“My cat was spying on me,” Sara says. She sits on my bed, chin resting on her knees and skinny arms wrapped around her legs. “Before I realized that, I talked to myself all the time. They thought it was an easy way to stay one step ahead of me.”
I lie spread-eagled on the floor, watching her watch me. Her too-big hazel eyes peer out of a bony freckled face framed by choppy mousy hair. I nod.
“It was completely unfair,” she continues. “How was I supposed to fight back or even stay afloat if they were cheating like that? They set me up to fail, is what they did. If I told anyone their plans I’d come across as crazy. But the terms were I only have until I’m twenty-five so I knew I had to do something.”
Sara had done something, alright. She’d set her house on fire, with the cat inside. The firefighters apparently had found her dancing nonchalantly on the lawn, bare naked. Her cat was also found, unharmed.
“I have a plan, Tim,” she tells me. Sara is my best friend, here at Kirkbride. I don’t know why she latched on to me; there were plenty of other people who were more interesting, more attractive, more or less insane. But for whatever reason, here we are in my room, discussing her cat again. And now her plan too.
“It’s simple, really. I have until I’m twenty-five to find my purpose. But I can’t do it from in here. So we need out.”
I frown at her. While Kirkbride has lax security, it isn’t nonexistent, especially for someone like Sara. For someone like me.
“What I’m going to do is bribe a nurse for day passes.” She bites her lip and tucks her short hair behind her ear. It immediately falls into her face again. “It’s a big step, what I need to do for those passes.”
My frown deepens. If Sara had been willing to burn down her house, then what did she consider a big step?
She shakes her head, reading my expression, my concern. “I gotta do what I gotta do, Tim. I’m running out of time.” Her eyes widen slightly, and she takes several deep breaths. “So I need to know, right now, are you in or are you out?”
I sit up from the floor, reach over, squeeze her hand. She smiles at me but it doesn’t reach her eyes. I realize that she’s terrified.
“I’m gonna try to get passes for next Saturday. There’ll be lots of family here visiting and therefore more confusion, so we should be able to slip out. I’ll keep you posted, okay?” I nod. She leans over, kisses my cheek, and skips out of the room.
I don’t see Sara much for the rest of the week. Busy getting her plans ready, probably, and God only knows what that might entail. The doctors all love her because she can be friendly and outgoing, funny and so smart, yet at the same time she’s completely batshit crazy. I mean, I’d met a lot of crazy people, being a ward of the state and in and out of these places most of my life. But Sara takes the cake.
I’m sitting in the day room, watching the other residents. No TV, no books, no puzzles or games for me. I just sit and watch. I know what people say about me: I’m stupid, I’m retarded or an idiot. I’m not, though. Nothing wrong with watching.
Old Joe is engaged in a game of chess with Scott Brown Elliot. Every time Scott Brown Elliot has one of his ticks, Old Joe sneaks in an extra move. Maude Fisher is out of her room today, sitting in a chair watching TV, but I can tell by the look in her eyes that she’s about to be in confinement again. Her hand is wedged between the buttons on her dressing gown, and it’s only a matter of time before she stands up, tears it open, and exposes herself to everyone. Scott Brown Elliot will focus his attention on her sagging chest, and Old Joe will take several pawns, possibly even a castle, off the board. The orderly who’s charged with keeping Maude in line is over at the nurses’ station, chatting with the young blonde nurse. I’d let him know about Maude, but the ensuing chaos is a nice distraction for all the residents.
Sure enough, Maude stands up and flashes the room. Everyone looks over, everyone but me because I want to see their reactions. What I don’t expect, however, is to see Sara peeking her head out of a supply closet. Her hair is tousled, more than usual, and her eyes are red-rimmed. Her cheek is red too, as if she’d been hit. She looks around, notices the distraction, and darts out, towards her room. Her shirt is buttoned unevenly, and the knees of her jeans are crusted with dirt.
I get up, walk in the direction she was headed. As I pass the closet, a nurse sticks his head out of it. He sees me standing here, watching him.
“Hey, Tim, how’s it going today?” He grins at me.
I stare at him, and my eyes flicker towards the door Sara retreated through. He looks in that direction too, surmises that’s where Sara went. His eyes narrow. “Look, she agreed to it. Ain’t no harm if she agreed. Hell, it was her idea.” As I continue to stare at him, his expression lightens. “What am I worried about. You’re not gonna tell anyone, right, Tim?”
He reaches towards me (blood on his fingers his plaid shirt is covered with blood dripping from the knife in his hand Ellen is on the floor not moving her shirt bloody so much blood so much blood everywhere why is there so much blood why isn’t she moving Ellen get up I call but he laughs and says she can’t hear me no one can hear me the knife moves closer blood and flesh I can’t leave Ellen so much blood Ellen why won’t you get up) and I run, have to hide somewhere because he hurt Ellen but he won’t hurt me.
I duck under the table that Old Joe and Scott Brown Elliot were playing chess on, curl into a ball with my head tucked between my knees.
“That counts as your move,” I hear Old Joe say but his voice sounds far away, as if I’m underwater. They can’t find me if I’m underwater (Paul was floating in the water blood surrounding him too on the shore on the dock blood everywhere but not his hand where’s his hand he can help me if he has his hands stop floating you have to help me so much blood so dark under the dock monsters in the water monsters in the house monsters trying to get me) and I know there’s no water but I don’t trust the water anyway.
Someone’s hand reaches for me and I pull tighter, not willing to let them pull me away from under the table (under the dock Paul’s hand floating next to me something brushes my leg something in here with me with Paul’s hand with the blood I thrash around have to stay still or he’ll find me like he did Ellen so much blood Ellen get up hide somewhere). They can see me though; they can find me.
“Tim.” A voice, calling to me through the air that suffocates me like water. “Tim, it’s okay. You don’t need to hide, okay?” A hand brushes my leg and I shudder, lash out at it with my leg (pulls me from the water tells me it’s okay but Paul’s lifeless eyes say otherwise Ellen’s eyes were closