hand like a psychic. She’s looking for my lifeline.

Watching her reassures me that I must be in hell. As if hearing her wasn’t enough. Watching her is intensely worse. Other than the inane beeping, the only sound is her crying. Every time I try to speak it’s blocked. My arms are concrete and I can’t reach whatever is stopping me from speaking. I’m in a hospital. I’m not in hell. I’m in a hospital. I’d rather be dead.

The door opens and Isaac is behind it. “Zac?” The color falls down into his shoulders.

In my periphery my mother pops out of her chair. Her hands yank my face to look at her. Her eyes are terrifyingly wide. The tremble of her hands quake down to my heart. Into my stomach and to my toenails. Her eyes flash back and forth. Too much information for her to take in at once. And I let my face slack. Let her look at me. Cursing myself for not dying.

“He’s awake!” Isaac’s voice is in the distance. But a stampede follows it. For the love of Christ. They’re all here. Fuck.

The only unfamiliar face is a man in scrubs. He pushes through the crowd of my family. They all have the same face. They don’t say anything. Just look at me like I should be dead. Because I’m supposed to be.

“Welcome back.” The nurse says. He checks my blood pressure and looks at the bags hanging over my head. But I can’t wax smartass with my throat blocked. As far as I can tell I’m looking at him like he’s an idiot. “You can’t reply because you have a breathing tube. Give me a minute and we will pull that out.” He smirks. “It’ll still take a while for you to say anything though.”

Thirty minutes after the tube’s yanked from my throat, Dr. Curtis arrives. She clears my family from the room and hovers at the end of the bed. She looks at me with that placid face. The face they must teach potential doctors in doctor school.

“What happens now?” My voice sounds like I swallowed gravel.

“Let’s start with” she takes a seat in the chair beside the bed, “what happened before now? You weren’t suicidal a week ago?”

“A week ago she was still here.” Close my eyes. I can see them. Picture them. In his bed. In hers. Taking walks through Central Park during her spring breaks. “And, what, a week ago I was still pretending I didn’t know they were fucking? Are fucking. Talking about getting married. How long have I been here anyway?”

She looks frustrated. “Three days.”

“I don’t get to leave here anytime soon, do I?” Can’t even look at her to ask this. I even laugh at the blatant absurdity of it.

She looks at me for a very long time. Like she knows the words to say, she just can’t get them in the right order. “You are not the hardest patient I’ve ever had. But you certainly are one of the most infuriating.” I can’t help but grin at her when she says this. “I’m not being funny, Zac.” Okay, so now I’m smiling on the inside. “Originally, I wanted to send you to a center in Chicago. They specialize in cutting. But I’ve spent a fair amount of time talking with your mother and your family about care for you. There’s a hospital here in Tulsa, though. So you won’t be far from home.” She turns her head, pondering me. “I will let you discuss the details with your family. I should tell you, however, that your family will only have two options for you.”

“How is it their decision?” I’d scream if I could. Bellow that every member of my family bring their cowardly asses in to explain.

“You’re obviously a danger to yourself.” She stretches out her arm. Conducting the speech as a slow, poorly written symphony. “And because of that, you can be committed against your will and remain in care for at least seventy-two hours.” Try to interject at this point. Three days, like that would be so terrible. “During those seventy-two hours, if your family or I feel that you are unable to properly care for yourself, we can certify a stay in the hospital for an undetermined length of time.”

“What the fuck is my other option?” I was supposed to die. I should be hollowed out. Nailed into a wooden box and under six feet of loose soil.

“You sign yourself in.” The tone, the slow, leading, she’s-afraid-to-tell-me-the-other-option-because-I-am-a-psycho tone in her voice says there’s a lot more than just putting my name across a line. “And when you sign yourself in, you agree to stay until I, along with the staff working with you, believe you are ready to be released.”

“Some option.” Avoiding her gaze, I look down at my arm or the first time. Stitches and staples wrist to elbow. My fingers can’t move, no matter how hard I will them too. It’s painful. She interrupts my search for a pattern in my stitches.

“What happened, Zac?” She grabs my foot. Grabs my attention. “Why did this happen? And why didn’t you call?”

“And what would you have done?” A mean laugh rises out of me. An attempt to make her feel stupid for asking. We’ve been doing this therapy bullshit for months now. How does she not know why I’m here? “Ride to my house on a white horse and whisk me away to mental health-land where I could live happily prozacked ever after?”

She doesn’t cave to me. Which irritates me even more.

“You didn’t give me the option to know what I would have done.” She stands. “I should have had you admitted after our first session. Nonetheless, you’ll be admitted to a psychiatric hospital after the surgery to repair your wrist. The doctors there are very good and will help—-”

“—-I don’t want fucking help!” She jumps at me yelling. “I want to be dead! I’m tired of living, don’t you get that? Why is that so fucking hard for you to understand?”

“I understand. You think I’ve done this job this long and not understand?” She looks almost defeated as she takes as seat again. “And no matter how cliché it is to say this, Zac, it’ll get better. You will get better.” Roll my eyes at this and mutter a few expletives under my breath. “You are not Nick and Beth. You are not your dad. You are not the sum total of the lives of the other people who you’ve absorbed. You are Zachary Hanson. And it’s time you figure that out. Take this time, take all this rage and hurt you’ve got, take it and go to this hospital away from your family and your friends.” She looks up at me like she’s just waiting for just. The right. Moment. “Pull your head out of your ass and learn to breathe.” My eyes bug out, jaw open catching flies. Or something. “I’ll be there to help you. But you’ve got to be willing to be helped.” She nods at me. “I’m going to go talk to your family.”

She walks out. My head swirls violently and the room is black, fuzzy, mocking. A hospital. For…God knows how long. Visions of One Flew Over the Coo Coo’s Nest pass through my head. And I black out again.



There’s a chubby girl across the room from me. She’s staring at me as I scratch my arm with a tongue depressor. On loan to me from the nurse’s station. Casts do nothing but irritate. She’s pretty, though, the chubby girl. When she turns away, she looks directly at her reflection in the window and strikes up a whispered conversation, sneaks a look at me, and continues her talk again.

A week in the hospital and I swear I’m more miserable than I was before the Xanex. And that girl keeps staring at me.

“Zac?” The group leader leans her head sideways. “How’re you feeling this morning?”

And, typically, I stare at her like she’s speaking in gibberish. This group stuff is beyond irritating. I would prefer those hours where Taylor and I stare at each other, pissed off, and completely silent. To all this talking about feelings and how sad we all are.

“Fine. I’m fine.” Turn to the window girl. “What about her? She’s talking to the window? Let’s talk about her feelings.”

Chubby girl doesn’t turn from the window. “I have a name, you know?” She smiles. To herself in the mirror. Then she turns to talk to our group leader. Whose name I still can’t remember. “Blue.”

“What?” In the mirror, I see my eyebrows raise up. Looking like I’m about to laugh.

“Blue.” She looks at me through my reflection. I hate it when people do that. “My name is Blue. Turns out my mother was as bloody crazy as I am. Probably worse.” She looks away after that.

At dinner she sits next to me. Staring. She and Taylor should get to know each other.

“You’re a rockstar.” She plucks at a yeast roll. Chewing with her lips smacking. “I remember you from when I was a kid. I thought you were pretty damn cool. What’re you doing here?”

“Have we met?” It was all I could think of to say.

“Yes, Alice, in the mirror remember?” She smiles at her own wit. And I’d smile too, if I weren’t trying to get her to go away. “No need to be rude you know. We’re all mad here.”

“Have a thing for ‘Alice in Wonderland’, don’t you?” Survey the hospital food stretched across my plate. It makes me nauseated to even smell.

“Just a thing for allusions.” She grins again. “You don’t talk much do you?”

“And you seem to talk too much.” Grumpy. The week in the loony bin has made me mean and grumpy.

She looks at her wrist as though a watch is there. “Well, I’m not due for a haloperidol shot for another week or so. So I guess it’s just a character flaw. Talking never hurt anyone, you know? So are you that Hanson kid or what?”

She’s obviously not going to leave me alone. “Yeah. I was.”

“You’re not dead.” Inclines her head to my arm. “Though it looks like you gave it a super-good try.” Her almost-laugh is more amusement at her choice of words than laughing at my death-try.

“I wish I were dead.” Pluck a piece of roll in my mouth to dry up the saliva. To give myself a reason to stop talking.

Her head lowers and she has a more modest smile. “It happens to the best of us. But it’s not so bad. Life and stuff. Even when it seems like you’ve stopped breathing because you can’t function like everyone else. Remind me of that in a week!” Her jovial self-smile returns. “Are you going to eat the rest of that roll?”

Every two days Dr. Curtis visits the hospital. She takes walks with me on the grounds of the hospital. She thinks the outdoors inspire the movement of my mouth. I miss her gardens though. Mostly we’ve talked about my life in the hospital. The weird girl with the Crayola name. How horrible the food is. And how taking up smoking will eventually effect my health.

“I feel more stressed out here than I did before.” Take a drag from the Camel I bummed from the guy that eats paper. “The noise never stops. These people are actually crazy! Like, real, Brad Pitt in ’12 Monkeys’ crazy! Why can’t I go home? I don’t belong here, Shawn.” I’ve also taken to calling my doctor by her name.

“Zac.” She sighs and stars at me with an introspective look. “You’re right. The severities of some of the other patient’s problems are far worse than yours. And yet there are others whose problems are less severe than yours. But no matter the severity, you are all here because you need help.” She looks me in the eye. It almost freaks me out. Because I can hear her talking to me without actually talking. She’s moving my soul. “You know you need help, right?”

Look away because I can’t take it any longer. And I know she’s right. “Have you seen my mom?”

We continue walking near a flower patch that lower-risk patients maintain. “Yes. I saw her and a few of your siblings yesterday. They are doing well. Wondering when you will let them visit.”

My soul falls to my feet. “I don’t want visitors. This is mortifying. That weird girl-—”

“—-Blue?” Who is apparently a patient of Shawn’s.

“Yeah. She recognized me.” Pluck a flower and hand it to her. “This is probably all over the internet. My brothers are probably scampering to do some kind of damage control. Mack and Zo probably can’t get a straight answer out of anyone as to where I’ve gone. And I’ve lost the greatest friends I’ve ever had.”

“That’s not true.” The flower twirls in her fingers like a fairy’s wand. The wind blows across her face, tossing the black-blue strands across her eyes. She should be a painting. Or at least a really great photograph. “Nick was also with your family when the visited yesterday. He really wants to talk to you too.”

“Is he pissed?” My hair whips around my face, slapping me repeatedly. “Does he really want to talk to me? Or just get back at me for what happened?”

“One of these days,” she plucks a dandelion and hands it to me. “you’ll understand that just because you’ve angered someone does not mean you’ve earned their eternal wrath.” She glances across the lawn. “And here comes Blue.”

“Shawn?” I lower my voice so that the weird girl can’t hear me. “What is haloperidol?”
She gives me confused look. “Why do you ask? It’s not on your prescription list is it?”

“No.” Shrug. “I just heard the name and wondered what it was.”

She looks unconvinced. “It’s an anti-psychotic drug. It is usually used to treat people with schizophrenia.”

“I’m going home in a few days.” Blue moves her fan brush across a canvas. She says she’s painting a picture of me. It really just looks like a bunch of yellow swirls. And I can’t make sense of any of them.

Scoffing was unavoidable. “Says who? I swear you were talking to yourself—-or someone else—-during group. The whole time.” She swipes paint across my face with a mean look to her face. “If you stab me with that, the only place you’ll be going is back to your room. Maybe with a pair of chained bracelets.” She swiped my other cheek and went back to her painting.

She’s weird. She’s fucking weird. She’s the weirdest girl I’ve ever met in my life. But she’s the only person I want to be around. It’s been three weeks in this place and I’m pretty sure I’d rather be in the seventh level of hell with the suicide-trees. If I can’t be there, at least she’s here with me. Or has been.

We equally avoid talking about how we got here. I still try to avoid talking all together. Letting her do the talking instead. And she talks. Not always to me, though. But watching her talk to the walls in the meantime is always fascinating. Whoever it is she’s talking to, always seems to have opinions about our conversations. Just wish I could hear whatever was going on. She doesn’t know, but one afternoon, I watched her sit outside, near the flower patch talking to the wind. It looked like there were three or four different conversations happening. Her hands flung about, talking the way Beth does when Beth is irritated and flustered. Eventually, she screamed something and stormed back inside.

“My doctor.” She flourishes a streak of blue. The color of Kate Winslet’s hair in Eternal Sunshine. “By the way. My doctor says I get to go home. Ass. Just because you’re jealous, doesn’t mean you have to steal the M&Ms from my trail-mix.”

“Shawn’s sending you home?” Anger. Shawn’s sending her home? Her? But not me?

She sighs. “Nah. Not Shawn. My other doctor.” She sits in a chair beside me. Puts her arm through mine and smiles. “I have lots of doctors. And one of them says I get to go home. So I’m going home. If I come visit you, will you see me?” Nod. “Good. I think I’ll be bored without you. What’ll you do without me?”

“Make friends with the guy that eats paper and gives me cigarettes?” The drying paint makes my face itch. The yellow curls under my fingernails. If I keep smoking, they’ll turn this color permanently. “Oh, I might even eat my rolls at dinner before someone snatches them away.”

Her eyes cut. “Like you eat anything anyway. When I’m gone, they’ll notice you never eat. They’ll hook you up to an IV like the do those skinny girls. And you’ll get nice and fat. And then I’ll just eat you. Like a cupcake!”

We both laugh. Her eyes are brown. Her hair is frizzy and blonde. She seems like the kind of girl who never had to try to be cute. Who never lost her baby fat. Her clothes are always clean. Matching colors and pajamas. Never see anyone visit her. Maybe it’s the drugs, but she’s happier than she should be, considering she’s in a psych hospital and no one visits. She spends our free time either talking to the plants or painting. I could love her.

“I’ll never be as tasty as a cupcake.” We giggle some more.

She kisses my cheek. “Well then, I guess I’ll just keep you because you’re too cute to toss out with last night’s casserole.” We make gagging noises and she glances up at the clock. “Wanna go walk? I’m bored and artistically mired.” Her hand flails about in air and she smacks the back of it against her forehead.

Check the clock for myself. “We have group in less than ten minutes. Nurse Ratchet was ready to report us last time we were late.”

Her eyes roll so harshly, I thought they’d fall into the back of her head. “She’s not a nurse.” Eye roll again. “She’s not even a real psychologist. The real psychologists have real jobs. She’s just a tech. I’m so not afraid of her.” She grabs my hand. Yanking at me like Beth used to. “Let’s go. I want to breathe some real air. Not this recycled hospital shit.” Look at her, reticent to go. Like the tech girl was really someone to fear. “C’mon.”

We tiptoe past the room we’re supposed to report to for group as the tech’s back is turned. Out the backdoor. The day is gray, but humid. Oklahoma summertime. It should rain soon. We got three steps away from the door before she pointed out the shape of something familiar by the fence. She was speaking words. Asking me questions. One after the other. But I walk away from her. Toward the familiar body.

Taylor’s hand is wrapped around the black-iron fence post. He leans against it, pressing his face between the bars. Looking like he’s the one in prison.

When I reach the fence, we look at each other for a long time. It hurts. That look on his face. He’s wearing an old Fleetwood Mac t-shirt. It has holes. He needs to shave. He needs to eat. Look over my shoulder. Blue stopped following several yards back.

When I turn back, he’s watching the ground. “You could at least let Mom in. She’s suffocating, Zac.” He looks back. The red of his eyes burns me. “Just see her. You don’t have to talk to the rest of us right now. But see Mom, okay?”

My breath is gone. The way the cold seems to vacuum every molecule of oxygen from pulmonary tissue. I catch it in time to keep myself from crying.

“And you got a letter from Beth.” He pulls a legal-sized white envelope from his pocket. The sight of her handwriting. Her on paper. She touched it. Can’t keep from crying anymore. “The people at the desk said you couldn’t have it. So…I’ve been coming for a couple days now. They said you like to come outside. Here.” He holds it between us. Like drugs between addicts. When I take it, he walks away. There’s nothing I can say. No words.

A voice shouts from the back. “I am writing you two up this time!” Stuff the letter into the hem-top of my jeans. “Blue! Zac! You two won’t be spending time together for a long time! Now get inside!”

Blue didn’t move. She waited for me, holding out her hand as I approached. She takes it when I make it to her. I feel safer than I have the whole time I’ve been here. Even the scalding face of Nurse Ratchet is almost amusing.

After group Blue walks to my room with me, waiting for me to share the letter with her. Her eyes are wide. Glaring the same blithe smile as her face.

“I’ll see you at dinner.” Shut the door in her face. I’m sure it hurs her feelings. But she doesn’t know about Beth. The only person here that knows about Beth is Shawn. And I’m still not ready to share. Even with the only person here that truly comforts me.

My bed is as uncomfortable as one expects of a hospital bed. Not a suitable reading spot, really. But it’s all I’ve got.

Zac,
The only words on the first draft of this letter were “fuck you.” This is the seventh draft since then. There could be another, or this could be the last one. I guess we’ll both know when I’m done.
I waited on you for a while. I did. But it didn’t take a great amount of thinking to know that you could never make it. I wanted you to, because I love you unlike I have loved anything. But I didn’t want to be the pretty, pretty princess your fans rip and gnaw at like they do Natalie.
You deserved to know. Please don’t be mad at Nick. He’s wanted to tell you for a long time. But I knew—I knew you’d hurt from it. But I never thought you’d be so stupid as to do something like this. You hypocrite. You sat there, by my bedside, holding my hand and dribbled about how I’d be okay and that life was worth it.
I just don’t know what to say. Do something. I don’t care how you do it. But get better. Just fucking get better.
Because I’m going to kick your ass when I get home.
Beth.

Folded and placed under my pillow, I laid there and stared at the ceiling until Shawn knocked on my door.

“You’ve pissed off the tech again?” She leans against the door frame, looking at me like a pitiful lab specimen. Then like she’s just damned disappointed. “They’re talking about keeping you two separated indefinitely.”

“I want to see my mother.” I can almost see the bleach-white face of my mother projected on the white ceiling. “Just my mother. I’m not ready for the others yet.”

She is quiet for a while. The look on her face is one of debate. She’s trying to make a decision and can’t quite seem to get there.

“Where’s the letter?” She said it so quietly I thought it was certainly just something I was thinking. “Fatma saw Taylor give you the letter, Zac. She didn’t know you weren’t supposed to receive communications, otherwise she would have taken it when she brought you and Blue in from the yard.” She holds out her hand. “If you’re not willing to give it to me, Zac, I will have it taken from you.”

“I flushed it.” The lie comes so easily. No thought. It’s just there. “She called me a hypocrite and told me to get better. And then I flushed it.”

“May I come in?” She waits for me to respond, respectfully. Not something I’m used to. When I nod, she walks in and sits at the foot of the bed. My files are bundled in her arms. Eventually, I turn my head and look at her. She knows I’m lying so I give in and pull the letter from under my pillow. She opens it and reads the words Beth had to write and rewrite—-and almost wrote again. After she’s finished with it, she replaces Beth’s pink and brown stationary to its envelope and hands it back to me. “You’ve seen it already. I’ll let you keep it.” I return it to the underside of my pillow and nod in appreciation for the small gift. Because, no matter what it says, it’s still a piece of her. She waits a moment. Waits to catch me slightly off guard. “What are you thinking about?”

“The look on her face the last time I saw her.” Lacking any other way to control the rush, I start to chew my bottom lip. The pain is less than satisfying, but the only thing I’ve got that won’t get me strapped down. “I hate her for it. She doesn’t have to love me. But I’ve given her every-fucking-think she’s ever asked me for. The only thing she had to do was tell me the truth. I already knew. I felt it in New Orleans. But she should have fucking told me.” Sit up and look at Shawn. The muscle fibers in my stomach are pulling at each other, yanking and cramping, and asking for something more than the little Beth had given me. “Is that unreasonable?”

She thinks for a minute. “To want the truth from your friends is never unreasonable. Especially from the two people you have the most intimate, non-familial relationship with. In hindsight, Zac, do you think you would have reacted differently if they had told you in December?”

Shrug. “Possibly. Finding out the day she was getting on a plane to leave was not the best time.” Shawn smiles and nods in agreement. “I love that damn girl. We’ve both known for a long time that we are not right for each other. But—-fuck-—I don’t know.”

“You do know.” Her eyebrows raise and she is waiting.

“Knowing you aren’t right for someone doesn’t stop you from wishing you were.” Bile rises in my throat. I don’t want to talk about this anymore. Shawn doesn’t speak. She’s perceptive and knows I’m not ready to say anymore about Beth. My eyes slide closed. And open and repeat a few times.

“How long were you able to talk to Taylor?”

“Only a minute. He asked me to finally talk to mom. She said ‘she’s suffocating’ because I won’t let her in to see me. Then he gave me Beth’s letter. Nur-—Fatma came out after Blue and I after that.”

Shawn smiles at me. “You can call Fatma ‘Nurse Ratchet’ if you must. Several patients do. In fact, I think Blue started that tradition.” She laughs and smiles. “You and Blue have become good friends?”

Can’t help but smile. “She’s crazy, Shawn. But she makes this suck less. It’s like she’s a professional psych patient or something. She knows how everything works.”

From the smile on Shawn’s face, I can tell there’s something to Blue. Something I’m onto that she can’t talk about. “How do you think you’ll feel when she leaves?”

“Bored. But she says she’ll visit.” My lip’s bleeding now. “Shawn, how does she get to leave and I’m still stuck here?”

Her face contorts in disappointment. “Zac. We can’t go over this every time we talk.” A sigh says she has resigned herself to explaining it one last time. “Every patient here is treated by a team. Most patients have one physician overseeing their case. Blue happens to have several and currently her treatment team feels that we have served her as best we can and has decided to release her. When we feel that way about you, you will go home too. Okay?”

“Fine.”

“I have something for you.” It’s been three days since my letter from Beth and Blue is standing in my doorway. From behind her back she pulls her finished painting. “Shawn says they’ll let you keep it in your room. Maybe when you go back home, you know, you could hang it up like it’s a Picasso or something?”

“Thank you.” She leans it against the foot of my bed. “Can I ask you a question?” She’s admiring her painting and nods her head, more as a reaction to me speaking than agreeing to answer a question. “Blue.” Now she looks at me. “What does it mean? The painting? I don’t get it and I watched you paint it.”

She takes a seat in front of the painting and waves her arm around in the air, insisting I join her on the floor. The cold of the linoleum immediately creeps up my spine and my goosebumps infect her. She bubbles up and shivers and lays her head on my shoulder. “How can you miss it?” He fingers bump slowly over the canvas, swirling the blue into the green, the white into the butter tones. The blue is me. It’s swirly and scratchy and completely erratic. The yellow is you. Because if your name had been a color, your mother would have had to name you yellow.” Her palm spreads open and slides it over the painting. Then she lifts my hand and glides it over the painting, slowly, so that I can feel every scratchy rise, smooth pivot, and striated region of paint and canvas. “It’s us. Me and you. There’d be more color if you had come along sooner. But there’s some green and that’s us and how similar we are some times.”

We watch the painting like a television, expecting the simple colors two whirlwind together and tell us a story. A story that we don’t already know.

“Zac?” Shawn’s voice floats into the door behind us. “Your mom will be here in about thirty minutes. Blue?” Blue’s head jerks sharply as she turns to face Shawn. “Your grandparents are on their way to get you.”

“You’re leaving today?” I look back at Shawn, accusing her of letting them take the only person in this psycho trip that I can stand.

“Zac.” That tone in her voice is a mom’s voice. The voice that says if you don’t shut up now, we will turn the car around and not go to Disneyland at all. “I will see you in my office, with your mother, in thirty minutes.” She turns to leave but turns back once more. “And do not make me search the grounds for you or you will lose privileges for a month.”

Shawn called my mother yesterday afternoon to decide on a time when she could come in and see me. Mom told Shawn she wanted the absolute soonest appointment for the longest stretch of time she could be in for. Shawn, ever my heroine, told her that the longest her visit could stretch was an hour. Since she told me that, I’ve been plucking through my brain trying to find things that I can talk to her about. Feels much like searching a half-empty old computer disc and clicking on something that has an interesting title only to find a bunch of nonsense code. Ultimately, the only thing I can think to say to her is “hi Mom.”

Blue pinches my cheek. “Gotta go cupcake.” Her nose crinkles and she appears to be amused.

Raise my eyebrow. “What?”

Her giggle is small, high pitched, cartoon like. “Calling you cupcake. It’s an oxymoron, really. In fact, I think I’ll bring you a batch of cupcakes and make you eat them. You’re too skinny for a boy!”

She watches as I roll my eyes. Instead of fighting with her, I change the subject. Because she’ll have forget the cupcakes after two syllables of a new subject. “Want to meet my mom?”

She shrugs her shoulders sharply. “Sure!”

Mom is already seated in Shawn’s office by the time Blue and I reach her door. I peer into the cracks to make sure she hasn’t snuck any of my siblings—-or my father-—into visit me without warning. It’s just her, though. Hands folded in her lap like she’s awaiting the worst news of her life. She’s cut of a couple feet of her hair. My mother never cuts her hair. She’s kept it strung to her scalp as all that’s left of her life before too many kids and too many years with damage-controlling Walker. She’s finally cut it away. Cut it up to her mid-back. I’d say she’s cut away everything but Mackenzie and Zoë. Pieces of Avery may be left.

Blue bolsters past the door as though the languidly shaped blonde woman waiting behind it was her own mother. “I’m Blue!” She announces this as one announces the facts of the day’s mother. And scares my mother pale as she juts her arm in my mother’s direction.

Mom shakes her hand weakly. “I’m Diana. Do you—-do you know my son?”

Blue's head nods so hard it should rattle. “He’s outside the door.”

Mom looks directly into the crack. Knowing by motherly intuition that I would be watching her. Step around and into the door, standing as close to Blue as I can get and say the only thing I can think of to say.

“Hi Mom.”

Chapter Text

The last three nights I’ve had the same dream. My mom is standing in a doorway, looking so hard at me, like she’s dredging up all her energy to tell me something, but doesn’t quite make it. Then her eyes close and she falls to the floor. I wake up before I can reach her. When my eyes pop open, I’m staring at the popcorn ceiling of my hospital room. But I see her face in those infinite white bumps, dying in wait for me to move fast enough.

She’s been here every day since I first agreed to see her. We walk into the garden, sitting on the benches, holding hands. Enjoying the heat of the stoic summer sun. Most of the time I wish she’d just let the quiet settle on us. Quiet is something mom can’t deal with. There’ve been too many kids in her house for too long.

“Cupcake!” If Blue had tires, she’d be making a screeching halt an inch from my knee caps. Then a box appears under my nose. “I brought you a cupcake!” Blue looks at my mother like a foreign object flying into her face. “Hi, Mrs. Hanson.”

Mom’s face is familiar. She used to look at Delancy like that. The way parents look at their children’s friends, pleasant but cautious. With a name like Blue, the girl was born to be crazy. Mom smiles back at her all the same.

Mom stands and motions for me to do the same. When I do, her arms fall around my neck and she squeezes so tightly I’m sure I’ll pass out soon. “You need to see your brothers.” This sounds like a frightening secret as her whisper sails past my hair. Causing me to shudder. “They have news about those demos.” Her cheek brushes mine as she pulls away to look at me. “It’s not good.”

Shawn talked me into painting. Honestly, it’s the worst idea she’s ever had. But seeing as there is considerably little else to do with my time—other than annoying the hell out of Nurse Ratchet—-I took the activity into consideration. I can’t paint. Fans hail my drawing “talent”. I’m convinced I could spit on a piece of paper and they’d fawn over it.

As I’m aimlessly slapping paint across a cheaply made canvas, Shawn walks into the room. Although she encouraged the activity, she doesn’t think much of my ability. She often grimaces when she looks at anything I’ve done. Now is no exception. Her face is holding tight against a laugh.

“I’m not Picasso, you know?” Another splotch of red. “And this was your damned idea in the first place.” Knowing you’re terrible at something and having that feeling confirmed by another, no matter how terrible you are, is something different entirely.

The sound of her throaty laugh coats the walls of the room. “I know, Zac. Practice, though. Practice could do you some good.” Laughs more and fades into a mused hum. “How about you put the brushes away. Let’s go chat in the office?” Withholding another laugh, she leaves the room, knowing I would follow. No matter how pseudo-insulted I might be.

“You’ve been taking regular visitors.” This office is municipal. No one in particular is in charge of it. It lacks any sort of personalization. Instead, it is covered in pictures that required little more painting talent than my own and really ugly fake flowers. “That’s noteworthy progress.”

“Does progress mean having sympathy for the hardships of one’s mother?” Recline, throwing my feet into the empty chair next to me. “Otherwise the only person I’d be seeing is Blue. And she brings me cupcakes.”

Shawn rarely finds me funny—with the exception of my terrible paintings, of course. “If you truly had no wish to see your family, you wouldn’t have agreed to Taylor’s initial request to see your mother. As much as you hate to admit it, Zac, you need your family.”

“Need my family?” Hands behind my head. Trying to seem cool. “A standby mother and steel-fisted father? Yep. Totally need them.” Dual thumbs up. I’m full of shit. And we both know it. Shawn gives me a dry look and waits. “Fine then. I need my mother. And, well, maybe Taylor.”

“That’s all?” An irritatingly triumphant smile.

She always does this. Brings up my family and waits for me to hang myself on my feelings about them. My neck is breaking under my weight. It goes without saying that I’ll be stuck in this mayhem factory until I’m willing to give up the ghost on my family. Psychology is ruthless and unyielding in this way. There’s no way to escape one’s self. Only to stand in the mirror and learn to appreciate even the ugliest things.

“Why don’t you just say what you want me to say and stop baiting me to feel stupid?” This got a rise from her. I never get anything from her. A swell of pride goes up in me.

“Fine. Tell me more about your dad.” And that was plenty to crush that swell. “Tell me about the first time he hit you. Do you remember?”

Some memories are like plastic bags. Plastic bags without the “warning: not a toy” sign printed on them. You crawl in looking for something that isn’t there. This memory of my father is one of those things. When I was still young, before things got too bad, I used to try to alter this memory. To make his actions my fault. Because, as a kid, you have this romanticized view of your parents. They’re supposed to be faultless. Every kid wants to be a Huxtable.

“Th-ree.” Plastic bag caught in my throat. “I was about three, I think. Jessica was still a baby. We were still in the house in Tulsa. Taylor threw me a ball in the living room. I threw it back. I wasn’t old enough to aim it. It hit an antique lamp that had belonged to my great-grandmother. I guess, maybe he’d hit me before. Because I was terrified. He found me hiding in the tree house. And that just made things worse.

“After he’d gotten a fistful of my hair, he pulled me down from the tree and into the house. He ripped an extension cord out of the wall when we got to the living room and told me to pull off my shirt. He-—he—-he, uh. He wound the cord up and swung. It hit me in the belly. Three times and turned me around and swung again. I don’t…I don’t know how many times. Until I couldn’t even feel it anymore. I think I screamed. But no one came. Taylor let me sleep in his bed that night.” For some time I tried to think of something else. Someway to round out the story. Because, even now, I need to make excuses for him. Even now, I still want to be a Huxtable. Instead, I wait for Shawn to draw some profound conclusion and end our session. But neither event takes place. “We went to South America after that. Mom started homeschooling us. There were no teachers to tell. The neighbors thought my parents were saints. I could have told someone at church, I guess. But by the time I realized that getting beat with electric cords wasn’t normal, I was too afraid to tell anyone anything.”

She’s heard these kinds of things before. The look on her placid face says so. “How long did this go on before your mom stepped in?”

Feels like reels of film click and flash through my head. When was the last time he hit my siblings? When did Taylor threaten to leave? When did Isaac threaten to tell? “I don’t remember, really. It was after the whole MMMBop thing.”

“So why you?” Her arms cross her chest. “Why did you get the worst?”

“Fuck if I know.” A thin blond walks past the office towards the visitor’s area. Nod my head toward my mother’s silhouette. “Ask my mom.”

Shawn nods, walking towards the door to call my mom into my office. I fucking hate it when she calls my bluff.

Outside the door, I hear them talking. Shawn has muffled her voice and I swear to God she’s doing it because she knows it’s pissing me off. Mom’s voice is soft but hurried. She doesn’t want to face the subject of my father and all those years either. Talking about Walker means saying she just stayed out of it because she was as afraid of him as we were. Once, and only once, have I ever seen him hit my mother. They had agreed that there would be no more kids after Avery. Dad was parading us around schools and office functions and churches. He was tired of diapers and potty training and being awake half the night with a child infernally down with colic. Who knows how it happened. The will of God at best, but Mom found out she was pregnant. Taylor called me into the bathroom to show me the weirdest thing we had ever seen: a pile of oddly shaped white sticks with bright blue lines. A couple doors down, we heard mom crying. “I don’t know how it happened, Walker!” She sounded so small. Too small to be the towering mother who lit the fire of God into her children when we fought our school work or refused to share toys with the girls. Taylor and I peaked into the door. Her arms were crossed; dad grumbled something about her doing it on purpose. She rolled her eyes. Watching my dad’s hand come across her face was like watching the most grotesque horror film I had ever seen in hideous slow motion. Taylor covered my mouth and pulled me down the hall. We never told anyone. We’ve never talked about it. And I have no intention to bring it up now.

Mom ruffles my hair with the tips of her nails. My feet fall from the chair giving her a place to sit and stare at me. A foreign object from her womb. One more broken child to add to her list. Their eyes cross each other uneasily.

“Zac, honey…” Mom pulls my hand. When she says things this way there is absolutely nothing good coming. “We think that it may be a good idea if…” A trailing whisper.

“We want you to consider a visit with-—” Even Shawn can’t say it.

“—-If you’re going to say visit with my father, fuck you both!” Cursing ones mother. An extra, extra special place in Hell. “I don’t owe him a fucking thing!”

“But he owes you!” Shawn looks ready to jump. Ready to beat me to the door, better able to read my mind than any psychic could ever hope.

My mother is chewing on her fingernail. “Zac, there are things I cannot tell you. Things, I-—I just don’t know.”

“Why’d you let him do it Mom?” As soon as it passed my throat, I wanted to swallow it again. My stomach rumbles, rages with all the questions I couldn’t bring myself to ask her. “WHY? You’re my mother! You were supposed to save me, Diana! But you just stood there.” Up from my chair. Ram my fist in a wall. They gasp. “Why do you hate me, Mom? Why wouldn’t you save me like you saved the rest of them?”

Her eyes flutter, like torn-up butterflies. “I don’t hate you. How could you think that, Zac? I tried, honey. But I can’t control you father. I even thought to send you to stay with you grandparents. But then my mom died. And you guys got the record deal. But I tried.”

If it were humanly possibly, I’d be peeling through the layers of drywall with my fingernails. Scraping it away to find the air that was somehow missing in the room. Instead, I lay my head against the white coolness and wait for them to say something, do something, because I refuse to move.

“Sit down, Zac.” I hear Shawn stand from her chair. She walks to my shoulder and pulls me from the wall. “We won’t talk about this anymore today. Visit with your mom and I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”

Shawn leaves, though I’m still clinging to my place on the wall, trying to figure out why I couldn’t have just died.

“Do you really think that I don’t love you, Zac?” A sniffle and a ruffle from the tissue box.

“No.”

“Will you see Taylor and Isaac? They want to see you. So does Nick.”

“Taylor can come tomorrow.” The list of names, however short, is too overwhelming for me to consider them all at once.

Lunch is rather revolting this afternoon. It’s supposed to be meatloaf. I’m quite sure it’s a new age version of mystery meat. I shove it aside, and begin drawing swirls in my notebook. Taylor is supposed to arrive soon and I have no idea what I’m supposed to say to him—-about anything. The last time I saw Taylor was the day he dropped off Beth’s letter. I can’t seem to remember the last time we had a decent conversation.

Nurse Ratchet taps me on the shoulder. “You have a visitor.” She looks down at the untouched food on my plate and I can tell she’s taking mental inventory to share with Shawn. “He’s in the TV room.”

She waltzes away, looking triumphant, knowing she’s caught me at something.

He’s looking at the television without actually watching it. If he were my mother, Isaac, even Nick, I would be considering walking in another direction. Instead, I watch him for a minute, pretending to watch the television and wonder how he managed to escape this fate.

“I can see you in the TV reflection.” He doesn’t turn around to look at me.

The television goes black for a moment and I can see that Taylor’s face is thinner than the last time I looked at him. A loud car commercial, offering guaranteed credit, flashes across the screen.

Taylor turns to look at me finally. “Are you going to sit down?”

He watches as I round the arm of the couch and flop into the chair next to him. We look at each other, waiting for something clever—-maybe even sentimental-—to say. He turns down the television. Looks at me and waits some more.

“Hi.” It’s my favorite word these days. “You’ve lost weight.”

His eyebrow pops up. “So have you.”

True. I’ve lost ten pounds since entering the hospital. I like to pretend it’s from the blood loss. Though I know I’ve been here to long for that to be remotely true.

“So…how’re things?” As I say this, I think about our conversation in the stairwell. Taylor’s truce. The anticlimax of every fight we’d ever had. We should be shouting now. But the paper-eater would go into a screaming fit at the noise level.

“Pregnant.” He shrugs. “She wants to name it Penelope if it’s a girl.” The name always reminded me of fruit.

“That’s awful.” I’m unable to stop myself from laughing.

He laughs too. “I don’t really like it. But I named Ezra, so I’m kind of stuck with it.”

It’s quiet for a moment. I think he’s taking in the reality that he missed out on. Noises from patients in a scarier state than my own encompass us subtly. He can hear the old woman with multiple personalities shouting medical terms. A doctor and a nurse move past us in a blur; I suppose they are on their way to whoever is screaming. Paper-eater guy walks past, acknowledges Taylor with a nod and continues in the direction of the smoking area.

Taylor looks at the splay of old magazines—-most of which have been torn apart by a certain cellulose and ink loving patient—-and glances back at the television. We’re waiting each other out.

“How’d you miss out on this?” It was said as I was thinking it. I didn’t want to say it. But I did want the answer.

“I didn’t try to kill myself.”

“Not overtly.”

“Touché. We were too busy singing ‘MMMBop’ until our throats bled for me to go into treatment. They talked about it, though.”

“They who?”

“Mom and dad. And Ashley.”

“Ashley was going to sell you into hospital confinement?” That was rather horrifying. Ashley had always been our confidant. “That is fucked up.”

“So was I, Zac.” His mouth twitches downwardly. “I should have died from a range of things. Dehydration, malnourishment. I could have died from every simple cold because of what anorexia does to your immune system. My hair was falling out and my heart will never recover.”

Suddenly, I’m very hungry. “What…you know…what happened? How’d you get over it?”

He looks at me very intensely, very purposefully. “Natalie.” Not the answer I was expecting. “You were waiting for me to say that it was Mom.” He chuckles. “I know Natalie is not your favorite person. In fact, you all but hate her. We have a hard time getting along, I know. But I stay because—how do you leave behind the person who saved you? Then came Ezra and having him—-Zac-—that kid is in every breath, every word I say.”

Now I feel shallow. And hollow. And stupid. “What if I have no Natalie?”

He smiles at me, looking hopeful. “You do—you will. You just haven’t realized it yet.”

“Who do you think it is?”

“Not my call, Zac. Maybe you don’t know who or what it is yet. Maybe it’s everything you’ve already got. But I don’t know. You have to figure it out for yourself.”

Hours later, it’s dinner and I’ve eaten almost half of my food. More than I’ve eaten during a meal throughout my entire stay in the hospital.

“I have something for you.” Shawn walks into the TV room carrying a large drawing pad.

“You’ve finally given up on me painting?” The thought is rather exciting.

She shakes her head. “No. I want you to continue painting. It gives you something to focus on.” She laughs and shakes her head. “And, uh, to put effort into improving.”

Raise my eyebrows, trying to look unamused. “So then why’d you bring me a drawing pad? Admit defeat, Shawn. I suck at painting.”

“I didn’t bring it to you.” She lays it on the table. “Someone left it for you. I’ve been asked not to say by whom.”

“Was it Blue? Where is she? Have you seen her?” Blue hasn’t been to visit for many weeks. Since before Taylor’s visit and Shawn refuses to discuss why or even entertain my speculations as to why she has stopped visiting me.

“No, Zac.” She looks disappointed to tell me this. “It wasn’t Blue.”

“You won’t even tell me where she’s been.” Snatch the pad and flip through it looking for a drawing of a cupcake. “Why should I believe you?”

Shawn scratches her head, glances around the room, and looks as though she may faint from consternation. “Come to the office with me.” She walks away.

Once in the office, she closes the door behind us and sits in one of the chairs in front of the desk. As I sit in front of her, I watch her mouth contort. “Zac.” She whispers and leans forward. “The drawing pad isn’t from Blue. Blue has been missing for several weeks.”

“What do you mean ‘missing’?” Like I’d never heard the word before.

Shawn hesitates, wringing her hands, glancing back and forth from my face to the walls. “You know that Blue is schizophrenic. It’s why she talks to the plants and the wind and the mirrors.”

“She got better?” Psychobabble overwhelms me. “That’s why she got to go home. She was better? How could she just go missing?”

“I could lose my license for talking about her with you.” Her chest caves in as she lets go of a resigned sigh. “So I tell you this in confidence.” I nod at her. “Blue’s grandparents are the head psychiatrists and founders of this hospital; Blue has been in and out since she was 12 years old. She goes through periods of manageability to being completely out-of-control. And when she is manageable, they take her home. When she isn’t, she comes back here.”

“Isn’t she on medicine?” Seemed like a likely question.

"She is.” She is still whispering, like she senses ears in the wallpaper. “In many psychiatric disorders, medicines follow what is called the Law of Thirds. One-third of patients get better, one-third never gets better, and the final third goes back and forth. Blue goes back and forth. Her mother, however, never got better. After each period of reprieve, Blue’s out-of-control periods get worse and worse. Right now her grandparents believe she left with the intent of finding her mother. They think she is somewhere in Oklahoma City, but they’re very unsure.”

“This is bullshit, Shawn!” My voice gives a small echo in the room, breaking Shawn’s deliberate quiet. “How do you lose a twenty-something schizophrenic—AND her mother?”

“It happens, Zac.” Her face. She knows it’s crap.

“So now what? Do they just let her wander the streets of Oklahoma City talking to brick walls and trash cans that she thinks might be her mom?” Anger bubbles and pops in my chest, leaving a clinging residue that hurts.

She shrugs, shaking her head. “They are looking for her. But, for her, I don’t know what happens now.” I can hear her breathe in humid quiet. She’s watching. Letting the anger and hurt settle into my stomach. I have a thought to chew my lip, bite my nails to the quick, pull my hair. But I let it go. “I saw your mom and brother as they left the other day. Your mom told me you’re considering visits with your other siblings?”

“I don’t have any excuses to keep them away now.” Visions of Blue tumble behind my irises. Dirty and strung out fumbling down the streets, chasing tumbling trash and pretending that it’s food.

“What about your dad?” She always does that.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing—-”

“—-I expect a different result,” she smiles mischievously, “because I’m not letting you out of this hospital until you do.”

“You’re of the devil.” And I stomp out of the room.

Hospital administration has made a special allotment for my family to take over the cafeteria for an hour or so in the middle of a Saturday afternoon. Mom tried to convince them to let her bring in some snacks. They only thing they’ve allowed is whatever Natalie is toting around for Ezra.

Shawn and I are looking through the dining room windows, watching Avery rock Ezra. Mackenzie is hugged to Jessica. My mom and Isaac and Samantha are passing anticipatory looks and pretending to avoid looking at the door. I’m sure they know I’m on the other side watching them. Shawn’s offered to give me something for the anxiety and I was incredibly tempted. My family would be insulted to know that I had to be drugged to put up with them.

“Are you going in?” Shawn pats my shoulder with a strange force. Like she’s trying to shove me through the door.

“In a second.”

How do you face your entire family after something like this? How do tell them you don’t fit—-you somehow, somewhere along the way, stopped belonging to them? Watching them interact, now matter how big the pink elephant, is almost a sure sign that I don’t belong with them.

“What do I say, Shawn? What am I supposed to tell them?” A cramp in my stomach brings a wave of nausea.

“You go in.” She sounds like a mother. “That’s the first step. And then you answer every question as honestly as you can. This is your family, Zac. Right now, I think they’re just happy you’ve decided to see them. So, there are no wrong answers. I’ll be in the back of the room. If you begin to feel overwhelmed, just look over at me and nod twice.”

Without giving me a chance to hesitate any longer, she pushed the door open. The room stopped echoing and everyone became too still, like they were watching an animated china doll.

Ezra ran at me like a magnet, clinging to my leg as soon as he has smashed his nose into my knee cap. “I missed you!”

He feels so heavy, like I haven’t held him in years. “I missed you too, buddy!” I don’t want to look away from him and have to actually see them all staring at me.

“When will you get better?” Kids. Never afraid to ask what they want to know.

There is nothing I can say. Because there is no answer for him, or for anyone else.

“Come sit with Mommy?” Natalie motioned her arm for Ezra.

As he toddled over to her, I sat in a chair next to my mother and looked at the floor, waiting for someone to say something. And someone does say something.

“Zac?” Nick walks in the cafeteria door, followed by Shawn.

Shame slides down my throat. I beat him up. My best friend and beat him in an airport parking lot. And he’s the one sliding in the door, afraid of me. This moment is harder than walking into the room.

“I’m sorry.” I’m not sure where I found the breath to say that. Because I swear I’m not breathing. “I am so fucking sorry.”

Nick shakes his head. “Don’t be. I deserved it. I should have told you.”

Awkward waves. Girls hug and cry in moments like this. Guys are never really sure what we should do.

Nick glances over his shoulder. “I snuck you something.” He pulled my favorite candy bar from his pocket. “Did you get the drawing pad?”

Hugging it is!

The hour passes quickly after inhaling the candy bar. While no one asks questions about my treatment, they do want to hear stories about Dwayne, the paper eater guy, and about Blue. My mother also has a morbid curiosity about the terrifying reality of hospital food.

“No wonder you haven’t gained any weight!” Avery laughs.

Shawn stands and walks over to my family. “Sorry guys, the lunch rush is about to breeze through.”

My mom walks to Shawn and shakes her hand. “Thank you again.” The sentiment echoes through the rest.

Once everyone’s gone, I go back to my room to ruminate over Blue’s disappearance and Shawn’s threat to keep me around until I meet with my father. I congratulate myself for getting through the great meeting without needing a tranquilizer.

I pass some time in front of the television in the common room sketching comics of my family in the cafeteria. Nothing happens on Saturdays here. No one bothers me for hours. Except Dwayne, who only bugs me to go smoke with him.

Late in the evening, just after dinner, Nurse Ratchet asks me to follow her into the office. Her tone of voice in strange. Placating. Almost pitying.

She doesn’t even ask me to sit. “A call just came from your brother, Taylor. And, I don’t really know how to tell you this, so I’m just going to be really blunt.” Her face contorts and I want to yell at her to just be the bitch she usually is and get it over with. “Your mom had a heart attack about an hour after your family left here. She’s stable, though, and they expect she’ll be okay.”

Now. Now I need the tranquilizers.

Chapter Text

Facing the mortality of your mother is by far more impressive and frightening than facing your own. She looks smaller than a twig under the sterile hospital sheet. She’s playing go fish with Ezra and Zoë when I walk in. I don’t know where the rest of my family is. Shawn signed me out of the hospital and drove me.

“Uncle Zac!” Ezra hopped from the hospital bed and hit my knee caps at a full run.

I pick him up, holding him over my head and watching him smile. “Hi, kid!”

He continues to giggle as I sling him onto my hip. (Though he’s gotten a little to big.) “I’m beating Grandma and Auntie Zoë!”

My mom laughed lightly. Weakly. “More like letting him win. Ezra’s not a very gracious loser.”

“Neither am I!” Ruffle his hair and put him back on the ground.

“Hi, Zo-bear!”

She smiles timidly. I’m not sure Zoë will ever forget the day in the kitchen, with the cup smashing. Taylor told me that when I was in the hospital, unconscious and stitched together like a ragdoll, Zoë and Mackenzie were not allowed in the room. For a second, though, I saw her peek in. She won’t forget that. I won’t forget that.

Zoë looks back at her hand without saying anything in return.

“Hi, Mom.” I pull Ezra into my lap to make room for myself at the end of her bed. “Where is everyone?”

“Home, mostly.” She lifts a five-of-clubs from the discard pile. “Taylor’s down in the cafeteria picking up some snacks for Ezra for the drive home. Zoë’s spending the night with them tonight.” She looks at her cards. “Do you have a four-of-hearts, Zo?”

“Go fish, mom!” Zo looks at me, like she’s waiting for the right second to say something. She keeps this face as her turn comes and goes twice. Finally, she looks up—if she hadn’t put so much though in to it, I would have thought she was blurting the question—and asks, “why can’t you get better?”

“Zoë!” A blip flies up as my mother’s heartbeat increases.

“I’m trying, Zoë.” Trying to answer before some sort of awkwardness happens.

Taylor walked into the room as Zoë was throwing a card to Mom. His eyebrows raised, “What’re you doing here?”

“Shawn brought me.” Like it was something he should have guessed.

“Oh.” He definitely looked like he could come up with nothing else to say. “I’ll see you tomorrow? Er, at the hospital?”

I nod. He gathers Ezra’s toys, says goodbye to my mom and shuffles the kids out of the room.

I pile the cards together and set them on the table beside the bed as I realize that this is the most horrifying, backwards form of déjà vu I have ever suffered. She wondered if my death vie was her fault. Now I’m pretty sure that her brush with mortality is my fault—no wondering to it. This feeling crept into me like hot, viscous, black tar, debilitating my oxygen exchange.

“I’m sorry, Mom.” I want to bury my face in her chest like I did when I was five and cry into her the way Beth had with me. In a way that would rattle her ribcage so that she’ll know that I never meant to almost kill her.

She shakes her head. “Stop it, Zac. Do not do this to yourself!”

“I’m so sorry!” It’s really the only appropriate thing to say.

“Stop. Just. Stop, Zac.” She scoots over and allows me to lay down beside her. “I have seven kids, Zachary. You think you’re to blame? No one’s to blame. I knew with each kid I’ve had that there would be stress and heartache. It’s worth it, though, kiddo. But, if you think you’re the only one to ever make me sad, Zac, you are far too full of yourself.”

Over her shoulder, I watch her heart monitor, counting each blip it makes. Wondering if each upward peak is one point of sadness and stress. Blip. Me. Blip. Taylor. Blip. Dad. Blip. The kids. And again. Me, Taylor, Dad, the kids. Me, Taylor, Dad, the kids. No wonder the woman had a heart attack. I wonder if it could remotely be possible that, with all of us in each flutter, there is a pulse that could hold any happiness. Any joy? With all the grief, how could she ever be happy.

But I’ve seen her happy. I know I have. Remembering the day she found out about Ezra. You could see the shape of her heart through her chest as it was swelling—even if the wedding would be shotgun. She practically tap-danced when she found out about Jess applying to the Tulsa School. (Even if Jess’ acceptance was overshadowed by Nat’s baby announcement.) Avie and Mac playing soccer. Zoë’s constant art attack on the house. All of it joy that practically burst from her skin, threatening to cover everything like sunshine on a cloudless day.

And if my mother had endured this absolute polarity of emotions, with all of the unimaginable contributing attributes, can I not do so as well? Have I not done it before? Was I not happy little more than a year ago? I had endured Beth’s try at death and still celebrated the birthdays that followed. At Ezra’s baptismal, I don’t remember ever feeling so proud of Taylor in all my life. My own chest had swollen with the light of the world in those times.

Knowing this, thinking it, I have to wonder—can I not find some other side of this despair? And incorporate it into a life that is balanced? Can I not find some way to be happy again? Finally, happy, for my sake and not for the forced sake of everyone around me?

I feel overwhelmed and dizzy.

Mom brushes a cold hand over my face. “Are you okay, honey?”

“Just thinking.” Blink away the thoughts. “Has dad come to see you?”

She nods.

“Oh. Well. I guess that’s good.”

A sigh that I don’t think I was supposed to hear. “Someone else has come to visit, too. Beth was here a couple days ago.” She hesitates, waiting for a reaction. I find myself still, like I’m under a bear attack. “Her classes are getting ready to start and she wanted to visit her family one more time before Thanksgiving. Jessica told her about this silly heart thing when she stopped by the house.” Still waiting for the slash of claws to make me rethink my epiphany that seemed too long ago now that Beth has entered the conversation. “Taylor doesn’t think I should tell you, but Beth asked about you. She wanted us to tell you that she does love you and hopes you’re getting better.”

It doesn’t hurt that bad. Not really. Okay, it hurts. But it definitely doesn’t feel like being cut open by a bear. More like a couple of jellyfish stings. Which, comparatively, isn’t so bad.

A light tap at the door ends my evaluation of possible pain comparisons.

Shawn leans in. “Hello, Mrs. Hanson. How are you feeling?”

“Very well, Dr. Curtis. Thank you!” Mom smiles big and bright and grateful. She nods towards me. “And…thank you.”

“Not a problem.” Shawn opens the door a little wider, gesturing to me to follow. “We’ve got to get back, Zac.”

Kiss Mom on the forehead and follow Shawn into the hall.

“Sorry it was so short.” Shawn mutters over her shoulder. “I got paged.”

My heart jumped. “Blue?”

“No, Zac.” She does sound disappointed. “Just a new admit.”

We step into a narrow elevator. Keep quiet as we slide, quietly, to the bottom floor. I’m looking at the silver doors, but I don’t see them. I’m looking at memories of my life before razors. Including some of the worst memories of my father. Those are the hardest. Rather pass those by and say they belong to someone else. What’s more difficult, though, is trying to find memories of me and Walker where I’m not afraid of him.

I find one. The day we set that record—the highest decibel level at a concert. He was pretty proud of that. No matter how many times I’d scowled at Taylor during the show. (And he hated when I’d do that.) If there are many others, I can’t seem to think of them right now.

Shawn leads us out into the ungodly bright afternoon. The midday sun is so bright, I swear it’s cutting my optic nerves. Walking up to a white hospital van doesn’t ease this feeling.

Shawn turns the ignition and begins to pull out of the parking space, creeping slowly out of the parking lot. As she turns on to the road, she looks at me and says, unabashedly, “You think it’s your fault she’s here.”

“Pull over.” Gag.

“What?”

Bigger gag. “Pull.” Bile in mouth. “Over!”

She does. Shove door open and as soon as I lean out, the little food I had at breakfast was puddled on the side of the road.

“Zac? Are you okay? Zac?”

Dry heave. Wretch. Wretch. Wretch. Bile.

“Fine.” Acid hot on the lining of my throat. “Valium?”

“I don’t carry it in my pockets.” She pushes my shoulder back towards the seat to look at my face, examining it. “Are you okay? Do I need to head back to the emergency room?”

Shake my head. “I’m fine. Do you have anything to drink in here?”

“No, but we can stop. Was breakfast bad?” She wasn’t joking, though I would feel more at ease if she were.

“Of course it’s my fault she’s here, Shawn.” Swallow some of the burn. “She thought the worst of it was over when Taylor finally started putting on some weight—when he met Natalie. Lightening isn’t supposed to strike twice. She wasn’t supposed to have to go through this again. We were supposed to be simple, happy. Easy to raise after that. We, the kids, used to make promises to each other that we would never scare mom like that. The younger ones even promised not to worry Dad. But I just couldn’t keep it. I fucked it up like I have everything else before now. No wonder my father fucking hates me. I was the reason people hated having to interview us. I’m not predictable or—or—”

“—Stop it!” We were still parked. Her tone isn’t angry. Just logical. “You and your siblings could have promised to never have colds again for the rest of your lives and done the same amount of good. You can’t stop a cold any faster than you can put brakes on depression.”

“Colds don’t give mothers heart attacks.”

“Zac have you ever stopped to take into consideration the congenital and natural attributions of your mother’s heart attack?”

“Congeni-what?”

“Congenital—means genetic. You’ve had a few family members who suffered heart attacks.” Her eyes knit together, almost wary looking. “Your mother is also underweight. I can’t deny she’s probably been under enough stress for it to be a contributing factor in her heart attack. You have six siblings, Zac, and a nephew. And, of course, your father. And you know what?” She doesn’t wait for me to comment. “Even in the face of all those things, no one is to blame. Your mom could have lived a magical life, free from sadness and stress and genes and still had a heart attack. The human body is fallible.” She stops and gives an ironic sounding laugh. “You are so narcissistic in the weirdest ways, sometimes.”

Still nauseous. “How would you feel? Don’t be my doctor, for one minute. Be my friend and tell me—how would you feel?” My chest caves in and pops out painfully as I try to keep myself from crying. And from puking again.

Shawn chews her lip a second. I know she’s not considering how she’d feel. She’s considering letting the professional barrier down for just a moment.

“It’s not that I don’t commiserate.” She’s conceded to a small crack in the barrier. “I would probably feel the same. All the same, however, it would still be unfounded. Eventually you have to come to the understanding that not everything that goes wrong in your life is your fault.”

“You always say that.”

She laughs. “And you always say that. Your mom is going to be fine. I’m sure her doctor will suggest that she gain a bit of weight and he may consider putting her on an antidepressant. You, meanwhile, will also be working towards getting better.”

Shut the van door. “My sister asked me why I can’t get better.” I didn’t mean to tell her that.

Shawn slowly pulls the van back onto the road. “What did you tell her?”

“That I’m trying.” Shrug. “Zoë’s scared of me, now.”

“She’s not as scared as she was.” She says this as though it were an absolute truth. Like she had reached in Zo’s head and pulled it out.

“How do you know?”

“Has anyone told you about the days you were unconscious?”

“No.”

“Zoë had a really hard time trying to understand what was happening.” She made a turn into a fast food place. “Your parents asked me to explain it to her. The thing was, I wasn’t entirely sure myself. You had been okay the last time I’d seen you. But I sat down with her, she told me about the fight you’d had with Jessica, when you threw a tea cup at the wall.” The memory made me cringe. “She told me that you and Jessica had had an argument about Beth—just like you had the day you wound up in the hospital. Zoë was afraid of you after that. She was scared that you were going to be like your dad. Then, after your last fight with your sister, and you were in the hospital, Zoë realized that you weren’t an angry person like your dad. She understood that you were just very sad, but you’ve been so sad for so long—she’s not afraid of you. She’s afraid for you.”

She shouts an order to the waiting attendant. A moment later her pager beeps and buzzes. “I know, I know!” She mumbles as she’s pressing buttons on the side. An attendant hands her large cups and Shawn passes one to me.

I don’t know what I’m supposed to say about Zoë. And it’d make me feel like crap—if I could feel any worse than I already do.

Sip the soda and enjoy the washing away of bile. “Who found me?”

“Huh?” In a heartbeat, she realizes what I’m asking. “Oh. Your brother’s girlfriend.”

“Isaac’s girlfriend? Samantha?”

She nods.

I wait for a moment to see if she’ll elaborate. She doesn’t. “What happened?”

Her lip gathers to one side of her face as she thinks. “She and Isaac got home. Isaac was looking for something in the car and Samantha went into the apartment. She told me that she could hear the radio and went to the bathroom door to ask you to turn it down and you didn’t answer her. Then she went into Isaac’s bedroom to get something to pick the lock and saw that you’d taken her pills from the drawer. She got a screw driver and took the doorknob off. Isaac came in when he heard her screaming. You were still breathing. Samantha wrapped a sheet around your arm and they drove you to the hospital.”

Trees sweep by too quickly for them to be individual entities. One passive mass of nature. We’re a couple miles from the hospital still. I can’t stomach hearing about this as well as I thought I could. So I change the subject.

“What will Blue be like when she gets back?” I keep having visions of her looking like a whole new person. Like she’d let some homeless guy make her a new face. But she’d be bohemian and brilliant and not crazy.

“There’s no way to know.” Shawn makes a turn into the hospital entrance. “She hasn’t had her medication in a long time. She may or may not recognize you. She won’t be in touch with reality and she’ll probably be carrying on more conversations with more people than we can count. That’s about all I can promise you. If they find her, you won’t be able to see her for a while.”

A voice in me protests this last statement, but it’s logical right? What would be the point in seeing her if she won’t even know who I am? This thought is agonizing. She won’t know me. I’ll just be something else in the mish-mash of her disease. Still just as damned alone as I was before.

“Go to group.” Shawn puts the van in park. “And I want you to talk today—about anything. You can talk about what you had for breakfast. You can talk about your visit with your mom. Just talk, okay? Group, whether you think it is or not, is meant to help you.”

I don’t argue. I said, “Okay.” And walked inside and into the group room, nodding towards Fatma. “Ratchet.”

“Hello, Zac.” She stopped flinching at the sound of her nickname some time ago. Kind of disappointing, really. “How was your visit with your mom?”

Plopped down next to Dwayne, the paper eater. “It was good. My sister, brother and nephew were there too.”

“How’s your mom doing?” Dwayne asks.

Shrug. “She’s fine—as fine as she can be, anyway.”

We spend several minutes talking about my mom’s health. I recount the story Shawn told me about Samantha finding me in the bathtub. The room gets very quiet, very still.

“You sound like you feel guilty?” Fatma crosses her legs and leans her head in her cupped hand.

“What’s not to feel guilty about?” Shrugging my shoulders, because surely it’s logical to feel guilty about such things.

“Is it because it was your brother’s girlfriend?” Her eyebrows rise in that devil’s-advocate way. “Or because you tried to kill yourself?”

Am I sorry I tried to kill myself? That’s a question I hadn’t asked myself. Shawn hadn’t asked it either. Frankly, I’d never thought to be sorry, to be ashamed, for what I had done. Not until now. There is just too much else for me to be ashamed of and now I have to add something else I’m supposed to add to my list.

“I don’t know.” I wish Blue were here to hold my hand. “Maybe I should feel guilty about trying to kill myself. But I don’t know if do. I do feel guilty about Samantha. I guess maybe I should have done it where someone else would have found me—or maybe somewhere I wouldn’t have been found at all. But I don’t know if I feel bad about trying to die. It felt like the right decision at the time. I didn’t see any other way. I just…didn’t…I didn’t want to be anymore. And I know everyone says it’s never the answer, and maybe it’s not, but sometimes it’s the only one you can think of. Sometimes the black of death outweighs the light and colors of living. And under that weight there’s no way to recognize that living is worth the weight. Maybe trying to kill myself was the only way to cut through the black and see that maybe it is better to be breathing.” Wow. It’s amazing what you learn about what yourself when you’re willing to just talk. “No. I’m not sorry I tried to die, but I am happy that I was unsuccessful. I haven’t figured out what to live for just yet. But I guess all I have to do is keep living.”

After group is over, Ratchet pulls me aside. “That was very brave of you.”

“You think so?” Walking towards the cafeteria, smelling something pleasant, like cake.

“Patients often say that they wish they hadn’t tried to kill themselves,” she shuffles the bundle of papers in her arms. “They say it because they think that’s what they’re supposed to say. I’ve also had patients say that they wanted to die and wished they were dead and regretted not completing their suicide. No one has ever had an answer for me, or any of the therapists I’ve worked with, quite like yours. Given your reactions to group therapy before, I would never have expected you to be so frank. I think that was brave, and I am grateful for it.”

Blood rushes my cheeks. I didn’t think it could possibly be a brave thing. I just stated the truth.

“Well…you’re welcome?” Laugh.

She returns the smile. “Have a good afternoon.”

Fatma turned to go to the administrative offices and I followed my nose toward the cake smell.

Dwayne sits with me during dinner. It’s good to have a dinner buddy, and I’m glad he doesn’t talk much. Gives me time to miss Blue in peace. She was an infinite chatterbox, but I had gotten used to it. Liked it. And very much miss it now.

Dwayne and I pick at our food. The appetizing thing I had smelled earlier turns out to be carrot cake. Eat it and the roll and pass the rest to Dwayne. For a guy who seems to love the taste of paper more than anything, he can eat more food than anyone I’ve ever seen. More than Nick. And that’s outright impressive.

“Smoke?” He suggests, mouth full of chicken.

“Can I bum a couple? I just want to walk a round the grounds.” Sip soda. “Think.”

He hands me a mostly empty pack and I stop by the nurse’s desk to grab a lighter, light a cigarette and hand it back.

It’s early evening and the sun is still wavering in the sky, knowing it was still some time before dark. With the lit cigarette in my hand I walk down near the fence, thinking about Beth. I wonder how New York she’s become. That place does things to people—turns them into new beings. Still human. Just human magnified. I imagine she’ll come home arty and bohemian (like Blue) and familiarly unrecognizable. She’ll dread her hair and wear eyeliner that’s three days old and sprout Ani DiFranco lyrics at will. I’d worry she’d stop shaving, but I don’t think that’s an option for ballerinas. Neither is dreads, I guess. Maybe she’ll come home, wiggling a ring in front of my face and announce plans for Nick to move to New York. She’ll be wearing Chanel sunglasses and toting a Prada she bought in Chinatown.

I sit on the bench, furthest back on the yard, smoking one cigarette after another, lighting each new with the last fire of the old. Soon the sun begins to drop below the trees, and I can see the moon, but it’s still to bright for stars.

Surely one of these days, time will pass and I won’t have to think about Beth. Maybe I’ll have found my Natalie. I think about that time Shawn asked me about Beth. Knowing you aren’t right for someone doesn’t stop you from wishing you were, that’s what I’d told her. Ratchet was wrong. It took much more bravery for me to say that. Because I still can’t stop wishing. Maybe it’s because I see the people around me, they all have their security blankets. Living, breathing security blankets. And I’m just damned freezing. I think I’d take a couple sheets of newspaper if it would keep out the cold.

Delancy. She’s the first thought as I’m wishing for newspaper. I’d had it, newspaper that is. It still wasn’t quite enough. But she was something. I wonder if she’s sitting in a recovery center right now. One of those really posh ones where she can cook for herself and take field trips to the beach. God that girl loved the beach.

That girl loved me. But that was one more relationship that would never work. Where the participants would do so much more damage than good. Will I ever be able to form a functional relationship?

The sun has run out and one of the night-time techs is calling us into the house. Recovering drug addicts hustle in to receive their nightly doses of methadone, while the rest of us drag our feet, knowing we have the long night to face. Because sometimes drugs just aren’t enough to stop the demons.

After being administered my medications—there are several and I have no idea what any of them do—I meander back to my room, dig out the drawing pad Nick had sent me, and began to doodle. Nothing in particular. Blue’s eyes. Delancy’s mouth. Beth’s hair. The look of my father’s fist as it would come toward my face. Taylor’s boney ribcage. My artwork was beginning to resemble Tara’s. I stop for a moment to think about her, wonder what she’s going through. If she’s still in therapy. Doing drugs? Wonder if I’d hurt her, too.

The knock at my door made me jump, sending a heavy black pencil line across the unknown face I had begun working on.

“It’s Shawn.” She cracks the door open. “May I come in?”

Nod. “As always.”

“I spoke with your mom a little while ago.” Shawn looks different to me. It takes a second, but I realize she is in a t-shirt with the hospital’s logo on it, and jeans. Definitely less formal than I have ever seen her be. She also sounds tense. I hate it when she sounds this way. “She’s doing fine and her doctor said she’d be released in the morning.” This makes me smile. Until Shawn starts making an odd face.

“What is it, Shawn?” Throw my sketch pad aside, to brace for whatever is coming. “Would you please just say it? It’s annoying watching you face twist like that.”

“You have a visitor coming tomorrow.”

“Taylor? I know. We already talked about that.”

“Not just Taylor.”

“Blue? They’ve found Blue?” I know better than to hope for this.

“No.” She chews her lip. I’ve never seen her this uncomfortable before and I’m really starting to freak out. She threaded her fingers together and released them. “Taylor is coming tomorrow. Andyourdadiscomingwithhim.” Now that’s just downright uncharacteristic.

“Did you just say…what I think you just said?” My chest starts to pop in and out with each enraged breath. “Did you say that my father—”

“—It’s time, Zac.” She puts up a hand. “You have to do this, remember? The longer you put it off, the longer you stay here. You have to have some kind of conversation with this man.” I try to interject again. She stops me. Again. “Do I need to put you under suicide watch?”

My chest continues to pop. “Homicide watch maybe.” Mutter, hoping she doesn’t hear me.

“I’m not playing around.” She’d heard me. “They’ll be here in the afternoon, around one. If I need to order you a sedative, I will. I’ll be in the room with you. Taylor will be there and I’ve requested a security guard. He cannot hurt you. Give yourself an opportunity to find out why. You deserve it as much as you need it. There is no way for you to move on until you do.”

A disgusting, traitor of a tear fills the cusp of my eye. “Catharsis, right?”

“Catharsis.”

“I can walk away as soon as I want?”

“Within reason, yes.”

“Fine. Let the carnage begin.” She won’t be able to say I didn’t warn her.

Chapter Text


Clock on the wall ticks. It’s been ticking at the quiet for ten minutes. No one’s talking. Shawn has huffed at us several times and Taylor keeps slamming his fingertips onto the table.

“This is a waste of time.” Grumble at Shawn and avoid looking at Walker. “Can we go now?”

“Are you afraid to talk to me?” Walker’s looking at me, mocking me. He wants me to be afraid of him. It’d be easier that way. He’d never have to admit anything that happened.

“No.” Still won’t look at him. Look at Taylor instead. He gives me this sort of imploring face. Like he wants me to speak for all of us. To say everything he and all my other siblings could never say. “I just think it’s a waste of my time. You don’t give a fuck.”

He glares at me. And the quiet comes and stays again for a minute.

“Zac, do you have any questions you’d like to ask your dad?” Shawn sounds so placid, so grossly calm.

I think she’s afraid of him.

“Why are you such a sonofabitch?” Why? Why do I speak before I think? Why?

Walker just laughs. God, I wish I could just cut his throat. I’m sure prison isn’t exactly my taste, though. Besides, killing him would be too easy. Right?

From the corner of my eye, I can see Shawn fuming in frustration. This isn’t going the way she’d hoped. I bet he promised her some kind of in-depth discussion. Something that would give me some psychobabble closure bullshit. She obviously hasn’t been listening to anything I’ve said.

“This meeting is over, Shawn.” I stand. Taylor shoves my shoulders and puts me back in the chair.

“You came here to talk, Dad.” Taylor continues to push down on my shoulders.

“Fine, fine.” Walker shakes his head. “What do you want to say to me, son? That you hate me? You think I treated you so terribly? Everything bad in your life is my fault?”

Jerk my shoulders from under Taylor’s hands. “We could start there.”

“I did what I had to do.” He puts his arms across his chest.

“Throwing a five year old into a tree is something you had to do to?” The room is quiet now. They don’t even seem to be breathing. “Tearing out patches of our hair, that was something you did for our own good? What about the time with the baseball dad—the electric cord, you remember that? Or the stairs and the hospital? Those were for my own fucking good?”

“Yeah. Yeah, they were. You never did anything we told you to do!”

“So you thought if you just kept swinging I’d listen?”

“It worked with your brothers and sisters.”

“You are one sick fucking psycho!”

“What the fuck would you know? You’re just some idiot kid.”

“Yeah—your idiot kid! What made me any different than Taylor and Isaac? Why were you afraid when they threatened to tell? Why do you hate me the most?”

His chest puffs and caves. The security guy shifts himself. Moving to stand right behind Walker, keeping his arms across his chest. But his whole body tightens up.

“You’d never tell. You had to prove what kind of man you were. You just stood there and took it. You thought you’d stand up to me one day, Zac. I never had to be afraid of who you’d tell. I was waiting for the day you’d swing back, because you had to prove that you could take it and be a badass. You’re so fucking hardheaded. You don’t give a damn what anyone tells you. The only thing you care about is what benefits you. And what you want.”

“Came by it honestly, didn’t I?”

Walker scoffs at this. “But you never hit back. You’re a fucking coward—you cut your wrists—over a girl!”

“Shut up, Dad!” Nope, not me. That was Taylor. “Maybe we should end this.” That part he directs at Shawn.

Shawn and Fatma whisper to each other for a second. But they don’t get a chance to make a call.

“Sorry.” Walker sighs. “I told your mother I’d try. You bring out the worst in me.” He says this to himself.

“Should we meet again some other time?” Shawn starts to shuffle some papers. I guess she’s trying to encourage him.

I’m considering it. And I know Walker has to be. Taylor’s still behind me so I don’t know what he’s thinking. But I’m sure he just wants this to end. For a moment, I think about turning around. Turing around and telling him what kind of asshole he is for agreeing to this. For setting me up.

“I don’t know what else I should say, really.” Walker’s lip is curled in irritation.

“You could apologize.” Taylor grumbles under his breath.

This time I do turn around. Because I didn’t expect that. But I don’t say anything. Frankly, I feel like throwing my arms in the air and letting everyone else in the room have this conversation. I wasn’t interested in it in the first place. Fucking knew this would happen.

Walker glances back and forth between the two of us. His face seems to switch between amusement and anger. “Apologize? For what? I kept you in line. You’ve made a lot of money and done a lot of shit—because of me. You’ve traveled around the planet. And you want me to say I’m sorry?”

“You. Pushed me. Down. A flight. Of STAIRS!” Now my chest is puffing and caving. “You made me eat dirt when I pulled up one of Mom’s plants. You burned my hands on the coffee pot for not practicing my drums! But you’re not sorry?”

“You’re alive.” He shrugs.

I look at Shawn. Her face goes from unsure to unabashedly freaked out. (I had never told her about any of that.) And so does Fatma’s face. This is not the catharsis Shawn was hoping for. And as soon as I get the chance, I will not shy away from giving her the I-fucking-told-you-so speech.

“Yeah, Dad, we’re all alive.” Seriously, if that security guard wasn’t in the room. One of us would have a broken jaw. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be me. “Breathing. But not because of you. We breathe, we’re alive in spite of you.”

I’m not sure what I should say next. Doesn’t matter though. Shawn’s pager is buzzing across the table. The sound makes most of us jump. As if any of us needed any further assault to our nerves. She snatches it as it vibrates towards the top of my file.

“Shit.” She whispers.

“Shawn?” I think for a moment, pulling myself out of thoughts of what insults I could throw at my dad, of what could possibly make her swear. I don’t have to think long. “It’s her. Where is she?”

“You need to stay here and finish talking with your father.” She pitches things into the folder.

“Thirty seconds ago you were ready to call off the meeting!” Stand, with every intention of following her right out the door.

She rubs her temples. “Fatma, please join Zac and I in the hall.” She turns to my brother. “He’ll be right back.”

Ratchet pulls the door softly.

“You cannot, under any sort of circumstance, whatsoever, go with me.” Her dark, native eyes bear down on me, making every word insistent and irrefutable. “She is in the emergency room. It’s against the law for me to even tell you that.” Exasperated sigh. She looks over to Ratchet. “Do I need to send in another tech to help you finish up this meeting?”

Ratchet looks at me and says, rather snarky, “Do you think we’ll need reinforcements?”

“He’s smart enough not to hit me in front of anyone.” Try to eye Shawn, to see if there’s any way she’ll give in. But she’s looking at her notes and her watch and anything but me.

“Good.” Shawn looks at Ratchet, looking sort of ragged, actually. “Leave your notes on my desk and we’ll meet…I’m not sure. Page me tomorrow and we’ll set something up. Zac?” Finally looks at me. “Please try to be productive. And do not go asking questions about Blue. When I can, I will let you know how she is.”

Grumpily nod. Ratchet motions for the door, but I wave a hand at her, asking for a moment more before I have to go back and make another go of this absurd talk with my father.

The room is still when Ratchet and I reenter. Taylor is thumbing through a magazine and Dad’s watching us walk back in. Walker has a sort of resigned look on his face. Like he’s bored and tired and ready to leave.

As I sit, he starts talking again. “Look, I’m not real sure what you want from me, Zac. I can’t tell you that I’m sorry. I raised you the best way I knew how.”

“Where did you learn that knocking your kid down stairs is the best way to raise them?” Because I know he didn’t learn it from his parents.

He sucks on his tooth, glaring at me. Then he looks at Taylor.

Taylor looks immediately away. I’m not sure what he’s looking at, what he’s looking for, but it isn’t on the wall he’s looking at. Taylor never wanted to confront my dad himself. Sometimes I think he’d hoped it would just vanish. He took up an Isaac-esque mentality where my dad is concerned. Maybe it’s Walker’s size. Maybe it’s because Taylor knew what Walker is able to do. It never mattered much to me what it was—just that Taylor was as far from confronting this as Isaac was. Just as far as my mother. It just seems so righteously unfair that I’m the only one having to have this conversation. And without it, I’m stuck down the fucking rabbit hole.

For a moment, I feel my chest rise and fall. Rise and fall. Take a deep breath, forcing my diaphragm as far down as I can. And on exhale decide I’m ready to give this one last try.

“We’re never going to agree.” He tries to speak as I say this. “No. Let me talk. We’re never going to agree that you raised us the right way. And I don’t know if any of us,” throw a stare at Taylor, “will completely forgive you. We certainly won’t forget. But when we walk out of the room today, I’m done fighting with you—any kind of fighting with you. I will not argue with you and I damn sure won’t throw a fist at you and you will never throw another one at me. You are my father, but just that. Some stranger who happens to be married to my mother.” Take a breath. About to say the biggest, most frightening thing I’ve ever said to Walker in the whole of my life. “You are no longer my dad.”

Walker looks like he’s considering this. Again, we hear the clock tick over the silence. In the quiet, I think of my mother. Thankful that she isn’t here. By now she’d be in tears, begging me not to be so harsh, pleading with him to say he’s sorry. Essentially, giving herself another heart attack.

“You will always be my son.” He says, sucking his tooth again, lacking the emotion the same words would have had coming from anyone else’s father. “But if that’s what you have to do to get you through life, then fine.” Again, he makes a face of consideration.

After a few minutes, I figure he’s done. There’s nothing more to be said between us and my thoughts are wandering off to Blue.

“I think we’re done here.” Fatma pretends to shuffle papers, though Shawn had left them in a neat pile. “Mr. Hanson, Phil,” the security guard, “will walk you to the front. I think Shawn will be either here or in her main office tomorrow morning if you’d like to speak with her about anything.”

Walker stands. “I’ve said all I need to say.”

As he walks to the door, he nods at Taylor and I and is subsequently followed by Phil. And I know that it will be a very long time before he and I ever exchange words.

And as far as I’m concerned, we’ve exchanged them as father and son for the very last time.


* * *

It’s been nearly a week since Walker’s visit. Taylor, Isaac and Nick are due to visit me this afternoon for lunch. I’ve been given grounds privileges to have lunch with them on the lawn without supervision. (Apparently, Shawn had ordered one of the tech’s to report on my eating habits without making it obvious they were watching me.) They’ve promised to bring my mom’s fried chicken and brownies—and homemade macaroni and cheese from Nick’s dad. None of which I’m opposed to eating whatsoever.

A summer sun flicks through the blinds of the day room. It sort of belies the humidity that I know is hovering around outside. All the same, I look forward to eating outside of the dining room for the first time since I arrived here, surrounded by people who are certainly crazier than I am. Without the anxiety of having my brothers eyeing the place and looking terrified.

I’ve made several doodles across my drawing pad, but no significant whole-drawing. Across the room, Fatma and some other tech guy—probably the guy assigned to watching me eat—are laughing and sharing notes on patients.

Shawn’s breezed through a few times in the last week. When I met with her, the first thing she said to me was, “I’m not here to talk about Blue, Zac. How are you doing?”

We still haven’t had a debrief on my meeting with Walker, though she said it would happen soon. She asked how I was on the whole; how I was feeling with my meds. After reassuring her that I felt fine, she said she had other things to tend to. In the last week, she’s looked far more weary than I have ever seen her look. If I could, I think I’d hug her.

If there is news to be had about Blue, no one’s shared it with me.

As I begin to sketch a face that rather resembles Beth, my brothers and Nick walk in. Behind them, another member of the staff is carrying a couple of canvas bags. The staff guy carries the bags and begins to rifle through them, looking for anything I shouldn’t have.

“Hey dude!” Nick comes over and slaps my hand. He seems to notice the drawing, though I’d tried to snatch it up before he got too close. “She says hello. She misses you.”

“She could call.” Fold over the top of the pad and carry it to the desk. (With the worries over Walker dissipating, I’m thinking more and more of Beth. And feeling more and more abandoned.)

Saliva begins to tingle in my jaw, stinging, and whining. Food, glory of Oklahoma home-spun glories, food from my favorite kitchens. If I could just push my face into all of it, I would. (Nick’s attached to the mac & cheese though. That could potentially end my life.)

After Fatma takes my drawing pad, she tells the staff-guy to find us a place where we can be seen by staff but are away from patients. We follow him to a spot shaded by a large tree, near the back of the yard area.

Staff guy hands Nick a blanket and walks back toward the building. He sits on a bench close to the door, facing us. Figures, we can’t be completely unsupervised.

Taylor throws the blanket on the ground and begins pulling food from the bags. Mom must have made the chicken just before they left the house—the bag is steamed over. Ugh, my jaw is kind of achy, now. So ready to eat.

“This feels so freaking girly.” Nick snorts, pulling the lid off a large bowl. Oh, there is a God—Mr. Vitara also sent a bowl of fried corn. “Beth would be laughing at us.”

“So would Blue.” I said this, not thinking that any of them had actually heard me talk much about Blue. Except for Taylor. “She’d have brought cupcakes.”

“How is she? The crayon girl?” Taylor tosses the chicken bag at me.

Shrug. “Shawn won’t tell me.”

“Oo we falkin’ bout?” Nick’s cramming another forkful of the mac & cheese into his already stuffed mouth.

“A girl I met here. She’s amazing.” Let myself think for just a fleeting moment of what this picnic would be like if Blue were here. She’d be chatting at us. And everything around us. “She hears shit that isn’t there. Can I have some of that corn? How’s mom?”

“Dragging Natalie around baby shopping.” Isaac picks up his soda can, puts it to his mouth, and puts it down in favor of the corn. “Like the kid’s due tomorrow or something.”

Taylor cracks a smile. “Another Hanson baby. It’s always going to be an event to Mom.” Looks over to Nick. “How’s Beth?”

Nick hesitates. Looks to be considering his words carefully. “She’s fine. She said she loves New York more than she’s ever loved anything.”

More than she’s ever loved anything. Does that mean us? Does it mean Nick? Me? New York is not that great. I mean it is, it’s kind of incredible. But surely she can’t mean more than anything. We’re living people. She does not mean more than anything.

Where are my sedatives?

“How’s Samantha?” Take a sip of my Dr. Pepper and feel the caffeine, the sugar rush me. When did I last drink soda? Taylor and Nick look in different directions, still chewing on mouthfuls of food. “What happened?”

“She took a scholarship at the University of Washington.” Isaac’s voice is low and discomforted. “And said she thought we should see other people.”

“Oh. Dude. That sucks.” And I thought they’d get married. Samantha was basically the greatest girl who had ever been crazy enough to fall for him.

Isaac finally takes a sip of his soda. “It’s okay. She’s happy. It’s what she needs to do. There’s a big orchestra there. She’ll do fine.” He pauses and I know he’s not going to say anything else about it. “Mom made brownies with peanut butter cups.”

We ravenously consume everything we put our hands on. Each of us like we’ve never seen been fed our whole lives; though, I’m not sure what their excuses are. They’ve been eating like this while I’ve been chewing salted cardboard for months.

“A glass of wine would be great.” Taylor takes a noisy pull from the opening of his can. “But Shawn said that getting soda cans in here would be hard. She said she had to ask a special favor of the directors for that. Alcohol was out.”

“I think that’s because they know all most of these people need is a good drink!” Isaac’s throwing the empty bowls into the bags. “You know, if it weren’t a hospital, this would be a nice place.”

We all laugh a little nervously. I sit back up to snatch a brownie and break off a piece with a large chunk of peanut butter cup. We sit in a kind of silence I haven’t experienced with my brothers, or with Nick, in a very long time. A content silence sits on our shoulders, smooth and unbothered by the heat of the sun or oddity of our surroundings. Light filters down through the tree onto our faces, none of us looking at each other, waiting for who knows what.

Bits of sunlight bounce over my fingertips and I start to think of Beth again. I want ask about her, to know more about why she loves New York more than anything. Mostly I want to know why she hasn’t called. Why she will tell anyone but me that she misses me. Looking at Nick, I want to know why they couldn’t tell me the truth. Honestly, I know that we may never talk about it. I suppose it’s a guy thing. We’re not supposed to talk about that time we felt kicked in the balls, cut in the kidneys, by something another guy did. You shake hands, give forgiveness, and move on. She’ll never tell me either, not after seeing me punch Nick in the face. Mostly, what I really want to know, is if they’re still together. (Didn’t I have that one dream of them getting married?) Second to that, I want to know if I will ever just let her go.

“What the hell?” Nick’s eyes are squinted and he’s looking out the fence. Something is moving, erratically, across the front lawn.

“Fuck you!” A familiar voice screams. “Fuck you! Fuck all of you!”

Blue has a clumsy sort of run, like she wasn’t allowed to do it enough as a kid. But she moves so strangely, they can’t seem to lay their hands on her. By they, I mean Shawn, a tech, and the security guard who had been at the talk with my dad. Shawn nearly manages to grab the end of Blue’s shirt, but Blue juts sideways around a tree. Shawn nearly runs into the tree. Blue circles back towards the hospital van—the door is still open. (I guess she took the first chance she got.) Blue brushes Shawn’s shoulder and Shawn catches her wrist, yanking her backward in a tango-like motion.

“Let go, Shawn!” Blue tries to tug away, but Shawn says nothing and does not let go. “We’re going fucking kill you, Shawn! Kill every one of you!” She lets out a screaming growl, the kind you hear in metal songs. She raises a fist. And hits Shawn in the chest, crushing the wind from Shawn. Shawn gasps, letting go of Blue’s arm. But Blue has no chance of getting away this time. The tech catches her left arm just before the guard catches her right. Whatever she is saying now, it’s incomprehensible, but loud and high-pitched.

Blue’s stomach blares from under a holey, dirty t-shirt. A violent purple-red line runs from her belly button to hip bone. Blonde hair, kinked and filthy, juts from her head in directions I would have never thought possible.

As Blue is flinging her legs ahead of her, Shawn begins shouting toward the building.

“We could use some help out here!” She sounds defeated. Tech Guy and Security Guy are still wresting her toward the door, but not getting very far. Who knew something that tiny could make so much trouble?

Fatma and some guy I don’t recognize run at Blue, followed by an older guy who says something to Shawn. Whatever it was, I can’t make out because Blue has begun growling and screaming again.

Blue lands a foot in the middle of Fatma’s chest. A few more kicks and they’ve got her feet and pull her inside. The sudden quiet makes me feel as though the commotion had gone on for so much longer than it had.

It’s a short-lived peace.

“I ordered the haloperidol and two milligrams of klonopin!” Shawn’s shouting at the older guy. “But it wasn’t administered until ten minutes before we left. I did the best I could with her, Jack.”

Shawn walks away. Assumingly to go tend to Blue.

“What. The FUCK. Was that?” Nick looks like he can’t tell if he should laugh or be very afraid.

“That. Was Blue.” I don’t know if I should laugh or be very afraid.

Nick smirks. Apparently, he’s decided to laugh. “I can see why you like her!”

Punch him in the arm, knocking him over. “Fuck you.”

In the hours since Blue’s epic reentry, I’ve been bored. Before they left, Isaac and Taylor explained what my mom meant when she told me they had news from the record company—that things weren’t well.

“They rejected everything we sent them.” Taylor said. “As soon as you’re released, we’re supposed to go to some song-writer’s camp and work on writing, ‘Something that will sell.’ Their words. Sometimes I think we should just tell them all to fuck off.”

“And what?” Isaac scoffed, looking a little defeated. “Start our own label?”

Nick looked at them, and then at me, as though he’d had the epiphany himself. “Maybe you should? Fuck it all. Just start your own label. Then you wouldn’t have to fuck around with all those dickwads—or your dad.”

We tossed the idea back and forth for a while. Mostly in voices of jest, wishing we could ever actually have the nerve to do such an insane thing.

After they packed up the empty bowls and left me here, I trotted off to group. Dwayne asked me about Blue. What it was like to see her hauled in that way. But I just shrugged—and told him I wasn’t really paying attention. I don’t doubt that he knew I was lying. But I wasn’t ready to talk about it. It’s surreal watching the only friend you’ve made since your mental break being hauled into a hospital like a criminal. Like she’s every bit as crazy as her diagnosis makes her sound.

I just want to see her. Fatma knows nothing and Shawn left while we were in group, not that she’d have told me anything anyway. She looked wicked pissed when that guy was talking to her, like she could have wheedled her thumb right through his windpipe and into his spine. The last glimpse I had of Shawn before she left was to see her writing furiously on some charts. I really thought she’d cut up most of that paper with the end of her pen.

Dusk has come in. Most of the other patient’s are in the day room watching the movie of the night, a few are in the music room playing a song that sounds like a warped-record version of Hendrix, and I’m by myself in the TV room drawing, occasionally stopping to write lyrics on the sides of my scribbles. After three or four words, nothing really special, I return to the face, finally succumbing to the urge to draw Beth’s face. To see her the way I remembered her the best, the way I always see her now in my dreams. Face to the sky, smiling, her hair frizzled a bit by the wet Oklahoma air, and laughing at nothing at all. The memory was made one day when we were still dating. She had just gotten a letter from Julliard asking her to audition—offering her scholarship. We were in a park in the city and she danced in excited-fluid circles. Nothing could have settled her, could have made her think that sometimes the sun sets in the worst kinds of ways. All of her seemed hand-spun by heaven that day. And I think I’ll always miss that unmarred look in her eye.

But, really, she could call.

Bored of drawing and ruminating and sitting alone in the quiet of the vacant nurses’ station, I tote my pad to the tech on duty and head towards the day room to catch the last of the movie and the cookies. However, I hear shouting a couple doors down, from the director’s office—shouting louder than the sounds of the movie. And it’s some action flick with a bunch of explosions. That’s impressive. Let’s face it, real-life shouting matches are far more interesting than cars doing stunts busted on Mythbusters.

As I get closer to the mostly-closed door, I hear Shawn’s voice first.

“—Jeopardize his recovery for the sake of someone else’s, Jack!”

“Calm down, Shawn.” Must be Jack. “How is letting him see her going to put him jeopardy? He saw her every day before we released her.”

“Something you should have never done in the first place.” Shawn’s not shouting anymore, but something just under a shout. “I’m her primary, Jack. I realize she’s your granddaughter, but you should have realized that as well. The ethics board did not rule against dual relationships to hear themselves speak.”

“We never said it was an appropriate action.” An unrecognizable female voice.

It occurs to me that Shawn’s not just talking to the directors—these are Blue’s grandparents. After this epiphany occurs, I realize that I should have known this before. Way to miss the obvious, Zac.

“Now you’re trying to force my hand at another inappropriate action!” When Shawn grunts, I try to imagine the face she’s making right now. In my mind, her stoicism is completely lost, her eyes are pinched shut, jaw clinching and unclinching. “Letting him see her is completely out of the question. I know she’s asking for him—but she’s also screaming for Alia and yelling at one of the persons she hears that we don’t. Zac,” What?! “isn’t in a place where he can handle seeing something like that. Please, please, just wait until she has come down from the psychosis. In a few days the drugs should start to bring her around and she can see him then.”

No one counters this request for a few moments.

“If you undermine me on this, Jack, I will no longer be associated with this hospital.”

The door is swinging open and there’s no time for me to sneak away, no place for me to hide. So I stand there and brace for whatever reproach Shawn is ready to lay across me.

She’s startled. “What are you doing out here?”

“Why would I be in ‘jeopardy’?” It was better than saying I was bored. Right?

A millennia of native ancestors are in the lines of her red earth-colored face. A sturdy people who had endured more than any people should have to endure. And Shawn looks as though she’s going to crack under all of it. Like, no matter how much strength she owns, it’s just not enough to bring her through this. Whatever this is.

“Be dressed tomorrow by 10 am.” Her face is slack, leaving me no room to even think of pressing my subject. “We’ll have your session at my office. I’ll see you then.”

She stalks away, not bothering to answer my question. None of the tech’s stop her to ask questions or give her papers to sign. A nurse looks as though she’s a moment’s fraction from asking Shawn a question, but then turns around and moves away.

“Would you step in our office, Zachary?” Jack gives me a half smile as I walk past him into a nice office—way nicer than the hole I meet Shawn in every week. One wall is covered entirely by a dark-wood bookcase, piled over and over with books. Framed diplomas and awards and a lot of Van Gogh prints. Pictures of Blue and older pictures of a woman that looks just like her.

The older woman, who looks closer to my mother’s age than my grandmother’s, motions to a large, plush chair for me to have a seat in. “I’m Mary Anne Inez. It’s nice to finally, formally, meet you.”

“We apologize that it’s under these circumstances.” Jack and Mary Anne take seats on the small loveseat across from me. He pats her hand, reminding me of my mom’s parents. They were never apart and still loved each other as much as they ever had. “Blue asked us not to interfere with you.”

“She says we’ve interfered with everything her whole life.” The grandmother is quite misty-eyed, with a guilty desperation in her cheeks. They’re both very young looking for being grandparents.

This whole thing feels odd. Just, weird. Like I’m crossing Shawn and Blue at the same time.

“Uh.” Feel a grimace. “Um, how—how is she… How’s Blue?”

Jack looks to the floor. “She’s doing as well as we can hope for right now.”

“You know,” I can hear the ends of the movie. They’ll be calling us up for meds soon. “I really don’t want to piss off Shawn. And I’m pretty sure you don’t either.”

“No, we don’t want to make her any more angry than she already is.” Mary Anne says. “We want you to know that, if you should choose to see Blue, you won’t be denied the opportunity. Not by Jack and I. She has asked for you several times since she’s returned. She calls you Cupcake.”

It’s good to know, that even in her insanity, she still thinks of me as a sweet edible.

“Okay.” Nod. “Uh, thanks. I better go before one of the nurses come looking for me. It’s time for meds and stuff.”

“Good night.” Both speak, but neither moves. They let me walk out the door without so much as a side-long glance.

I shuffle towards the nurses’ station. Dwayne is throwing back his Dixie cup-full of drugs, grins, and heads down to his room. Which happens to be down the same hall Blue is in. And I can hear her voice singing a song I don’t recognize. I barely even recognize her voice. Will I know her face when I see her again?

A nurse I don’t recognize hands me my cup of pills and my cup of water. I take them and down the both. But I don’t head back to my room. And I don’t go towards Blue’s either. I find myself going back to the Inez’s office.

Knock on the door. “It’s, uh, it’s Zac—Cupcake.”

“Come in.” Mary Anne calls out to me.

Push open the door, but don’t go in. “What is her full name?”

“Mary Jane Blue Inez.” Mary Anne seems unfazed by my abrupt question. “Alia, her mother, gave her my name, the name of her favorite literature heroine—that is, Jane Eyre—and her favorite color. It’s a bit of a jumble, but so is Alia.”

“Who is her father?” I sit in the chair I left a few moments before.

“We don’t know.” Mary Anne shrugs. “Alia has never said. We assume he is someone she met out on the streets, during one of the times she disappeared. It is quite unlikely that she ever told whoever he is.”

“Where was she born?”

“Here, in Tulsa, we think.” Jack looks up at an Olin Mills photograph of Blue holding a doll. She could have only been two or three years old. “Alia left her in a car seat in the living room with a note that told us her name, that she had been born a few weeks before and that she was sorry, but she couldn’t keep the baby. We are pretty sure Blue was born in the streets—we had a lot of hell trying to get her assigned to us and getting paperwork. It was a nightmare.”

“Where did Alia go?” Unending questions about Blue flood me. I need to know more about her. Why, I don’t know. But I do.

“We don’t know.” Jack shrugs, passively, looking like he tries not to think about the answer to that question as much as he can. “We didn’t see her again until Blue was five or six.”

“Did she want her back?”

“No.” Mary Anne frowned. “For as sick as Alia is, I think she has always known she could never take care of Blue. However, she was very upset when Blue couldn’t recognize her. Alia blamed us and said we had turned her baby against her; she didn’t understand that her child could not recognize her own mother. We didn’t see Alia again for another two years. She entered treatment here and looked like she was going to get better. Blue visited her quite a bit and we hoped that maybe she would stay well enough to come home. After six weeks or so, though, she got worse. She signed herself out and left again. Since then we’ve seen her very few times.”

“Where did you find her? Did she find her mom?”

“If she did, we don’t know about.” Mary Anne reaches over to Jack’s hand. He looks at her and looks away, very resigned. “She was in Oklahoma City, following a group of runaway girls around the city.”

“What happens to her now?” I want to believe there’s something more for her than this, than being tied to a bed singing incomprehensible songs. Why can’t there be?

“I think you should head to bed, now, Zac.” Jack stands and walks to the door, pulling it open.

I’m confused. “But what happens? What happens to her now?” I look over to Mary Anne, waiting for a better answer than an open door. She says nothing. “You have to tell me."

“She leaves here.” Mary Anne’s chest rises high and falls, crashes. “We can’t care for her here. This isn’t a residential facility. She’s gone back and forth, here and our home, for a very long time.”

“We’re getting old.” Jack nods his head, reassuringly. More to convince himself than me. “Someone needs to take care of her, more than we can. In a couple weeks she’ll be going to a place in Oklahoma City.”

“And then what?!” Feel indignant for her. “Is she just supposed to spend her life in a hospital? What kind of life is that?!”

“The best kind of life she can given.” Mary Anne walks to me. Rubs my shoulder. “Now you should get to bed before the nurses start evening checks.”

Chapter Text

Shawn’s gardens should be in one of those uptight magazines where homes look like they clean themselves. I’m sure she has people who manage them. I can’t really see Shawn weeding and planting and cleaning up after the dogs—and seeing patients. But it’s all pretty nice anyway. And it gets me out of the hospital.

“How was your lunch with your brothers?” She sits on the cedar swing, the one that faces the pseudo-Grecian fountain, and waits for me to sit next to her.

“Mostly uneventful. But I think watching Blue run around the front lawn screaming scared Nick.” I kind of want to laugh at this, but I know Shawn is not in the mood.

“He wasn’t the only one.” She pushes the swing back with her feet and it creeks under our weight. “How did you feel about it?”

“Um, I don’t know.” Lie, yes, but I don’t really know how to explain it to her.

“Don’t lie to me.” She’s a damned smart woman. “Go ahead and tell me.”

“It was just weird, I guess. Like she was someone I knew but couldn’t remember. But I didn’t feel jeopardized.”

“You weren’t supposed to have heard that.”

“But I did. What does that even mean?”

“Think, for just a few minutes, really think about the relationships you’ve had with your mother, Beth, Delancy, and even your sisters. No,” she holds up her hand as I start to answer. “Think. What is it that these women have in common?”

Beth and Delancy have both tried to kill themselves? My mom and my sisters are very non-involvement kind of people. I’m not sure who dislikes Lance more, Beth or my mother. The only common thread I see is me. Is Shawn trying to say something about me?

“What are you trying to get me to see? Because whatever it is, I’m not seeing it.”

“Think a little harder. Maybe it’s something you don’t want to see.”

This is going to be one of those obvious moments. Where, as soon as she tells me what I’m supposed to be thinking, I’ll wonder how I missed it.

“Well…uh…Beth and Delancy both have The Crazy? Are you saying my mom and sisters have it, too?”

Shawn grunts. “You’ve never noticed that much of your relationship to all of these women has revolved around trying to save them from something?”

My face twitches, like my body is trying to make sense of what she’s just said because my mind cannot. “Save them? Like I’m their personal Jesus? You realize you make no sense sometimes, right? I mean, I told Delancy I couldn’t save her.”

“Zac, really?” Ugh, she’s using that don’t-be-stupid voice. “Think again. You have tried repeatedly to save Delancy from herself. If you did enough drugs with her, had just enough sex with her, maybe she’d find there’s life outside of hating and hurting herself because you’re with her. And Beth—”

“—Don’t.” Whatever she was about to say I not ready to hear it. Not in this moment. Not through the desiccation of this idea process. “And my mom? I tried to save her? My sisters?”

“Yes.” She’s stopped pushing the swing with her foot. “You took punches and hits and swings from your father because, if you were boisterous enough, you knew he’d take it out on you and not them.”

“If that’s true, if it is, then what does that have to do with Blue?”

“Blue is the first woman to enter your life that you knew you couldn’t save.” Her voice sounds like a tympanic thump. Every word thudding so that I cannot deny what she’s saying. And I hate her for it. “Even if you had no idea that you had spent so much time trying to fix and piece together every other woman in your life. Subconsciously, you understood that helping Blue was beyond you. So you didn’t try to love her to death, or sleep with her to boost her self esteem, or let someone beat you within moments of your life in the dire hope that you could make her life better. In spite of all of Blue’s troubles, your relationship with her is probably the most functional, healthy relationship you’ve ever had.”

If I keep talking, I don’t have to think about these implications.

“Then why won’t you let me see her?”

“Walk with me.” She heads towards the back of the gardens. “She has lost almost 20 pounds. You can see the bones in her chest. She hasn’t had a bath since she ran away. Her hair is matted in places and she smells as awful as she looks. On her stomach is some mysterious scar, and if she knows what happened she hasn’t told anyone about it. The most we can guess is that someone attacked her. She is not the color-coordinated happy girl you remember.”

“So you’ll tell me what she looks like but I can’t see her?” We’re near a willow tree that is home to a squirrel feeder.

“Because seeing her would be something markedly different.” We sit on another bench, looking up at the willow. “If I had let you in to see her yesterday, you would have given me a never ending stream of demands: wash her hair, get her clean clothes, clip her toenails. But what you would not have been prepared for is that, though we could have done all of those things for her, she is in too violent a state to allow it. She nearly broke the security guard’s leg—and you should see the bruises she left on the rest of us.”

“But she asked for me? She wants to see me?”
Air passes through Shawn’s nose, slightly irritated. “Do you know what a word salad is?”

“More psychobabble?” Said in jest, because even I could use a comedic break here.

Her eyes roll. “It’s the laymen’s term for something called schizophasia. It means that when Blue speaks, the tempo and emphasis land in the right places but the sentences don’t make sense.”

Lost. Real, real lost. And she can tell.

“When Jack asked her if she wanted some water yesterday, she said to him, ‘Sun frigid by the couch went tomorrow.’ Just a bunch of words thrown together that mean nothing at all. Later she told Fatma, ‘Cupcake up river at the curtain fans for books.’ Jack and Mary Anne, Blue’s grandparents,” I nearly interject to tell her I know their names. But then think better of it and let her continue, “for as brilliant as they are as psychiatrists, they are too close to Blue to remember that hearing such things in her speech is to be expected. Even in psychosis, patients are able to call up the names of those they love.

“I believe, to say the least, that you are very fond of Blue. And if you had gone in to see her, Zac, and heard her talk to you in strings of nonsense, you’d have been desperate to do anything you could for her. You’d have just as fervently screamed at me about getting her to talk sense as you would have about getting her bathed. It would have taken you months backward. You can’t save Blue from schizophrenia, Zac. No one really can. And you can’t save Delancy from her self-loathing. You did a fair job at trying to save your mother and siblings. And Beth…”

“Is busy saving herself.” Bite at my lip.

“She is now, yes.” Shawn looks at me, waiting once more for me to hang myself on my feelings.

“She’s the last thing, isn’t she?”

“What do you mean?”

“We’ve talked about my dad and my brothers and my career and my family. I don’t want to cut anymore, or drown in alcohol or drugs. So I guess the last thing to sort out is Beth.”

“Well, in so many words, yes.” She looks like she almost pities me. “But we don’t have to work that out right this second. Tonight, before you go to bed, I want you to write her a letter. It’s not something I want you to send. Just write everything you think and feel at this moment. You know, everything you’d have to say if you thought it wouldn’t ruin your friendship.”

“Like it’s not already ruined, you mean?”

“You know it’s not, Zac.” You know, sometimes I wonder if she would whop me in the back of the head if she could. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Write it all down and we’ll look at it at our next meeting, okay?”

Nod. “So…”

“When will you get to see Blue?”

Laugh, because it’s creepy how predictable I can be sometimes. “Uh, yeah.”

“Soon.”

Oh, if the use of that word isn’t karma!

After one last lap around the garden and a good scratching of the dogs’ ears, Shawn drives me back to the hospital. She spends most of the drive making arrangements for her dogs to go to the vet, apparently to have their toenails clipped.

Through lunch I think about this letter I’m supposed to write. For everything I’ve thought about regarding Beth, I can’t think of much that is left to say that she doesn’t already know. I’m angry. I’m hurt. I love her. And I expect she feels the same—at least she feels the first two.

What a mess I’ve made of the last year of my life. This is what I choose to think about as I pass the last bites of overdone broccoli down my throat, though there is way too much of it to think about. The first cut over the bathroom sink, Abby, and our trip to California. Smashing Madge’s window and running from that crazy fan.

The birth of Beth’s son. Her voice rattling my organs, down to my toes and out through my ears. And I couldn’t keep her close enough to me, push her through my bones so she didn’t have to live on her own anymore.

Good God, Shawn was right. I took her to New Orleans so she didn’t have to be near the reminders of her empty body. And sent her home when she’d played street urchin too long. In her absence I brought Delancy in, to fill in, to have a savior-project while Beth was gone.

“Zac?” Fatma leans over to catch my eye. I’ve made it to group now, but not mentally. “Are you alright?”

“How do you go back?” Look into Fatma’s tea-toned face, seeing, I think for the first time, how wide and large and perceptive her eyes are. “How do you fix everything you’ve screwed up no matter how hard you tried to fix it in the past? Or thought you were fixing it? How the hell do I live after this? How do they live with me? What comes after the mess?”

“Life.” Dwayne spits a small wad of paper into his hand. “When they love you enough, they don’t really expect you to fix it—‘cause you can’t really fix it. It’s done, bro. You live because days come and you gotta live—ain’t much point in breathing if you ain’t tryin’ to live. If you spend too much time tryin’ to make up for what you did, you just wind up making yourself relive it all. Not to copy that diaper commercial, but live and learn. Do what you can to learn from what happened and keep goin’. Can’t nobody ask you to do more than that—it’s all you can do.”

“I think Dwayne just put me out of a job.” Fatma’s cheeks flush pink as a lotus. Her polite giggle is simple, but foreign sounding. Maybe because she’s always so stoic. It’s really no wonder she works so well with Shawn. “Not to sound trite, but how do you feel about hat, Zac?”

“Like I’ve got to figure out how to just live.” The idea is baffling. To just breathe? People do that?

“Do you think you’ve ever had the opportunity to ‘just live’?” One of the other patients, Ami, asks as though she knows the answer.

“I—I don’t really know.” Irritation burns. Why don’t I know? “I’ve spent a lot of time living for other people.”

“Living for someone else,” Ami moves her pursed mouth back and forth for a moment, “means you don’t have to face living for yourself. And that’s really fucking scary sometimes.” Ami’s a cutter, too.

Don’t know what to say. I feel robbed. Where has my life gone? To pop-stardom? To everyone I love? Am I a person at all?

“Where’s Shawn today?” I don’t want the group anymore. “Can you page her?”

“Are you okay?” Fatma’s face looses a bit of its lotus color. “Just keep talking.”

“No. Just page her, please? Now?” Anxiety slides out of my fast beating-heart and down my arms. Can feel the shaking in my needs and my shoulders. The near-convulsions that feel like earthquakes. My breathing starts to change. Harder and wheezy.

Fatma steps out into the hall and calls to one of the nurses. Hear her tell the nurse to page Shawn and see if I had an order for sedatives—and if so, I should be given one.

Breaths are coming faster and faster. The other tech, the guy, comes over with the nurse.

“Take deep breaths.” He has a hold on my arm.

Nod. All that I can do. Follow them to a chair in the nurses’ station, trying to take the breaths he keeps telling me to take. He keeps talking about breaths. Nurse goes to phone, then to the med station. Breath won’t slow. Nurse is coming with a needle. Before she pushes the drug, black fuzziness over my eyes.

Female voices color the fringes of a dream I can’t keep hold of. In the haze it’s hard for me to tell who’s speaking or what they’re talking about.

A knock on my door. “It’s Shawn. Are you awake?”

“Ugghhh.” Only sound I can manage. It’s not that I can’t feel my body. But it feels fluid and indifferent to the feelings of un-softened sheets. The line of light coming through the curtains, across my nose, over a toe. Not even sure I care that I’m still breathing.

She leans against the door jamb after pushing the door open very slowly. Like the sound will split my head open. Even if it did, I don’t think it would matter.

“How do you feel?” Arms across her chest.

Takes me a second to find my tongue. “Strange.” A moment later, “vacant.”

“What do you mean? Are you talking about the drug or how you’re feeling emotionally?” Pops her shoulder against the jamb and stands straight. Motions to my bed. “May I sit?”

Nod. “I think I mean emotionally.” Don’t care to move. “I mean. I guess. You know, if I’ve been living for other people, am I a person of my own?”

“I believe you are, yes. But I don’t think you stand a chance of knowing that person until you stop trying to fix the people in your life and live, for once, for yourself. And you have to stop letting Taylor live for you.”

“Huh?” Try to cut and blear my eyes at her. “I’m having an identity crisis and you’re adding to it?”

She smiles at my snark. “I’m not trying to add any more pressure than you already have. But I think that Taylor lives for you the way that you’ve tried living for other people. Taylor could do with some therapy himself.”

“Can I tell him that?”

“Yes, you may. I don’t know Taylor, but I think he feels the way you feel about Delancy—that he could love and care you into caring for yourself. But, maybe the last phase of therapy for you isn’t moving past Beth. Maybe it’s understanding who you are when you set aside being the personal savior to everyone you know.”

“How am I supposed to do that?”

“There is no prescribed method for the finding of oneself. Thoreau believed that you have to have completely lost all vestiges of self before you can begin the process of knowing who you are. From the sound of things, you’re ready to start the walk, you just have to decide which tightrope you’re going to climb.”

“Tightropes are very high off the ground.” First thing I thought to say.

“But you’re already up there, waiting. Might as well try to make it to the other side, right?”

My eyes flicker, making the room appear like an old television set, flashing out the last few bits of its life. Can’t keep them open. So I give up and wade off, out, into a darkness I can’t feel or care about.

It has to be late. My room is cold and dark and there are no sounds coming from the desk. Even the night techs are quiet—which means it’s after two in the morning and they’re huddled in the chair and couch in front of the television, heads propped in their hands, and staring, with closed eyes, at whatever infomercial is flickering at them.

My door slides open, letting a sliver of light cut across my eyes. It’s the night nurse, doing her hourly checks.

“How are you feeling?” She’s staring in the direction of my face, but not right into my eyes. I think it’s too dark.

“I’m okay.” In the least, I do happen to care that I’m breathing, which is more than I could have said twelve hours ago. “Can I have my drawing pad? I’ll sit in the day room with it.”

“Sure.” She seems a little caught off guard. “You’re not going to go back to sleep?”

“I’ve been asleep for almost twelve hours.” Sit up.

“Right.” She scribbles something on her clipboard. “Let me finish my rounds—about fifteen minutes—and I’ll get it for you.”

Night nurses are always more amenable, more willing to let you have drawing pads in the middle of the night when you should be sleeping.

After she closes the door, I stand to look out the window. Can’t really see much—not that there’s much to be seen anyway. Tree after tree after tree. I know that on the other side of the trees is a highway, five miles, maybe more, from a bigger highway that leads into Tulsa. From Tulsa I could find my way home. Or I could find my way somewhere else. I could get anywhere from here. But I’m here, just here. Lacking any kind of momentum or feeling of substance of self. Am I the forest? Or am I the trees? Can I be both or neither or nothing at all? But I have to be something right? All the days of cutting, all that bleeding and feeling and pain, all of it means I am alive and I am here. I exist. I am here. But how to go past here? How do I get out of the trees? Out of the forest? There has to be more than the humid green, more than the density of dry bark. Surely there has to be life, an existence that is mine.

Knock knock. “I’d let you draw here if I could, but you really have to go into the day room.”

“That’s fine.” From the nurse I gather the pad and less-than-sharp pencil. “Thank you.”

She pads off towards the nurse’s station, not looking back to see that I’m following her.

Only one of the techs is sleeping in front of the television. I take a peek down the hall towards Blue’s room. The other tech is sitting in an ergonomically designed desk chair, with his head leaned onto the wall and snoring lightly. A manila folder is laying at his feet. Think I may hear her humming or singing something.

Fight the urge to slip down the hall and investigate. Instead, I lounge back onto the couch, which is particularly comfortable considering it belongs to a hospital.

Don’t really know what I want to draw. So I sketch the look on Nick’s face when he saw Blue running across the lawn. Move on to caricatures of my brother’s faces as well. Then, almost without any will of my own, I draw sprawling script that reads, “Dear Beth.” Now what? I can’t figure out if I’m a forest or a tree, how the hell am I supposed to know what I should say to Beth? I suppose it doesn’t matter too much if I’m not even going to send the letter to her. But I can’t let go of the feeling that it all has to be said just-right, like she may one day lay hands on the letter and I can’t let it be wrong.

So I just write.

I want to say I’m sorry, but at the same time I don’t think I owe you an apology. Don’t you owe me one? I guess I can’t say you lied. But you didn’t tell me the truth. Then again, I guess you didn’t owe me an explanation. I don’t really know what I’m trying to say here—what I’m supposed to be saying to you at all.

I could tell you that I love you. But you already know that. You said you waited for me, that you gave up because I couldn’t get there fast enough. What was I supposed to do, Beth? What did you mean when you said that I “could never make it?” What was I supposed to give you to prove that I was waiting on you, too? Or maybe we were just waiting to realize that we could never make it together, no matter how much we wanted to. Because, well, let’s face it, Bethy, we couldn’t make it. I’m not giving up my drumsticks and you’re not giving up toe shoes. What kind of life could we have ever expected from each other anyway?

But we did expect it, didn’t we? Maybe that’s why we’re so angry. I love you, to the smallest parts of myself, I love you, Elizabeth. A long time ago I told Shawn that knowing someone isn’t right for you doesn’t stop you from wishing they were. I wish I were right for you. I wish Nick weren’t. It doesn’t seem right that he can just usurp me. But he did. Do you love him as much as you love me? Do you really love New York more than anything? Or do you just use it to cover the fact that you can’t love us both at the same time without betraying someone—especially yourself?


The pencil seems to stop itself here. It’s a vicious, horrible thing to say, but I mean it. I almost wish I had said it out loud so I can say, in my most defiant voice, that I don’t regret having said it.

An infomercial selling the idea of being a real estate billionaire. Flimsy girls in insubstantial clothing. They had to have wanted more from an acting career than pretending they’re attracted to the acne-ridden Asian guy in a car that’s likely rented from a movie lot. What do they love more than anything?

To the side of my scripted hostility, I draw her mouth. The pouty shape it took when she heard Nick and me yelling at each other in the airport. Did she hear the bit about me sleeping with Tara? I should ask Nick about her recovery next time he visits. At least he doesn’t appear to hold that against me. Though, if he truly earned to be pissed at me for anything, that would be it. Or does that just make us even?

“Can you believe I earned over $7,000 my first week?” A tea colored-girl drops her jaw into a Hollywood smile of fakery.
Annoyed, I pull the remote, slightly and deftly, from under the tech’s hand. He shifts in the chair a bit, but doesn’t open his eyes. Good thing I’m not stabbing myself with the pencil or trying to pass it off to some other patient or something. Flip the channels for a while and stumble upon a late-night running of one of the Harry Potter movies. It takes a bit of will not to compare us to the trio. But as I begin to envision myself as the red-head, I start flipping channels again. Land on some reruns of M.A.S.H. and turn to look at my drawing pad again.

Will we ever be rid of this angst? I just want us to be two people who can love each other enough for it to be…for it to be enough. I don’t want to suffocate when you walk into a room. I don’t want to be so mesmerized by the way you move when you dance—or even when you just laugh. There has to be some up swing to this, to us, because we can’t keep plodding through this valley. Because…

…Because I don’t want to hurt from this anymore. And I don’t want to hurt you anymore. Beth, the plain thing is, I guess, is that I don’t want to love you anymore.

There it was. But that I don’t ever want to say that out loud. I need to mean it, I do mean it, but God so help me, I don’t ever want her to know that I mean it. If she does—maybe she’ll mean it back.

Chapter Text

Today is the day. Or, should I say, tonight is the night. Ever since that one night, the night I wrote my letter the Beth, I haven’t slept normally. Around 2 am checks, I wake up, and sit in the front room with my drawing pad, watching that one snoring tech’s head loll around his neck while the other girl does her work and his too.

While spending the middle of the night just wasting time, I’ve also noticed that the guy in charge of sitting outside Blue’s room also has a tendency to fall asleep. So, after the nurse is done rounding and has gone into break room to make coffee, I’m going down to see Blue. This way, if Shawn gets pissed at anyone, it’ll be me. Which isn’t to say I’m going to tell her. I am a smart man, after all.

The nurse checks Dwayne’s room and then rounds into the break room. I listen for a minute, smelling the coffee as it begins to brew.

Leave my drawing and the loaner pencil on the table and meander, or, well, trying to meander, casually down to Blue’s room, feeling like a total fugitive.

The nurse doesn’t flinch as I slide past him into the room—even though I nearly fall on one of the papers he’s dropped on the floor.

She’s asleep. Surely involuntarily strung out on whatever her grandparents have prescribed her. And she is skinny. Through the sterile white I can see her ribs; her draped arm across her chest is thin, pokey like Taylor’s used to be. They’ve apparently managed to wash her hair. It’s neatly French braided down both sides of her face, like a child. She could be pale. Or it could be the outdoor lights shining into the window. She looks. Different, like a negative of herself, fragile and unsure even in her sleep. Like she doesn’t know if she’s part of this place, this universe, or the universe in her head.
A large vase of flowers are wilting on her bedside table. As I lean over to pick up a flower petal, I feel something brush against my leg and do what I can to keep myself from jumping and waking her up. Look down. It’s a restraint. I thought those were just a threat. I’d only seen them in movies. Who knew they actually happen?

On top of a larger, longer dresser, lay a set of coordinating pajamas. Heaped. Mary Anne must not be responsible for the disarray. Looking back at Blue, I see the straps of a tank top.

I’m conflicted. I’ve snuck in, wanting just to talk to her, no matter how damned crazy she might sound, but all I really want to do is watch her sleep, maybe cradle her. If only wishing someone to be better worked. Hell, if that worked, I would have never ended up here.

She twists a bit in her sleep. Sheet trapped under my weight, her body twists out of it. The purple-red line of her scar starts just next to the curve of her hip and ends at the band of her old-lady panties.

“I fell, I think.” Her voice sounds like its coming from under water. “Trying to climb out of a dumpster. Or it could have been something else. I don’t really remember, though, which sucks because it could have been something awesome and I don’t know it.”

“Did you find her?” Look away and back again. She picks up my hand, my finger, and runs it down her scar. Feels dense, but new, raw and fresh.

“Yeah.” She pulls me down, till my face hits the pillow. “But I don’t want my grandparents to know.” Puts her finger to her chapped lips. “Shh. It’ll be our secret, ‘kay?”

Nod my head.

“Do you know how long I’ve been here?” Puts her fingers to my face. They’re cool, but rough and dry. “No one will tell me, because I’ve only been around, you know, mentally for a day or so.”

“’Bout a week.” Try to count backwards to the day of my lunch with Nick and my brothers. Put my hands to her face too. For this one moment I think we may be on the same plane of consciousness. We’re in the exact same moment at the exact same time. “Maybe a few days longer.”

“Mary Anne says she met you.” Her thumb begins to graze the side of my neck, tracing my coronary artery. Back up to the hollow of my neck, just below my Adam’s apple. “She likes you.” Her eyes flicker away. To some place, at someone, I cannot see. “Did she tell you?” Her tone leans toward a different secret.

Try to think for a moment. Not because I’ve forgotten. I’m pretty sure I know what she’s talking about. But it’s really hard to collect my memory with her face so intense, her slow, subtle, deliberate hands, fingers, sliding across my face and neck.

“Yeah.” My voice is junky. “I’ll visit you. And I’ll send you cupcakes when I can’t get there.”

When she smiles, it’s soft, looking like I’ve suggested something completely preposterous.

“I’ll miss you when I’m gone.” She scoots her body close to mine. So that her bare belly is brushing against my old Led Zeppelin t-shirt. “Wherever I go will be really lonely without you.” Her nose his next to mine, just a millimeter between us. “Do you know that you’re the only friend I’ve ever had. In my whole life, I’ve never really had a friend until you came in and watched me talk to myself in the window. I’ll miss having a friend.”

There’s nothing for me to say. I can’t follow her there. Wherever there may be. Part of me thinks I’d go if I could. Because…what if, maybe, Blue is my Natalie?

“Will you stay with me?” What, can she hear the voice in my head too? “Stay with me until I fall asleep?” Her fingers are brushing over my cheek, challenging me to say no, to leave her alone. “I want to miss you as little as possible.”

Finally, she pulls my face to hers and kisses my mouth, light, like the flutter of a butterfly. Then pulls away.

“Goodnight, Cupcake.” She puts her fingers through mine and closes her eyes.

After some amount of time, she begins to snore very lightly, just enough to be noticed, and I finally feel like I can breathe again. I had thought some time ago that I could love Blue. Now I know I can. Is it possible that I already do? I can’t fix her or put her back together. But I could be there, I could walk with her. If I can get myself together enough… If I can get myself together period.

As these ideas stir, and mull, light cracks into the trees, threatening to creep into the window before I have time to sidle out of Blue’s bed and back to my own room before the night nurse makes her final rounds. The nurse outside Blue’s door flinches as I, again, nearly slip on his papers. He doesn’t wake up, though, and I manage to make it into my room unnoticed.

Sleeping through breakfast was a nice feeling. For once none of the nurses woke me up, demanding that I needed to attend group or work on some assignment Shawn’s left for me, or even to just get up and eat. Lunch, however, they would not let me sleep through.

“Zac, you have to get up now.” Fatma stands at the end of my bed, hands on her hips as she watches me. “It’s almost eleven-thirty and you’ve got to have lunch.” As I sit up she turns to leave but turns back around. “I’m going to tell Shawn you haven’t been sleeping at night and need a sleeping pill of some kind.”

Too stunned by this, and my seeming lack of choice in the matter, I don’t stop her. I don’t want sleeping pills. I don’t want to sleep—leastways, I don’t want to sleep on my own anymore.

Shuffle my feet towards the cafeteria, which should proves to be rather boring as Dwayne was sent home two days ago, leaving me veritably friendless. Lunch is something that resembles meatloaf and imitation mashed potatoes—the cardboard taste always gives them away—and a pile of fruit. Take as much fruit as they’ll let me have and go to my table at the back of the room, near a large window that looks into the back of the hospital. Some of the patients are taking advantage of their lawn privileges. Must be pretty desperate, though, it’s hot and dank enough to hard boil an egg out there.

A face familiar and completely unexpected flops into the chair across from me, singing like a melodious imp, “Oh beautiful for spacious skies…no, that’s not it.” Blue chews her lip for a second. “My country tis of…nope. Damn. How does that song start?”

“What are you trying to sing about?” Pop a grape into my mouth.

“Freedom! How does the national anthem start?”

“Try, ‘Oh say can you see,’ go from there!”

She shakes her fists in victory. “Oh, say can you see? By the—”

“—Why are you singing the national anthem?” Not that she has a bad voice—better than Beth by a long shot—but, well, it is a random thing to do be doing.

“Because. Hello? I’m free!” Her hands fly into the air, giving her the look of a fountain. “No more solitary confinement! I’m out of stir! They let me loose! No more Mary Anne hovering over me, stuffing me with her homemade, body fattening, too-rich food while she probes me for information about Alia and whatever I saw in Oklahoma City.”

“Should we have a round of stale hospital tea to celebrate?”

“Of course! Waiter?” She looks about as though there’s a waiter to be had. “A round of tea for everyone! On me!”

We laugh for a minute before she gets up to get lunch for herself. I wish Nick and my brothers were here to see her like this. Coherent, making witty jokes. Not kicking staff. Her voice below a scream, without swearing or threatening. A funny, likable girl, who could be normal if it weren’t for the other people living in her mind.

Before she can pick up her fork, I blurt, “So what was your mom like?”

She doesn’t flinch, not really, which is a good sign, right?

“Crazy.” Shovels potatoes into her mouth. “But kind of cool. It actually didn’t take me very long to find her. She’s been there for so long, she knows a lot of people and I look just like her. At least that’s what they said.

“She didn’t really recognize me at first. The last time she saw me was around my eighteenth birthday, I was chubbier then and had shorter hair. Anyway, she and her friends were squatting in a burned-out house outside of the city. They’d drug old mattresses and curtains and clothes into the house. It was strange, like they were some big family and they lived in the house like a family. One girl was in charge of food, like, she brought it in from—I don’t really even know where it all came from—and she’d make a fire in the backyard, sometimes, and make the food hot. And there was another girl, she was younger than me, she’d get water from the hose in someone’s backyard a couple houses over; she’d wash clothes and blankets and stuff. There were a lot of people there. I don’t know what all of them did.”

She stops to push a couple more bites of potatoes in her mouth.

“I’m not really sure what Alia’s job was. I think she might have just been the mother-person. The guy that found me in the city, I think he may be my dad. His name was Charlie. I’m pretty sure I got the scar when he pulled me out of a dumpster that was outside a restaurant. I hadn’t had anything to eat in while, and, believe me, if you haven’t eaten in several days, restaurant trash doesn’t look as awful as it sounds.”

Squelch a gag in my throat.

“He called me her name a lot. I remember that. Even when you’re crazy, Blue’s a pretty unusual name, so I never really did figure out why he couldn’t get it right. Then again, he did a lot of heroin and drank a lot of really cheap vodka. I think the drugs and drinks might have been Alia’s job, come to think of it. She probably hid it from me.”

She pushes her lunch aside. “Want to go outside? I really think Mary Anne and Jack can hear me. Alia’d be pretty pissed if they came looking for her, too. She’s already pissed at them for coming after me.”

Look out the window. Not a face out there without several dribbles of sweat and sun-flushed cheeks.

“I know it’s hot.” She really can read minds. “But I’m sick of being inside.” Brushes her thumb over the back of my hand. “Some heat might do us some good?”

So we go out into the heat, out past the pool that is now filled with soil and the vegetable plots that are pet projects of the drug addicts, out to the end of the yard under the too-short shade of the trees.

“They didn’t try to get you to do drugs?” Pull grass and look back into her thinner face.

“Once Alia figured out who I was, she was really very mother bearish. She wouldn’t let anyone talk to me or give me anything unless she said it was okay. Everywhere we went, Alia held my hand. I slept her bed—she had the laundry girl find me new blankets and stuff. But we didn’t really do much but wander around the city, holding up cups for change, and stuff like that. I would have stayed with her, though. It was dirty, I ate from trash cans, and had to beg people for money, but it was better than being in this hospital and being a legal ward of my grandparents.”

She takes my hand between both of hers. Even though it’s hotter than should be possible in Oklahoma, her hands are cool. “I missed you, though. It would have been a super fantastic adventure for me and you—like falling down the rabbit hole.”

Sometimes I wonder if our whole friendship isn’t some disturbing, breathing Alice in Wonderland metaphor.

“So what happened when they found you?” Can’t look away from her distant face.

“A bunch of cops broke out the boards over the windows. The police found us hiding in Alia’s closet and she did a lot of cussing and trying to tell them that I’m her kid and they can’t take me from her. They pulled her away from me—and they had to be pulling pretty hard because I was trying not to let go. They put her in a car and drove away. Then they put me in an ambulance and drove me to the hospital. I think they had a ‘Missing’ poster or some ridiculous shit like that. ‘Cause Jack and Mary Anne were waiting for me when we got to the hospital.

“You know the rest. Apparently I nearly broke Shawn’s ribs when they were trying to bring me in. I don’t really remember that, but I kind of wish I did. But I apologized to her this morning.”

“You saw Shawn?” Oh, hell. The last thing I need Shawn to hear about is my night with Blue.

“Calm down Spazy McSpazypants.” She squishes my cheeks. “I only told her that I was feeling fine and ready to get out of that damned room before Mary Anne painted my fingernails one more fucking time.” She lets go of my face and laughs.

“Ratchet’s going to tell her I need sleeping pills.” Wipe away the sweat bead that’s threatening to fall into my eye.

“Well what’s the fun in that?” Her smile is sneaky, and I know that she knows why I don’t want the pills. “Haven’t you learned how to cheek your pills? You push them up above your front teeth, that pocket is really deep and they almost never fall out. Trust me, I’ve been at this for a long time.”

“They’ll know I’ve cheeked them if I’m not asleep when they come in to check on me.” In spite of my motives for not taking them, the more I think about it, the more it seems counterproductive to avoid taking them. Like it’s a push against everything I’m supposed to have been working towards. “My brothers say I’m terrible at fake sleeping.”

Blue gives an exasperated huff. “Fine, fine. I understand. Is it my morning breath? Do I snore too much or something?”

Shove her shoulder, spilling her over into the grass. She sits back up a second later—and launches herself onto me, very Simba and Nala.

“Zac! Blue!” Fatma is moving very quickly towards us.

”Shit!” Blue rolls back on to the grass, laughing and smiling as big as the sun. “Ratchet’s going to kill us!”

* * *

“Fatma says you and Blue have been inseparable.” Shawn’s tapping the desk with her pen, not in an annoyed way, in a thoughtful way, like she’s thinking too much.

“She makes me laugh.” Shrug, trying to be noncommittal about what I say.

Her pen stops. She laughs. “Zac. Do you think I’m an idiot?”

“I hate it when you bait me. Seriously, it’s very annoying. Can’t you find some other pastime?”

Her smile is smug and entirely unapologetic. “It’s my job to know when you’re being full of shit. And the fact of the matter, Zac, is that you’re being full of shit right now.”

“Fine. Yes, we’re ‘inseparable.’ But, seeing as we’re on the topic of who is being full of shit, did you expect something else? Because, if you did, I’m honestly interested in hearing what it might be?”

Touché.” She smirks. “Have you ever considered a second career in psychiatry? To answer your question, no, I didn’t expect anything less than exactly what's happened. Though, I do have a question?”

“What? When am I planning to propose?”

Her eyes roll. “That might be my next question. My first question is how long did you think you could sneak in and out of Blue’s room at night before I’d find out?”

A long groan escapes my throat before I can stop it from happening. “Uh...well, when did you find out?” Because it’s been almost a week…

“Jack and Mary Anne told the nurses you were allowed to see her anytime you pleased.” Her eyebrows raise in disapproval. “I’m guessing from the look on your face that you honestly believed you were actually sneaking in to see her?”

Blood that should be squishing through my heart right now is squishing into my face. I feel the flush of maddening embarrassment. There’s nothing I can say.

Shawn looks away, sparing me the shame of having to actually meet her strangely bemused stare. “Nothing truly happens in secret here, surely you’ve figured that out by now, especially when it concerns the happenings of the directors’ granddaughter.”

“Back to that proposal thing.” Maybe she’ll have an answer to my Natalie predicament.
“Okay?” Her face is shocked, nearly horrified. Obviously, that was not the way she expected me to change the subject.

“Just…does she really have to go to a home? What if there was someone who could take care of her?” Clinch my fists. “Ugh, God, Shawn, don’t give me that face.”

“What face?”

“The one where you look all piteous, like I’m being overly sentient and soft.”
“It’s not that, Zac.” Now she does look at me, really looks at me, like she can pluck out the rush of emotions I’ve felt in the week since Blue came to her senses. “You cannot care for Blue, not even with hired help could you hope to truly have a hand over her. She needs to be seen to by professionals—a team of them—and be in an environment that is safe. I assume you intend to continue to tour once you’re out of here?”

“Drumming’s the only thing I really know how to do.”

“And when she’s talking in circle after circle, making no real sense, and running off while you’re on stage, what can you do for her then? Will you lock her up on a bus? How will you make sure she’s taking her medications? How will you—”

My heart just fell from its hook down into my toes. “—I get it. I get it, okay? But how long can she really stay there? Doesn’t she get a choice in how to live her life? What if she wants to leave?”

“You always have questions I’m not allowed to answer.”

“They’d let you answer me, you know they would.”

“When she was about 19 or 20 Blue was legally remanded to the care of her grandparents for the remainder of their natural lives.”

“What…what happens when their ‘natural lives’ are over?”

She looks stunned by the question. “I don’t exactly know. Jack and Mary Anne Inez have a lot of money. I would guess as much as you have, if not more, and Blue can be well cared for the rest of her life. She can be comfortable.”

“Does anyone care if she can be happy?”

“You can’t save her.”

“Goddammit, Shawn! I’m not trying to save her! Just—trying to be merciful! No one should have to live like that! It’s not fair!”

“Is it unfair because she’s truly missing out on life or because you’re in love with her and can’t face the reality of her life in relation to your own? Because you think that she might be some missing piece to your life—the way to put Zac back together again? Are you completely oblivious to how close you are to going home?”

“I’m not in love—home? I’m going home?”

It seems like it’s been months since I last gave Shawn hell about keeping me in the hospital. I can’t even remember the last time we argued about it, though I’m sure it was some time before my visit with Walker.

“We, uh, obviously have some things to talk about still.” Obviously this Blue stuff adds to the equation. “But yes, I think that you may be able to go home in a few weeks.”

This quiets all my other thoughts. I forget, for a moment, to think of Blue and all the ideas I had about her being my Natalie. I could go home. Back to life in the real world, where I decided my schedule, my menu, my art projects.

“That’s kind of scary.”

“Why?”

“I hate it here, but it’s safe. I don’t have to see anyone I don’t want to see. There’s no pressure to put out a demo that our record company is going to reject no matter how hard we work on it. There’s no facing Walker after what I said to him.”

That’s just what she was waiting for me to say.

“Let’s talk about Walker.”

“What about him?”

“Well, I read Fatma’s notes, but you haven’t been very receptive to the idea of discussing your conversation with him.”

“If you know what we talked about, then what’s left?”

“You told him that he couldn’t be your dad anymore. Where did that come from?”

“People denounce their parents all the time. Being someone’s father, the guy that donated half your genes, doesn’t mean you have the right to be their dad.” Flashback to the day he knocked Taylor and I around for skipping out on practice to go bike-riding with our neighbors, the day that my arm was broken. Walker gave it a strong twist before agreeing to take me to the emergency room. “We were raised to forgive and whatever. But I don’t think I have to forgive him. He doesn’t deserve my forgiveness. And I figure, until the day comes when I decide that I can forgive him, there’s no reason to believe he’s my dad. He’s just my father.”

“What would it take for you to forgive your father?” Shawn’s eyes are so large some times, in the moments when she knows she’s asked me a question, heavy and thick with intended healing, like she’s letting in a flood.

Swallow the lump in my throat. “I—maybe—I don’t really know. Maybe if he’d just stop being arrogant about it. Say he’s sorry. Apologize to my mother.”

“And then what? What would forgiveness mean to you? What would it look like?”

Shrug. “If it happens, I’ll let you know. I just don’t think there’s a whole lot that could be different, even if I did forgive him. I think it’d be easier for my family if I’d just let it go, but that’s really about it.”

“Is there anything your father’s ever done that you are thankful for?”

“My career. My siblings.” I couldn’t really think of much else. “I’d still be some homeschooled weird kid if it weren’t for him teaching us how to sing, for mom teaching us how to play the piano and stuff. And I have so many siblings, I know I’m never really alone. Oh, and we traveled a lot as kids and to see things most kids never get to see.”

“Are you still angry at him?”

This I have to think about for a while. My first instinct is to tell her that I am. Why shouldn’t I still be angry with him?

“I’m not angry, really. I don’t really know what I feel. I know that, if I do stay angry at him, it doesn’t affect him or change him. It just follows me around and then he continues to own my life. And he doesn’t have any rights to my life anymore.”

Shawn smiles very modestly, like she’s proud of what I had to say. “You’ve come a very long way, Zac.”

“Thanks.” The complement was unexpected, making my ears red.

“I’ll see you later this week, okay? We’ll look at your letter to Beth.”

Stood to leave, but turned back. “Then what happens?

“What do you mean?” Her pride-smile turned into a raised eyebrow.

“About me going home.”

“It’ll be soon.” Her eyes roll. “And Zac?”

“Huh?”

She looks as though she may reconsider whatever she’s about to say. “You’re a good friend to Blue. I do wish there was more you could do. But don’t get so wrapped up in her plight and forget your own. You have a life to live.”

 

* * *

“What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you get out of here?” Blue’s breaking off a piece of the chocolate bar my mother brought in this morning. She pops it into her mouth and stares at me, at the edge of her bed, plucking almonds out of the trail mix mom also needed to include in her gift basket.

“Ask for the biggest dinner my mother’s ever made in one day—other than Thanksgiving. Then shower without someone standing outside the door making sure I’m not going to drown myself. You?”

She flinches. “Oh. Uh. I haven’t really thought about it. Even when I leave here, it’s not like I’m going home or whatever. So why think about it?”

It’s after midnight. We’ve been sitting in her room for a few hours, eating our way through my mother’s you’re-finally-coming-home-even-though-we-don’t-know-when care package, and telling stories about ourselves.

“What would you do if you won the lottery?” She picks up my discarded almonds and throws one into the air, obviously intending to catch it in her mouth, but it bounces off her nose and lands with a soft plunk onto the bed. Her giggle sounds like it’s echoing in the hall.

“You realize I’m sort of out of the running for the lottery, right?”

“Oh yeah, that rockstar thing. Well, rockstars can win—there isn’t a law against it? So what would you do with it?”

“Give it to Beth and Nick, I guess. Beth could use it to pay for school and Nick could… I’m not real sure what Nick would do with it.”

“I have a question.” She spits out the dried pineapple she’d just snatched out of my hand. “If you love that girl so much how come you won’t forgive her? How come you’ll forgive him but not her?”

My turn to flinch. This was not a question I was prepared for, one that Shawn should have asked me, but Blue beat her to the punch.

“I don’t know.” I can’t look at Blue. And I’d look out the window, but her damned curtains are in the way.

She finally eats the pineapple. “We think you do know.”

“We?” Her use of a plural breaks the tension of the moment.

“They register opinions from time to time.” Her cheeks turn pink. Then she hits me with her pillow. “Seriously, though. I know what they did sucked, but you can’t just forgive him and not her. They’re your best friends.”

“Have you ever been in love with someone?”

She looks at me and then looks away. “I don’t know.” She looks back, chewing the inside of her cheek. “What does that have to do with it anyway?”

“Everything. There are things…. She. I loved her. I held her hand when they found her in the woods. And sat through several years of ‘Nutcracker’ performances. I had sex with her so she’d go into labor!”

“Wow. Didn’t know that last bit. Uh, thanks for sharing.”

Laugh. “Sorry about that. I guess it’s just—I had a lot invested in her. I never hid anything from her and she hid this thing with Nick from me. And it hurt.” Laugh at myself. “I sound like a girl.”

“Hey!” This time she picks up several of my discarded almonds and throws them at me. (With enough force, almonds are very painful!) “Okay, so maybe you do sound like a girl!” She leans across our basket-o’-motherly-bounty, puts her face close to mine and whispers, “it’s all just because you love her. You can’t forgive her because she didn’t love you back. Because you love her more than you’ve ever loved anything.”

Feel a slight gasp rise in my chest. She loves New York more than she’s ever loved anything.

Instead of trying to face this, I face Blue, and kiss her mouth and try not to think about what she’s said and how much it could haunt me.

Blue tastes like chocolate and candied fruit. She tastes lush and unexplored and new. The basket tumbles to the floor as we fall backwards, shoving our treats aside. Her face is flush, heat rises from her belly through her gauzy t-shirt. As I try to pull her shirt up, she pulls it back down and kisses me twice as hard, as if to make up for the denial.

“There’s someone outside the door.” She pulls away from me, lightly pushing my face away. Her skin gets even hotter.

“He sleeps through the night.” Push my way closer to her face again.

She doesn’t fight me. She gives in, letting me pull her t-shirt away, trace her scar with my fingers.

She pulls my fingers to her face. I look up at her intense, dead serious face.

“Could you love me? Not like her, I guess. But…could you?”

“I already do.”

“Just checking.” A sly, cheeky grin. She pushes me away. “Will you miss me when I’m gone?”

It likely doesn’t need to be said that this stream of questions happens to be highly disruptive to my motives, not to mention my attempts to evade her nonsense babble from moments ago.

“Yes.” Kiss her chin, her cheek, and stopped again.

“Zac, please. I just want to talk to you.” A whimsical sounding lilt creeps out of her throat. “I’ll be gone soon and I don’t want to waste it.”

Grunt. “Waste what?”

“Waste you. Physicality is overrated.”

“What? Are you…” Yes, in fact, she is crazy. “You started this, you know. You kissed me first!”

“I know.” She pinches my cheek, not enough to hurt, just enough to make me smile involuntarily. “Maybe I shouldn’t have. I take it back. I never kissed you.” She flails her fingers in the air, throwing away the kiss she’d given me. “There, it’s gone and we can just lay here and be Zac and Blue.”

“Yeah… Not that simple.” Tweak her cheek. “You can’t just take back a kiss.”

“I can, too! I just did. Look!” She points to a non-noteworthy spot on the wall. “See, there it is, like I never gave it to you. It can wait there until I’m ready to give it to you. You might even have to wait until I’m gone, then you can come in an collect it and keep it forever.”

“Blue.” Turn her face towards mine, wanting her to be serious

“Zac.” Her eyes lighten, soften, the way a sharp light from a lamp is made easier by a scarf, dissipating the urgency I’d been feeling. “When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?”

Laugh. “Seriously? Are you really asking me that?”

She laughs back, “Yes, really! I wanted to be a movie star. But not a trendy one, not like Molly Ringwald. I wanted to be Winona Ryder in Edward Scissorhands, with that white dress and spin around in the snow. Well, you know, fake snow, and be in movies with Johnny Depp.” Her focus disappears. She’s probably dancing in the snow, created by someone who loves her, loves her enough to change the weather.

“I wanted to be an explorer.” Weird Panama hat and all. “Taylor and Ike showed me pictures of South America and I wanted to go back, so I could see where we had been—because I couldn’t remember much of it. I wanted to dig up old Mayan castles and be like Indiana Jones. By the time I was seven or eight, we starting singing all the time and I didn’t really care about adventuring anymore. Then all either of us wanted to be was musicians. It’s about the only kindness our father ever did us.”

“What about now?” Her thumb is grazing my cheek bone, sliding into my hair line, down to my ear. “What do you want now, if you could have your life any way you could imagine it. What would you have now?”

If I could have anything I wanted out of my life? That’s a tall order.

“My own record label, so I could record music that is Hanson—real Hanson—without dealing with the shit from our record company. And—” I nearly say her, that I’d want her, to care for her and keep her. But I think it’d only hurt her to know that I know that I can’t. Just stab her further with the injustice of not being able to own her own life. “—I’d have my dad make amends to all of us and be a good dad for my brother and sisters.”

“What about your friends? Your girl?”

She’s as able as Shawn to hang me on my own emotions. “Happiness. I just want them to be happy. I love her, and I don’t think you ever totally let go of the first person you love like that, even when you know you aren’t in love with them anymore. I know Beth and I can’t be happy together. There’s just no way. But she and Nick can. They can be amazing together.”

Blue moves her face, puts her nose close to mine. “But what about you. What about Zac? What do you want for you? That would be just yours, to make just you happy?”

“I think… I don’t know. I haven’t figured it out yet.”

“Do you want to get married?”

Shrug. “Not if I wind up like Taylor and Natalie! But, I guess. Are you asking?”

“Ha!” She quickly covers her mouth. “I’m not marrying anyone! No one deserves that! I’m a psychological time bomb, only no one knows what the timer is set to. And God forbid I procreate. That poor kid would wind up as lucky as me and Alia.” She laughs again. “Sorry, Cupcake, I’ll just have to be your token crazy friend.”

Abruptly, she sits straight up, scooting herself flush with the wall. “I have something I have to tell you. I’ve known all day and I didn’t know how to tell you.”

“What? Are you pregnant with an alien’s baby and you have to eat my brain to feed it?”

Her rigid shoulders slacken slightly. “I almost wish it was that. I’m pretty sure your brain is sugary mush!”

“I blame you. It’s influenced by you calling me Cupcake.”

“Zac.” Air from around us is sucked rapidly into her lungs. “Ihavetwodays.”

“God bless you?”

“Jack told me this morning that the room we were waiting for at the place in Oklahoma City has opened up and I’m leaving in two days.”

“I.” I what? “But.” But what? “You can’t! That’s not enough time! You have to meet my brothers. Eat macaroni and cheese and fried corn and belch!”

She flutters her eyes so rapidly, I’m not sure what she’s doing. But then I realize that she’s trying to keep herself from crying.

“I’m not ready to leave yet, either.” Her hand slides gingerly into mine, taking her time to finally curl her fingers through mine, like she needs to feel each cell slide over the other. “I’m not ready to go.”

Chapter Text

“So, what do you think would happen if you actually gave her this letter?” Shawn’s flipping through my drawing pad, examining my doodles, and my letter to Beth. Every so often her left eyebrow hitches up toward her hair line and she cranes her neck—looking like a curious puppy. It’s not like I’m an abstract artist or anything!

“She’d be hurt. The kind of hurt friendships can’t recover from.” Chew my lip for a second. “Then she’d just fade away, fade into blackness. A vortex that eats light. The darkest, emptiest place in my universe.”

“And what would happen to you if that were the case?”

“I don’t know. I think I’d implode, turning in on myself until I couldn’t be seen as existing in this plane any longer. I’d fall into the black hole and never come out the other side.”

So many space metaphors. Maybe I really did watch too much Star Wars as a kid.

“You know that’s really counter intuitive.” Shawn laughs like there’s something deftly ironic about what I’ve said—and I’ve missed whatever the irony is.

“Counter intuitive?!” Throw my hands into the air in a questioning gesture. “Have you listened to me at all since we’ve met? What other answer did you expect?”

“It’s counter intuitive because of everything you’ve ever told me about Beth. You love her so much that you won’t resolve your feelings about her in order to spare her feelings. However, you continue to withhold forgiveness from her.”

“It’s.” Am I really about to say this? Yep. “Complicated.”

“Really? How so?” She’s using her I-call-bullshit tone of voice, with both of her eyebrows hovering near her hairline.

She’s bating me and I know it. The question is whether or not I should bite, getting myself yanked into a boat I can’t get out of—or keep quiet, keep on swimming.

“You keep Beth at five arms-lengths away, holding her off until you decide you’re ready.” Shawn threads her fingers together, placing her chin on top of them. “But when she moves, when she pulls away from your orbit—to continue your space metaphor—then you quit. You give in.” Pulls her hand away from her face and snaps her fingers. “Just like that. You can deal with her distance, so long as you’re the one creating it.”

I should have taken the damn bait. Should have spoken.

Her face softens. I suppose I look as green as I feel.

“Are you okay?” She looks at me intently, heavily with concern.

“Yeah. Yeah.” I am okay. Just jarred. Shaken loose from a delusion I’ve clung to for too long. “I’ve just never seen it that way I guess.”

“I have something else I’d like to say.” She turns her head in that curious-puppy way again. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah. I mean, we have to do this, don’t we? This is the last—last…thing.” I am sort of afraid of what she has to say. Especially if she has to ask my permission to say it. “So go ahead and say it.”

“Zac, I know you love Beth.” This is not going to end well. “But I think you won’t forgive her because she hurt you, the fundamental, core you. Not just your feelings. You have wrapped yourself in her, and she in you, so much that, when she didn’t tell you the truth, you felt that a part of you had become so injured that there has been no way to offer forgiveness. And you continue to withhold forgiveness because you haven’t figured that part out yet.”

Bile climbs up my throat. Up, up, up. Onto the back of my tongue, until it hits my soft palate, and continues until it falls from my mouth to the floor.

Shawn jumps from her chair, grabs a trash can and shoves it under my chin. My body continues to spill out all the truth I wasn’t prepared for. Unforgiving burning. Feels like its behind my eyes. In my nose. It keeps coming.

“Janae!” Shawn hollers, not thinking about the closed door. “Hold this!” She shoves the trashcan at me. “Janae! I need 25 milligrams phenergan and a bottle of water!”

Still dry heaving when Shawn comes back over to me. She pulls my hair away. Looks at me horrified.

“You said you were okay!”

“I.” Heave. “Thought I.” Heave. “Was.” More heaving. More bile. Shouldn’t I be empty by now?

Janae moves quickly into the room.

“Lay down on your side.” She has an accent, something Caribbean. “And don’t move.”

She pulls the elastic of my sweatpants down, exposing my still-boney hip. The injection hurts. Hurts to my toes.

“Don’t get up!” Janae pushes my shoulder back to the floor as I try to sit up. “Just lay down for a few minutes and wait for the heaving to stop. You’ll probably feel sleepy soon.” She hands me a bottle of Gatorade. “When the heaving stops, try to get some of this down.” Janae has the face of a model. Her head is nearly shaved, with just a bit of fuzz. She looks at Shawn. “I have some orders for you to sign before you leave today, Dr. Curtis.”

Shawn nods, looking a little pale. “Thank you, Janae.”

After heaving a few more times, I feel ready to sit up. Slightly woozy from the medication.

“C’mon.” Shawn offers me her hand. “You’re going to fall asleep soon and I’d rather you do that in your room than in here. I can’t carry you.” She pulls me up to my feet. “Drink that while we walk.”

We take a few steps down the hall, Shawn’s hand at my elbow in case I fall over. Every step I take is less sure, less stable.

“What happened?” She opens the door to my room, leading me to the bed.

“Too much truth, I guess.” Eyes won’t stay open.

“I’ll be back later this evening for a meeting. I’ll check on you then.”

“Mmm.” The most I can say before my sight, and my hearing, go dark.

“I tell you I have 48 hours left to spend with you and you go and throw up so much Shawn has to drug you?!” Blue lightly pushes my face, causing my senses to twirl—along with my stomach.

“Ugh. Want me to throw up on you?”

Blue’s hair is in a tussled knot on the top of her head. She’s wearing a pair of long shorts, they come just above her knees, and a top that’s just short enough to show a peek of her scar.

“I’d like it if you didn’t.” She tugs at her shirt, pulling herself upright. “I worked hard on this look.”

“You mean you worked hard on a look that would piss off Mary Anne?” Because board shorts and a too-short t-shirt is always the easiest way to anger your psychiatrist grandmother—the one that dresses you in coordinating pajamas nightly.

She giggles, shrugging her devil-may-dance shoulders. “Six one, half a cows fair day.”

I ran through it two more times in my head to make sure I’d heard what she said. “Wait, what?”

“Huh?” She looks confused by my confusion.

“That made no sense.”

“Yes it did.” Her tone, and her face, were indignant at my suggestion. “Six one, half a dozen the other. It means—”

“—I know what it means. But that’s not what you said.”

Her face transitions through several emotions, like she can’t decide which one to be so she’s trying to be all of them at one time. She begins to shake her head. Slowly at first, and then sharply. Her head may twist off her neck soon.

“No. No. Fuck you!” And though she’s looking at me, she’s not talking to me. I don’t even think she sees me. “I don’t see the moon window! Go fly the yard fire!”

Grab her arm, shaking it. Her face changes sharply, scarily. And I’m so scared of what’s happening in her head I don’t see her fist flying at my face.

“Rabbits the garbage on yesterday!” She grabs my shoulders, trying to pin me to the bed. My nose is bleeding. “Rabbits the garbage on yesterday!”

“HELP!” My voice sounds small, and stupid, and pathetic. Blood falls into my mouth as I breathe in to shout again. “HELP!”

This time I see her hand as she pulls it backward. With much force, I sit up, knocking her off balance and she falls to the floor, landing on her face. She sits up, clutching her nose with tears crawling down her cheeks.

She doesn’t recognize me.

The night nurse runs in with the two brawny guys that were with Blue the day she was brought back to the hospital. In less than a blink they were gone again. Blue’s screams take up the hallway, careening into my room and down my throat, feeling like an unwarranted accusation. Saying that this violence, this new psychosis is my fault.

A few blinks later another nurse enters my room, toting an ice pack and some gauze.

“She got you good.” She dabs my nose. The name on her tag is Lin. “When she was about fourteen, she knocked out one of my teeth.” Lin opens her mouth, with her tongue behind one of her fang-like front teeth. “’Ihs un.” She grimaces a little, looking a little guilty. “I probably shouldn’t have told you that. But the Drs. Inez don’t seem to mind much what we tell you about Blue.”

“It would have been nice for someone to tell me she can be violent.” The ice on my nose feels great. “What time is it anyway?”

“About 10.” Lin pulls the ice away to look up my nose, replacing the ice when she’s through. “I don’t think it’s broken. It doesn’t feel broken. Dr. Curtis has already been through to check on you. Though, with this issue with Blue, and your nose, she’ll probably be checking on you again in just a little while.”

“Thanks.”

“Keep the ice to your nose for the next twenty minutes or so and let someone know if it begins to bleed again.” She stands up. “You know what, how about you come sit in the day room for a little while so I can keep an eye on you?”

“Can I have my drawing pad?”

“Sure.” She nods and walks out.

After we make it to the day room, I hear the nurse that was with Blue shout, “Hey Lin, we need five milligrams of haloperidol and four milligrams of lorazepam. And page Dr. Curtis and her grandparents, please?”

Lin looks over to me. “Give me a few minutes on the drawing pad, okay?”

Nod at her.

Blue is still screaming, but I can’t make out what she’s saying. I feel so stunned. So shocked. I’m not even sure why I asked for my drawing pad. Only, it gave me something to say. When I wanted to say, wanted to ask, wanted to demand to know, “Who is that creature?”

How is this an existence? For anyone? How is this fair? Subjecting an unsuspecting human being to a life like this seemed unholy. And Blue’s in a high-end care facility. There are people just like her who have to eke out an existence on the streets. I want to be angry with God for letting this happen to her, to anyone. I can’t find it in me to be angry, through. It’s unfair. It’s unjust. It’s unkind. And yet, if it weren’t for Blue, as she is, my view on life would not be evolving. Because, as crazy as Blue doesn’t deserve to be, she sees the world and all the life in it as worthwhile. Worth living through—worth living for. She knows that we’re gifted. In every breath, we’re given something that we haven’t earned. In her own way, Blue has shown me that to be, to live, is something magnanimous. So I can’t be angry. But I damn sure want to be.

Lost for several minutes on thoughts of God and the mentally ill, I’m nearly unable to recognize the blur of Shawn as she dashes around the day room and up the hall to Blue’s room.

“I will check on you in a minute!” And she just keeps going.

Things get quiet down there after several minutes. Then I hear the door click shut.

“What happened?” Shawn’s voice.

“I’m not entirely sure.” The night nurse. “She was in with the Hanson boy—the door was open—and out of nowhere he started yelling for help. When I got in there his nose was bleeding and she was on the floor. She was talking nonsense the whole way down to the room, so I don’t know any more than that. He’s still up, I think.”

“Yeah. He’s in the day room. Thanks, Maria.” So that’s night-nurse’s name!

I can only hear one set of footsteps now. Shawn turns the corner, looking at me with a defeated looking face.

She sighs. “What happened?”

“She was sitting next to me when I woke up.” Set the ice pack down on the table. “We joked for a second and then she was talking in one of those salad things. Then she started screaming and hit me. And when she went to hit me again, I sat up and it knocked her off balance and she fell on the floor. That’s when they came in to get her. That’s all that happened.” My voice is high. Accusatory. “How come you never told me she could be violent?”

“It’s rare.” Shawn sits in the chair, shrugging her shoulders. “It usually only happens when she’s in acute distress. When she knocked out Lin’s tooth, it was after she was told that Alia had been arrested. I need to know exactly what you two said to each other just before she hit you.”

I gave her every last word, short though the exchange was.

“She’s scared to leave.” She’s talking to herself. “Let me correct myself: she’s scared to leave you.”

Guilt floods me. Cascades over me like water from the highest peak, crashing, crushing into whatever waits for it at the bottom. I am responsible for this break.

“Shawn. What’s going to happen when she leaves here?”

Shawn breaks from her silent conversation with the coffee table. “Jack and Mary Anne have sold their house here and are moving to Oklahoma City, to be near Blue especially, but also because they know Alia is there. They asked me to take over as director.”

“Congratulations.” My voice is flat, as though I’m wishing her anything but. Not the case though. It just doesn’t seem like the right moment to celebrate such a thing.

“None needed. I didn’t take the job. Your last day in this hospital is also my last day.”

“What? Why?” Now I really feel guilty. Did I cause this mess? This turmoil? Do I wreck everything?

“Don’t, Zac.” Her eyes roll as she shakes her head. “I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking this has something to do with you. You really are narcissistic in the strangest of ways. I don’t want to run a hospital. I barely want to run an office of my own, let alone an entire hospital. They’ve found someone from New Hampshire; he graduated from NYU’s medical school and he’ll be a great guy for the job. I will say this, though, you and Blue have been some of the biggest challenges of my career.” She smirks. “Don’t say you’re sorry. It’s not a bad thing. Just a truth.”

“Now what?” I mean, it is late. “Shouldn’t at least one of us be going to bed?”

“Well, when I’m called in this late at night it takes me a very long time to get back to sleep. So, if you promise not to vomit again, and if you’re willing, would you like to finish our conversation from earlier?”

Swallow, just to make sure there’s not any extra bile around.

“Well,” little burst of a laugh, “I haven’t eaten, so I’m pretty sure there’s nothing left to throw up. So…sure!”

“Would you like some pizza?” She checks her watch. “It’s not too late to order it. I’ll have them deliver it to the back door of the kitchen and we’ll sit in the dining room.”

It crosses my mind to ask her what life in mental wards is like for less advantaged people, but then I realize I don’t really want to know. Instead, I follow her quietly into the dark, deserted cafeteria and sit down at my table while Shawn phones in the pizza request.

“You threw up from too much truth?” Shawn slides into a seat, the place Blue usually sits, and crosses her arms on the table. “That’s something I’ve never had a patient say.”

"I don’t know how else to describe it.”

“It’s okay. I didn’t say I didn’t understand your explanation—only that I’d never heard it before.”

“What you said made too much sense. I’m so conceited that I could have never seen it that way. Too many years of being a victim.”

“I think you’re wrong about that. You’ve never really acted as though you’ve been victimized, not even by your fath—Walker. What you do have, though, is a very strong will. And that will drives you to be right. You have to be right. Things must occur according to your sense of balance. Walker wronged you by abusing you, so you declared he could no longer be your father. You suspected Nick of sleeping with Beth so you slept with his sister. You felt that Beth, though she stood beside you, had abandoned you, so, in return, you’re abandoning her. You’re not a victim. You’re a doer, Zac. It’s just that in your doing, in your responding, that’s what’s dysfunctional. That’s what we have to change.”

“And how do I do that?”

“You could start with forgiving Beth.”

Try to cover the flinch. Forgiveness means I’d have to call and I’m not ready to call.

“I didn’t say you have to do it this moment.” She shakes her head.

Nod. “Good. That’s—that’s good.”

“Forgive her, stop trying to save her, and learn to live Zac’s life for Zac.”

“That’s a tall order.”

“But not an impossible one.” Her head turns toward the knock at the kitchen door. “Thank goodness!”

She dashes away from the table quickly. Leaving a swirling air of patchouli scent.

“Pepperoni or cheese?” She lightly sets down both pizza boxes and two bottles of Coke on the table.

“Have we met? My name’s Zac Hanson and I’ll eat about half of each.”

Shawn laughs, handing me a plate she snatched from the kitchen.

It’s nice to see Shawn laugh. I wonder what she’s like when she’s not being a psychiatrist. Who is Shawn Curtis? Does she have a husband? Kids? What does she do in her free time? Given that Blue and I are her patients, does she even have free time? I would love to know these things about her, but I also know there are rules and even if I ask her, she’s trained to evade and refocus the attention on me. But in this moment, I can think of her as a mom, who painted murals on her kid’s walls, who would order pizza every other Friday because she was just too tired for anything else. For just a moment Shawn is a person. Shawn is a person who is my friend.

She cuts the pointy end of her slice of pizza with a fork and stabs it. “What do you think will happen with you and Tara when you leave here?” Her fork hovers over the slice while she waits for me to answer.

“I’ll tell her I’m sorry. Hope she forgives me and we’ll be friends.” In a manly fashion, I just cram my slice of pizza in my mouth. “That’s all that really can happen.”

“Why?” She looks a little confused by my response.

“Well, I’d say it’s because she’s my best friend’s sister, but that didn’t really stop me before.” Laugh, take a drink, and for only a second think about that night, that moment, with Tara. “Tara and I could use moving vans for all the baggage we’d bring into a relationship. I can’t imagine that being healthy, for either of us, especially her. She needs someone better than me. She needs what you say Blue needs—stability.”

“Such a mature assessment.” A tiny light of pride is in the lines of Shawn’s irises. It blends so well with the rich soil-darkness of them, you wouldn’t know it was there unless you’ve spent hours staring at her. “You’re probably quite right. So what do you think you will do, then? I can’t imagine you’re thinking of moving home with your mother and siblings?”

“No! Definitely not!” Shook my head. I still never rightly apologized to Jessica for telling her to rot. “I guess immediately, I’ll stay with Isaac.”

Her head snapped away from the bite on her fork. “I’m not sure I think that’s a good idea.” Concern streaks down her cheeks. “What about Taylor?”

“And stay with The Witch of the Midwest?” Snort and shake my head. “I think not! I think I’d be okay at Isaac’s, Shawn. I know why you don’t want me to go there, but I don’t think of Isaac’s place that way. Anyway, I’d, hopefully, only be there a couple weeks. I was kind of thinking of New York, but I’m not entirely sure that’s a great idea. You know, given Beth’s there. Or LA would good. A friend of ours, a producer, her name’s Madge, she’d let me crash at her place. I’m pretty sure she’s got some studio musician work I can do.”

Shawn’s mouth pinches together. “What about Delancy?”

“You think New York’s a better idea?” The incredulous tone in my voice wasn’t intentional, but necessary. “Being closer to Beth than being closer to Delancy?”

“Your relationship with Beth, for the dysfunctions it has, is not, in total, dysfunctional. On the other hand, everything about your relationship with Delancy is unhealthy and pathological.” She nods, as though to set her rightness in place. “You’ve never expressed any want to reestablish your friendship, or, if you’ll forgive me the profanity, your fuck-buddy-ship with Delancy. If Tara has a moving truck, Delancy has a skyscraper!”

Can’t suppress the laugh. “That’s definitely true. Still, Lance doesn’t know about Madge’s studio. She wouldn’t have to know I was there. Look, Shawn, the truth is, I don’t know what I’m going to do. These were just flights of fantasy, I guess. Hell, maybe I’ll go live at Disneyworld and be Prince Charming!”

The cafeteria door creaks slowly open, almost like the person behind it was interested in catching a glimpse of our conversation.

“Dr. Curtis?” The night nurse, Maria. “Dr. Inez—Mary Anne—is here. She wants to see you.”

“I’ll be there in just a second.” Shawn pushes a last bite of pizza into her mouth and follows it with a large, almost manly, swig of Coke. She looks back at me, almost regretfully. “You know you Blue probably won’t be able to have lunch with you and your brothers, tomorrow, right?”

Nod.

“I’m sorry.” She looks truly regretful.

“It’s okay, I guess.” Try to appear flippant. “We’ll just go visit her. My mom makes fantastic strawberry cupcakes and cheesecake frosting.”

“Will you put these,” holds up her plate, “in the sink before you go to bed?”

“Yep. See you tomorrow?”

See you tomorrow.”

She leaves, leaving me alone. Truly alone. More so than I have ever been in the hospital, no nurse hovering at a desk waiting to do a timed check. No psych techs waiting to hurry me into group. I’m alone at the table Blue and I usually share for lunch. They’re taking her away tomorrow, cognizant of her surroundings or not. What will she do if she wakes up in a strange place, surrounded by all those strange people? The injustice is incalculable.

Lost in ideas of what Blue will be like waking up to strangers, I gather our plates and flatware and carry them into the kitchen, setting them with a satisfying clang into the huge, industrial sink.

“Zac?” It’s Lin. “Where are you?”

“Coming.” I exit the kitchen. “I had to put the dishes in the sink.”

She looks a little skeptical. “Let me see your arms, please?”

I turn over my palms so she can see the belly of my forearms.

“Sorry. Had to check.”

“’S okay. I understand.”

“Well, you’ve either got to come sit in the dayroom with your drawing pad or head to bed.” Her face is so soft, simple, kindly. She’s undoubtedly someone’s grandmother.

Think for a second. Can I really sit in the dayroom, attempting to draw, while I have to listen to the buzz in and around Blue’s room. Imagining the look on her face when she wakes up in a strange place, and realizes the nurse pushing another needle into her hip is a total stranger and she’s as alone in the world as she ever has been.

“Lin? Will you ask Shawn to give me something to sleep?”

Dust motes swirl in the thin crack of summer sunlight that bisects my face, dancing as though they could possibly be alive. Microcosms of life, that flit and fall around my face, waiting to be carried somewhere else in the world. Somewhere away from here.

Tap tap, the sound of a fingernail bouncing on my door.

The sun has darkened my vision, but I can see the outline of Mary Anne’s head as she cranes into the room. “Good morning.” She waits for me to sit up. “Blue’s awake. She’s coherent for the most part.” Her mouth twitches, like she regrets what she has to say. “Today’s her last full day here; we’re—we’re leaving in the morning. I think she’d like to apologize.”

“There’s nothing to apologize for.” Sit up, feeling the darkness ebb away, making out the worry on Mary Anne’s face. “She didn’t do it on purpose.”

Mary Anne nods, lips pushed together in a straight line. She doesn’t look back at me. “Well, she’s awake. You should go talk to her while you can.”

At that, she backs away from the door, pulling it closed with the softest audible click possible.

For a few minutes I stare at the door, thinking about laying back and allowing the sun to cover my eyes again. To watch the dust motes and think about the foods my brothers are bringing with them.

From my pile of clothes I lift a t-shirt I stole from Isaac last summer, pulling it over my scarred stomach. Brush my fingers over the scars, feeling the multitude of indentations. For the first time I don’t feel like I’m missing something by not cutting. Like I’m on the other side, looking back. Am I finally alive?

A few people are milling around the hall. A couple patients, a nurse, and a couple of other psychiatrists. Mostly, the morning seems normal. Group will start in about an hour and I’ll have to go. Especially if I want Shawn to continue on the Zac-should-go-home thought tract.

There’s no one hovering outside of Blue’s room. Not even her grandparents.

I knock.

“What?” She sounds agitated and I reconsider opening the door.

“It’s me.”

“Oh. Come in.”

She’s under a blanket, propped up by several pillows.

“Come sit.” She pats the bed. That’s when I realize that her arms are strapped to the bed. “Yeah. It sucks.” She tugs at them. “But, hey, at least if I go mental again, I can’t black up your face!”

“Is my face black?”

“There’s a mirror in the top drawer.” She nods her head toward the dresser. “Have a look.”

I rummage through the bottles of nail polish to find a small compact. As soon as I open it I can see the color across the bridge of my face, purple and yellow and green from the tip of one cheekbone to the other.

“Nice work.” Gingerly, I tap the bony bridge of my nose to test the pain. I’ve had a broken nose. This wasn’t broken.

Her cheeks rush red. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why it happens.”

“It’s not the worst thing that’s ever happened to my face.” Close the compact and place it back in the drawer. “Does she plan on leaving all these bottles of nail polish for the next tenant?”

“She’s not cleaning out the room until after… After I’m gone.” After a sigh slides from her throat, she turns to look at the place where she’d thrown her kiss after she’d taken it away from me. “You can have it back when I’m gone. Make sure you come to collect it before someone else moves in, and fouls it up. Because it’s a perfectly good kiss. Could last you a perfect lifetime.” For a second her eyes are flooded with her giggle, but then, just as quickly, the giggle gives in to seriousness. “Mary Anne thinks I shouldn’t have lunch with you today.”

Nod. “Shawn would probably agree.”

Slowly, a bubble forms just below her iris. Then becomes large enough to cover half of her left eye. It falls, only to be quickly followed by a bubble from the right. Her tears continue, one large drop after the other. The kind of tears Alice cried as she flooded the small room with the locked door.

“Don’t cry.” Why are we conditioned to say this to someone, especially when crying is probably the most appropriate thing do to? And she doesn’t stop. It just keeps coming and now she’s hiccupping in these awful little squeaks. I get to the side of her bed as fast as I can and unfasten one of her arms. She wraps it around my shoulder, pulling me toward her face. Her nose lands in my collar bone. I can feel her nails through my shirt.

She cries for a long time. Not like the screaming cries that came from Beth after Andy went away. Her cries sound like resignation. Exhaustion. Like she can’t continue to fight and the only thing left is to finally admit defeat.

She’s given in.

“I promise I’ll take it.” I pull away from her, though her fingernails continue to dig into my back. Push her hair from her face. “I’ll keep it.”

She breathes shallowly for a second. “What’s your full name?”

“Zachary Walker Hanson.”

“I love you, Zachary Walker Hanson.”

“I love you, too, Mary Jane Blue Inez.”

“Who told you my full name?” Her nails slacken a bit.

“Mary Anne.” Grab for a box of tissues from the top of her dresser and wipe her face. “The day they brought you back from Oklahoma City. That’s when they told me I could ask whatever I wanted and they would tell me.”

“You’re the only thing I’ll miss when I’m gone.” She sniffles. “The only thing.”

She rests her forehead on my chin and continues to cry.

Time passes as it resolutely must. But I have no way of judging how much of it passes. I try to count seconds with her tears, but lose after the first hundred or so.

When someone knocks on the door, Blue sniffles a bit, wipes the back of her hand across her nose and then lays her hand beside the restraint. Her nails are painted purple and silver, with small flowers applied on her index fingers. It seems oxymornonic. And when I shake my head no, she eyes me sternly. Her brown eyes, her wet-soil eyes, bear down on me and I know I have to do it. It’s just fucking inhumane.

“Come in.” Blue sniffles.

It’s Fatma. “Zac, group’s starting.” She leaves.

Push one more blonde strand from her face. “I’ll see you after lunch, okay?”

A grimace. A sigh. An unsure smile. She turns away as I leave the room.

“Do you think you’ll be home for Memorial Day?” Jessica slides me a piece of cake. It was a nice surprise to see her sitting at the table with my brothers when I came in from my art therapy group.

“When is that?” Take a bite. Lemon. My grandma must have made this.

“Week after next.” Isaac looks around the room. “I thought we were going to meet this infamous Blue?” He stabs at his cake. “And how about you tell us what happened to your nose?”

“Yeah…about that.” I laugh, nervously. Like they need to think of Blue as any crazier than they already do. But I tell them the story anyway.

“Is she going to be okay?” Jessie’s face is awed and concerned at the same time, like a child confronted by an unfamiliar insect.

Shake my head. “Not really. She’s going to live in a home.”

In under 30 minutes we had managed to demolish lunch and were now being leered at by the other patients. Jessie was clearly nervous.

“Is there somewhere else we can go to talk?” Jessie begins to pack away the reusable containers and stacks the plates we had borrowed from the cafeteria. She pushes the plates toward Taylor, indicating that he should deal with them. “I feel like we’re being watched, or something.”

“Well,” Taylor laughs, “we are!”

After Taylor deals with the dishes, and Jessie checks our food bags at the desk, we go into the dayroom. Jessie flops onto the couch next to Isaac. Taylor sits in one chair and I take the other.

“So, Memorial Day?” Taylor crosses his legs in a way that has always looked somewhat unnatural to me.

“Is it really almost September?” The amount of time that has passed is overwhelming. This time last year, this was when everything had begun to go wrong. It’s been an entire year. It’s easy to say that life changes in an instant, and it does. But it’s another thing entirely to go looking for that instant. I don’t think I have an instant? Just a slow, gradual, ugly progression into darkness, sadness, into the Crazy. And somewhere, at some other undefined instant, I’ve begun to crawl back out again. There is life. I am living it. I am, in fact, alive.

“Mom wants it to be a big ‘Welcome Home’ party for you.” Taylor’s voice sounds like a warning. Meaning Mom’s going to make an insane deal out of me coming home and I should be prepared for it. “She’s planning on inviting all of her sisters. And sending Dad to Grandma’s. She says she has some,” open air quotes, “surprises,” closing air quotes, “planned if you’re able to make it home by Memorial Day.”

“But she refuses to tell anyone what it is!” Jessie’s face crumples up in irritation. “We haven’t been able to get anything out of Mac or Zoe—which means they obviously don’t know.”

Taylor looks amused. “Maybe she’s buying you a new car!”

“She’d be more likely to buy me a plane ticket!” Shake my head at his snark.

We talk for some time about the goings-on of my family. We share a lot of laughs and I can almost feel the excitement about me coming home that radiates from them. They’re honestly looking forward to it. A voice in the darker parts of my thoughts wants me to think that they’re only happy because it means not having to deal with the embarrassment of seeing me here. But it can’t be true. I know it’s not true.

Lunch hour is coming to a close. I only really know this because I can hear Shawn talking with Fatma about the day. She’s scheduled to see me shortly after lunch.

“How’s your nose?” Shawn looks into the room, making polite smiles at my siblings.

Give her a face that should say, “uh, isn’t it obvious?”

“At least it’s just bruised!” She shrugs. “Remember: Lin lost a tooth! Have you seen Blue? Did she have lunch with you?”

Shake my head. “I haven’t seen her since just before group this morning.”

“I’ll see you in a few minutes.” She nods again to my siblings and walks away.

A few minutes later, I see one of the maintenance guys shuffle quickly past the door, carrying a very large ring of keys in one hand and a tool box in the other.

Then a shrill shout from Mary Anne. “Stop playing around with the keys and open the damn door!”

I look at my siblings, like they have an answer for what’s going on.

“Shouldn’t you have them labeled?” Jack’s stern, urgent voice.

Nothing comes in reply.

Without saying anything, I stand and go into the hallway to see what’s happening. Apparently I’m not the first to do so.

“Everyone go into the cafeteria or into the dayroom!” Jack shouts.

Shawn spots me, wavering on the spot, trying to decide if I really want to listen to this command. “Go back to your brothers, Zac. Right. Now.”

For once I don’t even think to question her. Outside I hear sirens. They’re coming for her.

A loud bang. (Must be the door.) A loud scream. (Must be Mary Anne.) A shout for order. (Jack.)

When I leap from my chair, Taylor pushes me back down again. “She told you to stay in here with us.”

Mary Anne’s voice escalates into unintelligible screams. Paramedics run past the day room.

I feel blind, cut off from the ability to understand what is happening. Ideas swirl through my head and all of them revolve around a vision of Blue, eyes cloudy with death. My eyes won’t close. I want to stop seeing the world around me. I want to not think this. Not see this. But I can’t escape the vision of her face.

Moving quickly so Taylor won’t be able to stop me, I jump from my chair and run to the door. Run down the hall.

She’s on the floor in front of the shower room. Her eyes are closed. Her lips are purplish. They’re lifting her onto a gurney. They’re lifting her into a black bag. They’re doing nothing to save her.

Shove an unsuspecting paramedic to the ground. “Save her, you sonofabitch! Do CPR!”

Shawn grabs my arm, but she’s not strong enough to pull me away. They’re all just standing there watching. “Someone save her! Make her breathe! MAKE HER BREATHE!”

“They can’t, Zac.” Shawn’s shaking me, trying to force me to look at her. But I cannot look away from the horror in front of me. Blue is just that—blue with death and lividity. “She’s been under the water for almost an hour. She’s dead, Zac. And we can’t save her.”

Push Shawn to the ground so hard her head hits the wall. I shove the other paramedics out of the way.

I kneel beside her and grab her hand, praying to God that it would be warm. It’s as cold as the hospital floors.

Her nails are purple and silver with little flowers. Her face is the color of her name. And when they zip close that black bag, I’ll have lost the only girl I loved and didn’t try to save.

Chapter Text


Chapter 26: Sometimes Goodbye's The Only Way

The hours following Blue’s death—the discovery of her death, I guess would be a better way to put it—are now like a bad impressionist’s painting to me.  Blurry, unreal, uncertain, but mostly distant.  Like it happened centuries ago in a life that was not mine.

And this is what happened:

I sat next to Blue, on the floor that was only just colder than her.  (Had she drowned herself in cold water?)  Holding her hand like I could pray her into breathing.  I wanted to pull her eyes open, make her look at me one more time, but I was too afraid of the death I would find. 

I’m sure there was noise, lots of noise, but I couldn’t focus on any one sound, any particular voice.  I have no idea what anyone said to anyone else.  The worst of it was that, above all, I couldn’t hear Blue.  Even if all she had to say was a slurry of words that made no sense, no matter how you put them together, it would have been better than the non-sound she was making by lying there.

Jessie knelt down, next to Blue’s head and tried, gingerly at first, to pull my hand away from Blue.

“No.”  I growled at her, a real growl.  Like some other life in the lining of my chest was eking out to keep her from pulling me away.

Jessie wrapped her hands around ours, mine and Blue’s, and looked me in the eye.  She didn’t say anything.  She held our hands together for so long there was a warmth to Blue’s skin, but no color came back to it.

Jessie tried again, and that time I let her pull our hands apart.  She kept her hand on mine, keeping the hideous cold away.  So I didn’t feel the absence.  She stood up, nearly pulling me with her.

I tried not to hear the zipping of the bag.  I didn’t watch as they rolled her away.  All of my attention was focused on the heat of my sister’s hand.  The heat of the living.  The heat of life.  And suddenly, I was angry.  I wanted to scream and to break something, anything, absolutely everything.

I let go of Jessica’s hand and ran as though I could see no one in my path.  (There were people, they just moved really quickly.)  I ran to my room.  Picked up the painting, the one Blue had given me when they let her out of the hospital.

“Don’t!”  Jessica screamed at me as I was swinging the painting at my bed frame.  “You will regret that forever.”  Her face was white, pale but placid.  She had seen me this way before, but it still scared her.  “Please don’t?”

So I didn’t.  I threw it to the floor, with a less-than-satisfying smack and shoved past my sister, headed towards the door that leads outside.

I screamed.  I screamed until my throat burned and I was sure it would start to bleed soon.  I screamed at the sun, the trees, and the grass.  I screamed because I didn’t want to cry.  I screamed  because there was nothing I could say. 

I screamed because I’d nearly accomplished doing this same horrible thing to my family and I was finally filled with regret for having tried to die.

When the last scream came, I knelt to the grass, put my hands to it and laid down.  Then I cried. 

Jessie laid down beside me.  She didn’t talk.  She didn’t try to touch me.  She just laid there. 

“I want Mom.”  I told her, like I was five again, hiding from Walker with my brothers.

My eyes closed against the grass and when I opened them again, sensing the movement of my sister, I saw Shawn.  She didn’t lay down next to me, that’d have been far too intimate.  But she was sitting next to me.  Her eyes were red.  The kind of red that only comes from crying.

“I’m going to have to put you on suicide watch.”  Her voice was thicker than Oklahoma summer air.

“What?”  I sat up.  “I don’t want to die!”

I have no idea how to describe how ludicrous her statement had sounded.

We stared at each other for a few seconds, almost like we were trying to call the other’s bluff.

“Honestly, Shawn, I don’t want to die.  I don’t want to do this to my family.  This is worse, this hurts so much more.”  Stopped myself before I started to cry and took several breaths.  Breaths that reached my stomach and came back up again.  “This is the worst.”  I whispered to Shawn.

Her face cracked, really cracked open and revealed a person, a real person who was hurting with me.  “I’ve never lost a patient to suicide.  Cancer, heart attacks, murder.  Never suicide.”  She wouldn’t look at me.  Never suicide.”  Then she looked at me, the person was being covered up again by the professional, the doctor.  “I think it’s time for me to retire.”

We both laughed.

“I’m married to this job.  But I should take some time off.”

“You could tour with us?”  I laughed.  “Keep me in check.  Counsel Taylor on proper nutrition from time to time.”

For no good reason, this was very funny.  So we laughed, a minute too loud, a decibel too long.  But we laughed because it was better than crying.

“Tell me what you’re thinking?  How are you feeling right at this moment?”  She stood up and walked toward the back of the yard.

“I’m angry.”  I followed her, slowly, without looking back to see who was watching us.  “I’m really angry at myself.”

“You didn’t kill her, Zac.”

“That’s not it.”  I watched the grass passing under my feet, like a movie scene moving too fast.  “I’m angry because I should have seen it in the way she talked to me.”

“How so?”

“She would ask me questions about what I wanted, what I hoped to do when you finally let me out of this madhouse.  She wanted to know what I would eat, where I would go, what kind of soap would I use.  But when I asked her the same questions, she wouldn’t respond.  She was so evasive, like it wouldn’t matter what happened when she left because she wasn’t really going anywhere.

“And then, this morning, she cried like… The way someone cries when they think they’re dying.  I guess she was.  She knew she was just counting her breaths.  She kept telling me that I was the only thing she’d miss when she was gone. I—I thought she meant gone to the new place.  She told me she loved me, with my full name.

“I should have seen it.”

Shawn shook her head.  “Zac, it’s my job to see those kinds of things, and I had no idea.  The thing is, she had probably been planning it since she got back here.  She knew they were planning to send her to a new place and we all knew she didn’t want to go.

“What else are you feeling?”

“Hurt and regret.  Hurt that she could do that, that she could supposedly love me so much and do something so stupidly selfish.”  We had made it to the tree line and began to walk back.  “Hurt because I miss her already.  It’s like I can feel that her life is gone.”

“And the regret?”  Shawn was looking toward the door, where my siblings are sitting, watching us.

“I regret that I tried to do the same God-awful thing to my family.”

Shawn didn’t say anything else as we made it closer to the door.  My siblings followed us into the door, not saying anything.  Jessie patted my hand as we walked down the hall.

When we made it into the day room, my Mom was walking in, frantic-faced, with Zoe and Ezra in tow.  She must have been babysitting.

Seeing my mom, the white of her face as she looked at me, like she was afraid they’d tell her I was actually the one who died, seeing her that way was the second most painful moment of my day. 

She ran at me until her head landed in the middle of my chest.  My tiny mother seemed so much larger now that I knew what I had done to her.  Her life, and her strength became the size of Olympus right there in front of me.

“I’m sorry, Mom.”  I could smell the strawberry scent of her favorite shampoo.

She looked up at me, puzzled.  “For what?”

“I’m sorry I almost did this to you.”  Guilt choked me.  “I’m so sorry!”

“Oh, honey!”  She patted my cheek.  “Zac, it’s alright.  I don’t ever want to go through it again, but it’s alright.  You’re here, you’re still alive.  I’m sorry about your friend.  I know you loved her.”

Well, that was all I could stomach, the forgiveness of my mother, and the pity she felt for my loss.

“I want to go to sleep.”  I cried, again, like a five year old.  This is honestly the worst day of my life.  I didn’t think anything could be worse than Beth, leaving for New York, leaving so angry at me she threatened to never speak to me again.

They hugged me, my siblings, my nephew, and my mother.  My mother came back and hugged me a few more times before the filed out.

That was almost a half an hour ago.  I’m sitting on my bed, looking out my window and waiting for Shawn to come back.  She’s promised me a dose of Ativan. 

My mind is blank.  That’s so cliché, but it’s true.  I don’t have the energy to think or to feel.  So I’m watching the trees shudder under a wind that is gaining speed from a coming storm.  That’s so stupidly fitting.  The coming storm.  Heat had washed my face with humidity and sweat while Shawn and I were walking.  The sun was fat and yellow.  But now it’s given way to fat, gray storm clouds.  Maybe God is mourning her, too.

“There’s a dose of Ativan waiting for you,” Shawn’s leaning against my door frame, “at the nurse’s station whenever you’re ready.”  She looks diminished.  I think the height my mother gained was drained from Shawn.  “I’m not going to put you on suicide watch, per se.  No nakedness, anyway.  But you’ll have to leave your door open tonight and either Maria or Lin will be out here observing you.”

This does not concern me at all.

“Can I go to her room?  I left something there and I promised her I’d get it back.”

Shawn raises her eyebrow, looking like it took some effort.  “What’d you leave?”

“She gave me a kiss.  And then she took it back and threw it on the wall.  I promised I’d get it before they came to clean out her room.”  Shawn looks at me like I’m delusional.  “It’s just a thing.  Please?”

“Fine.”  She pushes away from the jamb.  “But you leave the door open when you go in there and I’ll be in the hall.”

She leads me down to the room.  She opens the door and steps back.

A perfume smell crawls over me when I get through the door.  It’s the subtle scent of her, smooth, clean, like the first burst of flowers in spring.  Her bed is made, with a fuzzy old afghan folded at the end of the bed and her pillows properly placed.  Beside the bed is a vase with yellow and pink roses, just beginning to wilt.  A drawer in the dresser is open, it’s full of her underwear and tank tops.  On top of the dresser is a bottle of nail polish.  Purple.  I look past it to the spot on the wall.  My eyes close against it, against knowing that someone will come in and clear all of this stuff away, take away the evidence that she had existed here, in this space.  She had indented it with her energy.  And they will wash it away.  Some new crazy person would come in and never know that Blue had ever lived.

“Zac?”  Shawn called from the hall way, sounding more impatient than concerned.

“Just a sec.” 

I climbed on top of the low dresser, careful not to disturb the open drawer out of some strange sense of respect to keep the last of her movements preserved.  I put my hand to the spot on the wall and hold it there, trying to remember, in finite detail, this kiss, before she took it back and threw it.  For only a second I can remember the feeling of her mouth against mine.  But then it’s gone again and I’ve only got the smell of flowers left to feel.

Before I leave, I grab the bottle of purple nail polish.  It’s comforting to have this one thing.  This physical thing.  Because all the rest of her his gone.  I shove it into my pocket before going back into the hall.

“I’m ready now,” I say, almost like a man walking down death row.

Shawn walks in front of me and we head toward the nurse’s station.

“I’m going home now.”  Shawn pushes wisps of her black hair behind her ear.  “I’ll call later and check on you.”

She walks away, past the desk without signing papers.  Without speaking to anyone else.

Lin gives me the pill, watches me swallow it and checks beneath my tongue.  It’s barely dinner time and I’m going to bed, hoping to sleep for so many hours all of this time will seem like a delusion and I’ll find out that it’s last year, that Beth is still in Oklahoma and I’ve never used a razorblade for anything other than shaving.

It’s real, though.  I know it is. I have the scars to prove it all.

Maria is sitting in a chair she must have drug down from the day room.  It’s plush with a footstool.  She’s scribbling on a clip board, her 15 minute checks on me throughout the night.

“Good night.”  She waves her hand to me.

I wave back, but I don’t say anything.  I go in and sit on the end of my bed.  It’s amazing how comforting this hospital bed has become.  Almost as good as my bed at home.  But I’m definitely tired of it and ready for my own home, even if it means leaving this place were Blue had been.

I have family and living and life to go home to now. 

Sunlight still crawls through my curtains as I begin to feel like a nebulous, fuzzy wad of flesh.  When I lay down on my pillow I hear the crunch of paper, and under the pillow I find a piece of paper, folded, with my full name scrawled across it.

 

Cupcake,

This is the only letter I’m writing.  I hope that you’ll understand what I did.  I’m sorry, really, I am.  But I couldn’t go to that place, with feel-good happy noodle-craft time.  I know it’s the best place for people like me, but I don’t want to live like that.  It’s not a real life.  And I don’t want to live like Alia, either.

 

I thought about doing this when I was out there with her, but then I remembered you.  I’m sure you’ll wonder why I stuck around then but not now.  You’ll be out in the world, maybe a little crazy, but never psychotic and eventually you’ll have a beautiful life and forget me.  Or maybe you’d visit me sometimes.  But it wouldn’t be the same.  It really wouldn’t be worth living that way.

You have been my favorite thing about my life, the only really great thing.  And I choose to believe that I’ll see you again and I won’t be crazy and we’ll be like stars. Blue and Yellow, me and you.  But I have to go for right now and I hope you’ll understand.

I love you, Cupcake.  Truly love you. 

 

She didn’t even sign her name.

 

***

Shawn’s dogs are running around the garden, stopping every once in a while to drink out of the fountain while she walks with me pointing out different kinds of plants and flowers.  There’s really nothing for either of us to say.

“Blue’s funeral is in three days.”  She passes her thumb over a white flower I can’t name.

“Isaac said they’d like to sing for the funeral, him, Taylor and Jessie, if her grandparents wouldn’t mind.”

“I’m sure they’ll have no problem with that.”  She crosses her arms across her chest.  She is very dressed down.  I’m pretty sure she doesn’t intend to see anyone else today.  She’s wearing a pair of khaki shorts and a frilly sort of top that looks like it was made of gauze and has those things called cap sleeves.  “What do they want to sing?”

“Probably ‘Amazing Grace,’ because it’s traditional.”  Shrug my shoulders.  “I’m not sure what else.”

“Have you thought anymore about what you want to do when you get out?”  She fans her face with her hand.  One of the dogs yaps at her a second later and she throws it a small bone from her pocket.

“I’ve decided to stay with Isaac.”  I scratch the dog’s ears absently.  “His girlfriend left him not too long ago and he’s the only one who won’t rush me into making any other decisions.  Maybe I will just hang out in Tulsa for a while.  We talked about starting our own record label.  Well, it’s become more than talk between Isaac and Taylor.  They’ve been talking with lawyers about how we can get out of our contracts—and about how to start the label.”

“How do you feel about that?”

“I think it’s great!  I’m ready for it.  I’m ready to make new music and to get away from the inept musical machine that has been eating our music for years now.  It’ll give us a chance to make music our way, do it on our terms.  It’d be nice to only have to answer to ourselves.”

“Wow!”  Shawn smiles brightly.  “You sound so… Positive.  I’m not sure I’m talking to the same person I talked to yesterday!”

“Maybe you’re not.”  I smile.  “She left me a note, Shawn.  She said that going to that place would be living, but not a life.  I miss her and it hurts that she’s gone. But she was right, that’s not a life.  I have a life, a real one, a big one.  I have a life worth living.  I think it would discredit her memory if I didn’t try to do my best to go on.”

Shawn is quiet.

“What happens now?”  I think I know what she’ll say, I just want to hear her say it.

“Well,”  she sighed, “I think you’ll go home.  I want you to stay in the hospital until Blue’s funeral, but you’ll definitely be home before labor day.”

I want to shout, “excellent!” but I’m pretty sure that would be the wrong thing to say.

“What are you going to do?  Now that you won’t have me and Blue?”

“I’m taking a vacation, actually.”  Shawn smiles and looks honestly happy, and a little relieved.  “My patients have been divided up amongst other colleagues and I’m going to be gone for about six weeks.  In fact, your first follow-up appointment will be with Dr. Diaz.  She’s one of my closest friends, actually, so I think you’ll be most comfortable with her.”

“Where are you going?”  I’m kind of sad to hear that.  My life without Shawn will be really strange.

“Well, I’m going to go visit my family.  They live on the Pima reservation in Arizona.”  She smiles, the peace-of-going-home smile.  “Then my husband and I are going to Mississippi to visit his family—he’s Choctaw.  After that, we don’t have a definite plan.”  She lets out a small, self-conscious laugh.  “I really want to go to Disney World.  I’ve never been and neither has Masheli.  I think it’d be fun!”

“It’s pretty awesome!”  This is the most personal I’ve ever seen Shawn be. I want to hear more about her life, but I know that I can’t ask or she’ll stop talking about it.

“I think we may move, after a while.”  Now she looks a little forlorn.  “It’s not easy to move your practice, but I’ve spent a long time in Oklahoma and I need new air.”

“How old are you?”  I decide to take the chance and ask her about herself.  Let’s face it, my relationship with Shawn is so far outside the typical shrink-patient relationship, I can probably get away with it.

“I’m 38.”  She blushes when my jaw drops.  “Everyone thinks I’m older than I am.”

“I didn’t…” Hmm, foot-in-mouth.  Tasty.  “It’s not that you look old.”

“It’s okay.  I have an old face, too many worry lines.”

I pull my foot from my mouth and change the subject.  “Do you have any kids?”

One of the dogs runs past her, yipping insanely at a bird.

Her face drops.  “No.  We didn’t have time for kids.  Masheli’s a cardiologist and you’ve seen what my life is like.  We thought it’d be really unfair to try to bring kids into our lives, too.”  She laughs through her nose.  “We feel guilty about the dogs as it is!”

“It’s not too late?”  I don’t know why I said it.  She looks like she needed someone to tell her.

She shrugs.  “Maybe.”

I nod to say that I know exactly how she feels, but I don’t say it.

She checks her watch and flashes the face at me, but not long enough for me to register the time.

“We need to head back to the hospital.”  Her friendly, open face has gone back to placid and professional. 

“You’re going like that?”  I gesture toward her shorts and sandals.

“I don’t plan on staying.”  The way she says this sounds like she should have followed it by saying.  “You have to go to group.”

Grumble.  “Really?”

“Go through the motions, Zac.”  She pats my shoulder.  “It’s almost over.”

We drive back in Shawn’s BMW, listening to some folk artist she’s fond of.  We don’t really talk about anything—except to laugh at Shawn’s bad singing.  She sang along with such passion, though, that it wasn’t so bad to listen to.  Unlike listening to Beth sing, which is always awful.

Shawn signs me back in and leaves without talking to anyone.  The hospital, its staff and patients, have been quiet, still, and in shock.  I’m pretty sure group will be all about how everyone is managing Blue’s suicide, the way they were all affected, though she didn’t really talk to anyone but me.  Whatever.  It’s all hoop jumping.  In a few days I’ll be home.

I sat through the next hour of group, not listening to anyone.  Fatma asked me to contribute a few times, but she finally gave up and let me watch myself in the window.  I thought for a while about the day I first noticed Blue talking to herself, playing with her frizzy, blond hair looking enchanted by her own reflection.

After that it was time for art.  We shuffle our feet, those of us who have art therapy, towards the room.  They file in and I stand outside the door, looking in as though I can see her painting in thick, goopy swatches of blue and yellow, swirling them to make the thing heavy with green.  She painted us in abstract swirls, fuzzy, heavy lines and paint that would dry in crunchy waves.  She mixed us together in this room.

“I don’t want to art today,” I tell Fatma, backing away from the room.

“Would it be better if I went in with you?”  She places her hand, softly, on my shoulder.  “I can stand with you while you work?”

Shake my head.  “I don’t want to go in there.”  The desperation in my voice frightens me.  “Will you sit with me in the day room while I draw?”

“Yeah.  Sure!”

Fatma tells the art therapist that she’ll be back at the end of the hour and leads me into the TV room.  She goes to the nurses desk and gets my drawing pad.

“Do you mind if I watch TV while you draw?”

I shake my head at her and she flips to a forensics-crime show.

I flip open my drawing book, to a blank page, and watch it the way Fatma’s watching the television.  A little absent-mindedly I sketch Fatma’s tea-colored face.  Her chin in long, pointed, elegant looking. Her pupils are only slightly indistinguishable from her irises, with flecks of dark gold making them noticeable.  Her mouth rounds up, like she had been made to always smile, look pleasant. Down her back is pitch-colored hair, with a slight wave to it.  She’s a beautiful subject.

“Hi.”  A familiar voice comes from the nurse’s desk, but I don’t look up.

I don’t want Fatma to look away either, her face is getting just the right light for me to continue drawing.

“I’m here to see Zac Hanson?”  The familiar voice crawls over to me, the crawls me over, into my skin.  The voice, the person it belongs to, is so unexpected that I’m not ready to look up and face her.  After all the worry of what this moment could possibly feel like, look like, and now I don’t want to look it in the eye.

I sit very still.  But Fatma doesn’t.

“He’s in here!”  She shouts to the desk and I want to run like a threatened cockroach, scampering into the nearest dark hole and watch for safety to return.

She turns away from the desk, meeting my eyes immediately, like she could have seen me from under her tangled mass of curls.  My fears of her changing into someone else, for the time being at least, seem to be unfounded.  There she stands, in a knee-length skirt, with  black and white, dimensionless flowers, and a black tank over a white one.  Her dark hair is tied to the top of her head, and her hazel eyes are more green today than the other colors. 

No tattoos, no dreads.  No obvious statements of Chanel.  Not even a large diamond ring.  She looks like she never left.

What am I supposed to say?

“Hi, Zaccy.”  She gives me a timid smile.

Fatma turns off the TV.  “I’m going to go check on the group,” she says, looking at my face, even though I’m not looking at her.  “I’ll be back in a bit.” 

When Fatma walks out, I finally look Beth in the eyes.  “Hi.”

“Can I sit with you?”  Beth motions to the chair Fatma just vacated.

I nod, looking down at my drawing of Fatma, then to the blank television screen.

She takes the drawing pad from my hand.  “Can I see?”

“No.”  I take it back, thinking of the letter I had written to her.

She chews the inside corner of her lip.  “Should I go?

“No.”

“It’s just. . .”  She blinks several times.  “Nick told me about your friend and I didn’t—I couldn’t not come see you.  I kept feeling like…”  She pulls my hand away from the drawing pad, on which I have a rather tight hold.  “Like I abandoned you.”

“You didn’t abandon me.”

We’re looking at each other now, faces familiar, like we’ve forgotten each other’s names.  Forgotten that we had lives together.  She breaks the stare, looking down at her hand laying over mine, twisting her fingers through mine over and over.

She pulls her hand away and leans back in the chair.  “Who was she?”  

“Her name was Blue.”  Hesitancy fills me.  I’m not ready to talk about Blue with Beth.  I don’t really know what I’m ready to talk about with Beth.  “She was schizophrenic and I loved her.  How’s New York?”

“Don’t change the subject, Zac.”  She stands up and walks over to the empty space on the couch, crossing her legs with her feet tucked under her knees.  “Tell me about her?”

I look at her, right into her, and see that she wants to know about Blue for the same reason I want to know about New York: we don’t want to talk about us.  Her eyes falter.  They blink rapidly.

“Can’t we settle this like men?”  She laughs.  “You know, shake on it, forgive and forget?  Kinda pretend that it didn’t happen?  You and Nick did.”

I just stare at her, waiting for her to stop tripping over herself.

“I’m sorry.”   She mumbles, looking right at me.  “Have you tried looking at it from my point of view?”

“Yes.”

“And?”

“I’m not saying it would have been easy, or that I would have jumped to tell you.  But I would have told you.  I deserved to know.”

“I know.”  Her shoulders slip, letting her head fall forward, and with a deep breath, she rises up again.  “Just—just listen.  I love you so much.  And I’m not stupid, Zac, I know you love me.  But after what happened with Abby…”

My breath catches.

“I’m sorry.”  The rims of her eyes turn red, and her irises are transitioning from green to blue.  “I am so, so sorry.  I couldn’t—I didn’t see you the same way anymore.”

“When did Taylor find out?”  I didn’t want her to say anything else about the mistake I’d made with that girl.

“The night before we left for New Orleans,” she sighs, pushing stray hairs back behind ears, looking away from me.  Like she can see the scene in the wall behind me.  “Just before Nick and I met you out in the snow.  He walked into the kitchen for something right as I was giving Nick as kiss.  He asked us if you knew.  Nick promised him we’d tell you.  I think he meant to tell you when we found you outside, but then your mom came out and you started talking about New Orleans and Nick started talking about food.  And I just couldn’t.”

She looks at me, putting her fingertips to my stomach that has filled out since she last saw me.  “You were so skinny.  I was scared.”

“Of what?”  Move her hand away from my stomach, pushing it back into her own lap.

“That you’d never forgive me.”  Her shoulders twitch and she shakes her head back and forth.  It’s her tactic to keep herself from crying.  “Does it mean anything if I tell you that I’m sorry?”

I nod, though I don’t know exact what it means if she apologizes to me, other than she’s regretful.  What it means for me?  I don’t know.

“I do love you.”   She blinks.  “I do.  And I’m so sorry.  Sorry for everything, Zac.  Sorry I wasn’t there.  Sorry about your friend.  Sorry—”

“Stop, Beth!”  I can’t listen to her talk about Blue in the same breaths she’s taking to apologize for her secrets.  “It’s okay.  I love you.  And I forgive you.”

“I forgive you, too.”  Her fingers slide over my hand and then lace through my fingers.  “Zac?  I have another confession.”

Oh God.  What now?

She notices the stricken look on my face.  “It’s nothing bad!”  She laughs a little.  “I was supposed to be your Welcome Home Memorial Day surprise.  But, well, I had to come see you before then.”

“Oh.”  Breath goes from me.  “I’m okay with the spoiled surprise.”

She puts her hand to the side of my face.  Her perfume moves over me like an old blanket I’ve clung to for security, the way a baby needs its mother’s scent to feel safe.  Her palm is cool and smooth and sensual against my skin and I want to crawl inside her and never leave again.

“I missed you.”  The whisper left me unwillingly, not that it wasn’t the truth.

She presses her thumb very lightly into my cheek.  “I missed you, too.  It’s like I left a limb behind and I couldn’t move the right way.”

“Does it…”  A stabbing pain strikes me in the breast bone.  Just below it, actually.  “Does it really…”  Sigh, sharp intake, exhale.  “Does it have to be Nick?”

Now she moves her hand over my face.  Places the second on the other cheek and looks me in the eye with a fierce pain, like she doesn’t want to have to answer the question.  On my mouth she puts a small, feather-weight kiss that means nothing more than absolute friendship.

She pulls away.

“Yeah.  It has to be Nick.”  Her nose scrunches and she can’t stop herself from crying.  “I love him.  Really, really love him, Zac.  Please promise me, please, please, promise me that you won’t stop loving me because of it.  Because I can’t go back to living my life with my heart missing.  And you are my heart.  You are.  Where would I be without my Zaccy?  You kept me together.  When I dropped the pieces of me, you held onto them so I wasn’t totally lost.  Please, Zac, please still love me?”

“There can’t be a time when I won’t love you.”  I pull her toward me to shut her up.

From the desk I hear a shuffling.  It’s Fatma, checking on us.  She nods her head at me and then leaves again.

When she pulls away, she puts another feather kiss to my mouth.  And then does it again.

“I don’t deserve to have you in my life.”  Her fingers sweep across her face, catching her tears.  “You deserve more than—”

“Shut up, Beth!  Stop doing that.  I hate it when you do that!”

She nods, but cries a couple more tears.

“My aunt sent me a couple pictures of Andy.”  She grabs her phone from her pocket.  “Wanna see?”

“Yes.”

He’s got dark, thick hair that is somehow curlier than Beth’s.  His eyes have her color, but not her shape.  Andrew is a beautiful baby.  I wish he could have stayed.

After she flipped through all of the pictures of Andy she moved on to a few of the pictures she’d taken in New York.  They weren’t particularly great pictures, but I looked at them to keep her there.  To keep her from talking about how sorry she is.  How sorry we both are.

Eventually, Fatma returns.

“Zac?”  Fatma sounds strangely timid.  “You’ve got skills group and I can’t excuse you from that one.”

“Okay.  I’ll be there in just a minute.” 

Fatma walks away.

“C’mon.”  I stand and take Beth’s hand, pulling her up from the couch.  “I’ll walk you to the front desk.”

When we get there, she hugs me and I can smell—no, feel her perfume again.  And I hope it’ll stay on my shirt for just an hour, or two, after she leaves.

“I’ll see you in a few days, okay?”  Beth chews the corner of her lip.  “I love you so much.  I don’t think you’ll ever really know.”

“It’s mutual.”  Kiss her cheek.  “I’ll see you soon.”

I stay at the desk long enough to watch her car pull away from the parking lot, wondering if the dust kicking up from her tires has the same smell as her wrists.

Chapter Text

My brothers and Jessica are in front of a half-filled church singing an original arrangement of the twenty-third psalm.  Blue’s grandparents had given an okay for them to sing whatever they’d like for her memorial.  Jessica offered to take my place and I let her. 

In the middle of the church is my mom, Nick, and Beth.  Here for moral support.  I assume that most of the rest of the church is filled by people who didn’t actually know Blue.  They knew her grandparents enough to come and pay their respects.   

I am grateful they had her cremated.  So instead of her dead body, made up to look like she is still alive, her ashes stand in a ceramic jar next to an old picture of her as a smiling kid.  The jar should be blue, but it’s not.  It’s only a derivative—it’s purple, swirled with white and green.  At least I’ll never have to see her truly dead.  The last I saw of her was in the early coolness of death, and I could still pretend that there was a chance she’d breathe again.  That warmth would crawl over her, leading the oxygen back in.

A preacher stands before  us to speak.  He talks for about fifteen minutes, most of which I stare out the windows at the trees surrounding the church.  Only turning to look at him when he cautiously says her name, like he’s afraid he’s at a joke-funeral and the girl in the picture is going to pop out of a birthday cake.  I wish that were really the case.

The preacher closes with a prayer and my siblings get up to sing a song I don’t recognize, but it’s melancholy and haunting.  I refuse to let myself cry.

The services end quietly.  At the close, I get up from my seat of would-be honor at the front to go see my mom.  She wraps around me like a blanket.

“How are you?”  She smiles, telling me it’s okay to answer honestly.

“Tired.  Ready for this to be over.”

Beth leans over to kiss my cheek, but I pull away.  It’s weird with Nick watching.

Nick shakes my hand, pretending not to have noticed my pull away from Beth, and pulls me into a hug.  Very dudely. 

When I pull away from Nick, I can see Shawn looking back at me.  She’s at the front of the church with the Drs. Inez, shaking hands with strangers, receiving their condolences.  She nods professionally toward me, as though she’s pretending that our relationship is more of two acquaintances, not doctor and patient—a doctor and a patient who have become friends.

Jessica leads the way as Taylor and Isaac follow her to us.

“Do you have to go back to the hospital?”  She puts her hands to her stomach.  “I’m starving.”

“Yeah.”  I put my hands to my no-longer concave stomach, that is empty all the same.  “I’m ready for a day that does not consist of two or more hospital meals.”  Turn to my mom.  “I want brownies for Memorial Day.  And macaroni and cheese and fried chicken.  And I want deviled eggs and potato salad.”

Isaac laughs.  “Stop, or we’ll flood the church in drool!"

“And I want Kool-Aid…”  I add, just because I really want it.

Attendees begin to leave the church.  There will be no interment, so I have no idea where they will all go.  Probably back to their lives, truly unaffected by Blue’s death.  Mourning more the loss of their colleagues than their colleagues’ dead granddaughter.

The church is mostly empty now, only her grandparents, Shawn and us remain.  Finally Shawn’s face shows her recognition of each of us, except Beth.  Though I’m pretty sure it isn’t hard for her to figure out who the stranger cuddled into Nick’s shoulder must be.

Mary Anne approaches me.  “This will sound morbid, but I wanted to ask them to cremate her heart separately so that I could give it to you.  But the place doesn’t allow for that.  So, maybe there are pieces of her heart in here.”

She pulls a transparent blue glass bottle, very small, like something Alice would have drank from in Wonderland.  There’s something in it and the top is covered in wax.  She pushes it toward me, pressing it into my hand.  I lift it to my eyes and realize she’s handed me a small bottle of Blue’s ashes.

How am I supposed to respond to this?

“Thank.  You?”  Can’t take my eyes off the bottle, knowing that the little bits inside are little bits of her.  Final, grave, ashen proof that she’s gone.  What’s in here?  Her femur?  A pinky?  Her eyes or her lungs?  Could part of her heart actually be in here? 

“It’s the only thing we can really give you,”  Mary Anne  looks at me quizzically.  “We’re going to take the rest of her ashes to Paris and leave some near the Eiffel Tower.  It was the only place she was ever able to visit outside the country.  The rest we’ll leave in the Atlantic Ocean.”

“Isn’t that illegal?”  Beth asks, like she had just stumbled out of a reverie.

Mary Anne cuts her eyes in Beth’s direction.  “It’s what she wanted.”

Jack Inez reaches out for my hand.  “Thank you for everything.” 

He shakes my hand, then my brothers’, my sister’s, my mother’s.

Mary Anne pulls me into a quick hug, patting my shoulder blades and then lets me go.

They leave the church, carrying the ceramic jar, quietly and unceremoniously.

“Zac,” Shawn pats my shoulder, “I’ve got to take you back to the hospital.  Masheli has a dinner tonight that I have to attend.”

I want to ask if her cardiologist husband can put Blue’s heart back together, if in his geniusness he is able to defy physics and chemistry and God, and take a girl’s ashes and make her a whole, living being once more.  But we’re beyond that now.  That part of fantasy, once possible in me, is gone. 

“How many days until I can go home?”  This time I know I can reasonably expect a definitive answer.

“You can go home on Friday.”  Shawn rubs my arm.  “It’s the day before I leave town.  You’ll have time to get your things in order, gather up your stuff that’s scattered around the hospital—”

“Like all of my art?”  I chuckle.

It was an odd moment to laugh, but we did.  My family, never having seen my artwork, just looked curiously around at each other.

A few minutes later Shawn and I are in her car, with the air conditioning on high, almost as loud as the radio playing that folk singer of hers again.  She doesn’t really say anything to me until we get closer to the hospital.

“You know,” she reaches over to turn down the radio, “your painting isn’t really that bad these days.  You have gotten a lot better.  Maybe if you work on it more, when you leave, you’ll get better.  Maybe have something worth selling one day?”

“I’ll keep that in mind!”  Though I have no intention to do so.

She leaves me at the front door.  It’s a curious feeling to be trusted again.  She knows that I’ll walk into the front doors like I’m supposed to, walk down the halls and comply with whatever is asked of me from here. 

 

My last week is uneventful. I go to group and participate. I go to the cafeteria and eat.  And, on the next to last morning, I go to the art room, standing outside the door for a long time, and finally enter.  I’m alone in the room, for a moment, which is nice.

Fatma enters.  “I can’t leave you in here by yourself, but I can sit with you if you’d like to paint?”

“That’d be nice.”  I nod.  “Thanks.”

She unlocks the paint cabinet and I begin grabbing colors at random, figuring I’ll decide what to do with them once I’ve started.  Fatma takes a seat across the room from the easel, takes a small notebook from her pocket and begins scribbling.

“Taking notes on my artistic genius?” I grab a paint plate and set my supplies on the small table next to the easel and go to the canvas rack.

“Making notes, yes.”  She gives me a rare smile.  “About your, uh, genius, no.  I’m getting married next year.”

“Congratulations.”

“Thanks.”

She looks back down at the notebook. 

I pick a small canvas, about foot across, and go back to the easel to start painting.

As Fatma makes wedding notes, I try to paint notes, comments, about the last year of my life.  I paint with red and orange and green.  Mostly, I make a lot of angry strikes with the brush.  A lot of red slashes. And I wonder if I’ve picked a large enough canvas.  Is there a canvas large enough at all? Would there ever be a way to say that I’m sorry, but I don’t regret.  That I loved and lost.  That I died.  And was dead for a long time.  And that somewhere along the way, I set fire to myself and have been reborn from the proverbial ashes.  That I could speak every language known and still not know enough words to speak of the life I’ve lived so far?

As I’m thinking, the swatches of color become softer, more forgiving.  After some time passes I notice that of all the variants of color I pulled from the cabinet, not one of them is blue.  Not one is the same hazel-green of Beth’s eyes.  I put my brush down.

“Hey, Fatma?”

She doesn’t look up from her notebook.  “Hmm?”

“I was a real asshole to you when I first got here and I’m sorry.”

She shrugs, still not looking away.  “You’re not the first, or the worst.”

We don’t say anything else for the next hour as I fill up two more canvases, finally withdrawing shades of blue from the cabinet.  With it I paint stars, some sharp and jagged, some that look as though I made them with feathers.  In the middle, a green star.  And to the side, near the bottom right corner a hazel-green star, completing the constellation.

“It’s time for lunch.”  Fatma’s closing the cover of her notebook and stuffing it back into her pocket. 

We walk side by side into the cafeteria.  Fatma follows me into the line, holding a tray out to me and taking one for herself.  We both pick up plates of broccoli and some over-baked chicken.  When we get to the end of the line, I get an eye of dessert: cupcakes.

I look back at Fatma.  She’d heard Blue call me that numerous times.

“Wanna skip lunch?”  She says.

I put my tray down and walk away.

“I’m going outside.”  I say this to the floor.  I don’t look up for her approval.  I just go.

In the back of the yard, under the shade of the trees and the heat, I fall asleep.

 

“Hey!”  Fatma’s voice is very loud.  “Get up.  You’re sunburned and Shawn’s here to see you.”

My eyes are bleary and I can’t quite focus on Fatma.  My face hurts.  She must have been serious about the sunburn.  As I turn onto my side, I feel the grass brush my skin and it hurts.  What a fitting end to my time here.

“Is there some aloe vera in a first aid kit?”

Fatma shrugs, “I’ll look before I clock out.  It was nice knowing you, by the way.  I’m off tomorrow.  I won’t see you before you leave.”

“Oh.”  I feel strangely crestfallen. I tried my hardest to make this girl’s work life as miserable as possible for months.  Now I feel as though I’ll actually miss her.  “Nice to know you, too.  Good luck with your wedding.”

“Thanks.”  She looks ahead of her.  “Shawn’s in the office.”

Fatma continues down the hall toward the nurses’ station as I round the corner into the office.

“Hi,”  is what I offer.  This is the first time I’ve seen her since Blue’s funeral.

“I know I should have come by sooner.”  She pulls the chair closer to her desk.  “Psychiatrists get the blues, too.”

“I’m not mad.” 

“Thanks.”

We’re quiet for a minute.  I don’t know what to say and I don’t think she does either.  I can’t imagine I’d know what to say if I were her.

“I loved her, Zac.”  Shawn chews her lip as though she’s reconsidering this confidence.  “I’ve known her since she was a little girl.  Before the schizophrenia.  When she was just this little girl, in dresses with Barbie dolls.  She was a funny kid.  She made us laugh all the time.  God, we thought she was going to be completely out of the dark, you know, that she wasn’t going to wind up like Alia.”

Shawn turns her chair toward the wall and back again.

“I was babysitting her the first time she made a nonsensical sentence.  I don’t remember what it was now, but I told myself at the time that she was just being a kid and playing around.  She was eight.  The spiral downward came quickly after that.  Her affect was skewed.  She stopped playing with her friends.  She was failing in school.

“Lin may have lost a tooth to one of Blue’s outbursts, but the last straw before we had to admit that something was wrong was the day she beat up a girl in her class.  She hit her with a flashlight so hard it knocked the girl’s eye out.”

“Oh my God!”  I’m picturing a third grader with her eye hanging out of her face.

“Yeah.  When the teacher asked her why she’d done it, Blue told her that Victor said the little girl had stolen Blue’s favorite doll.  Blue had left the doll at my house.  And she had never, in her life, met anyone named Victor.”

Shawn looks transparent.  Not in a way that I could see her bones or her organs.  But that I can see her sadness, the ways in which she feels she’s failed.  She shivers slightly.

“I really had no more right to be her primary therapist than her grandparents did.”  She shrugs.  “But I couldn’t let someone else do it.”

“Will you ever really forgive her?”

“I will one day.”  She fidgets more in her chair.  “I’ll see you in the morning.  Okay?”

“Okay.” 

Shawn’s back is to me as I leave the office for the last time.  I feel like there’s something I should say to her.  But of all the words and phrases I can think of, none of them will do any favors to either of us.  I walk away, our backs to each other, looking forward to new lives beyond this place.

Fatma never came with the aloe vera.

 

After dinner, I’m told a visitor has arrived.  It’s Taylor.

“Want some help packing?”  He has gained a few pounds, I notice while he stands in the doorway. 

“Sure.”

He goes immediately to the closet.  He takes out a shirt, folds it the way our mom taught us and reaches for another.  He keeps at that while I pull clothes from the drawers of the dresser.  Pull out a bottle of shampoo, conditioner, hair gel.  I dig my cologne out.

From the back of the closet Taylor pulls out the painting that she left me.  The one Jessie stopped me from shattering.  Taylor doesn’t look me in the eye as he leans it against the wall.  He kneels to the floor to begin pulling my shoes out of the closet.

A minute or two later, while pulling boxers from the last drawer, I find the bottle of nail polish I had taken from her room.  I sit on the floor, holding onto the bottle, grasping it, hanging onto to it for dear life.

Taylor takes a seat next to me.  He pounds lightly on my kneecap with a fist. 

When I press the bottle to my forehead it’s cool.  Still warmer than her dead hands. 

“It’ll pass.”  Taylor says.  In some time past, I would have shouted at him.  Screamed that he couldn’t know that.  That he doesn’t understand.  But I know now.  I know he watched me fade in and out, in and out, finally out, and then, slowly fading in until I became solid again.  He knew that it was awful.  But that it would pass.  Then it did.  And I guess this will, too.

We stand up and return to the work of putting things in bags.  We don’t talk.  Silence has always been our friend.  She has always encapsulated us, wrapping us around like a heavy, wet coat.  But, our relationship with silence has changed.  Now she hangs about, a warm blanket between friends.  And time I am thankful that nothing has to be said between my brother and I.  We finally understand one another.

 

Breakfast is being served in the cafeteria.  It smells like pancakes.  The light has taken up in the windows surrounding the day room.  Lin, prepared to leave for the day, is handing my drawing pad to me.

She pats me on the shoulder, “Good luck!”

“Thanks.”  I walk back to my room, which will soon be given to some other guy, maybe some other girl, who can’t clean up their lives. 

Someone’s down the hall in her room, but I haven’t met them. Nor will I make time today to do so.  The polish is packed in the back with my shampoo.  Mom took home her ashes the day of the funeral.  The painting will be stored away until I can look at it and not feel my breath taken away by it.

Heels click heavy and quickly down the hall towards the desk.

“Good morning, Lin.”   Shawn reaches her hand out for my file without looking at me.

“Good morning, Dr. Curtis.”  Lin hands her the file. 

Shawn busies herself with signatures.  Scribbling quickly.  She tears away a carbon copy and hands it to me.  “These are your discharge instructions.”  A half-smile, bittersweet.  “You’re not off the hook.  You have follow up in two weeks.  I’ll know if you don’t.”  Finally she smiles.  “Who’s coming to get you?”

“Taylor, I think?”  Shrug.  “Maybe Isaac?  I’m not really very sure.”

She reaches a hand out toward me, “I’d wait with you if I could, but I have a busy day ahead.”

I take her hand.  And I pull her toward me and hug her.  She hugs me back.  Tightly. 

“Thanks,”  I say into her ear.

She pulls away, nodding her head at me.  She turns and walks away from me, toward the door.  Passing her in the hall are my brothers. 

They don’t ask me if I’m ready to go.  They just go immediately to my room.  Isaac carries the painting.  Taylor and I carry everything else.  I don’t say goodbye to anyone.  We simply make our way out the same way Shawn did.

“Mom’s making dinner tonight.”  Isaac says brightly.  “She mentioned mashed potatoes.”

“And meat loaf!”  Taylor says over his shoulder.

“Did she say anything about brownies?”  I hope, walking out the front door.

Chapter Text

Dearest Readers,

Since finishing the story, I felt like I left some loose ends, but I don't have it in me to write the things, in story form, that I left undone. When I wrote the end of chapter 27, I let out a big breath of relief, the kind you breathe when you've finished something and you know for sure it's done. I feel satisfied with the ending, but there were things I had intended to do at the end that I want to share with you.

When I started LUTG in 2003, I already had the epilogue in mind. The epilogue would open 5 years after Zac leaves the hospital, in September, at Memorial Day. The Hanson family would be gathered at the family home, reunited with Walker who has made amends with his family, though the relationship between himself and his oldest children will never be okay, they can at least be in a room together without fighting.

A knock at the door goes unnoticed at first until someone goes into the house after being in the backyard. (Who? I don't know. I thought maybe Kate, sweetly. Or Natalie, nastily. Or maybe one of the kids, wide eyed and mystified.) The door is answered and someone unrecognizable to the answerer is there, asking to see Zac. When the answerer questions who she is and what she wants, the girl at the door would hand her/him a letter. Zac goes to the door and discovers the unrecognizable girl is Delancy. She's cleaned up. A lot. She asks him to walk to the car with her.

When Zac approaches the car, he sees a little girl in the backseat. She has Down's Syndrome. And as he leans in the window to say hello, Delancy tells him the little girl's name is Elizabeth. And that she is Zac's daughter.

They take Elizabeth out of the car and Delancy tells him her story: Delancy got home after their foray in New Orleans. She continued drinking and doing whatever manner of drugs she could get her hands on, including heroin and meth. She couldn't handle what she'd learned. She couldn't handle being separated from Zac again. Her period was missing. She took a test. She was pregnant. But she continued doing drugs, partying, in a disillusioned hope that the baby would go away. As soon as Elizabeth was born she was handed over to Delancy's parents, and they became her legal guardian. For the next two years Delancy continued her benders.

Then, Delancy's mom died. (Heart attack or stroke. Something very sudden.) Delancy wasn't allowed to go to her mother's funeral because her father didn't want Elizabeth to see her as a mess. Delancy went into treatment thereafter. She got clean. She went to school. (For what, I had never really decided.) Eventually, she got her daughter back. During a school function, Elizabeth asked why she didn't have a daddy. So Delancy decided to take her to meet her father.

The first question Zac can think to ask is why Delancy named the girl Elizabeth, Delancy says, "Because you loved her better than anything. I was so fucked up back then, but I remembered how much you loved that girl. I wanted you to meet her, our kid, and love her as much as you loved that girl."

Delancy asks when Zac and Beth got married, after noticing the ring. He tells her that Beth is living in England, dancing in a troupe there and that they never married. That she and Nick were engaged at one point, but Nick couldn't deal with the life of a ballerina, constantly traveling. Nick isn't married, but back together with Grace. Beth loves being a ballerina, but isn't seeing anyone. Zac eventually tells Delancy that he's married to a girl named Kate, that they have a kid, and asks if she and Elizabeth would like to meet them, because he wants them to meet Elizabeth.

The story was to close with Zac introducing Elizabeth to his family.

 

Early in the writing of this story, I had intended a companion fic that would have chronicled Taylor as an anorexic. That story will probably never happen. I feel as though, for as much as writing this story has done for me (more than I can explain) and for others who have written me amazing messages about this story, I have to focus on works that I can publish.

No words can ever say how much I appreciate all of you who have read this story, who stuck with it even though it took me 8 years to complete. You gave me space as a writer to flex my wings, to try things I was unsure of, to be over dramatic, to write out of myself things that have haunted my own life. Thank you for your messages of support, for your messages about how you feel about the story. Thank you, a million infinities of gratitude to all of you!

Love Always,
Nichole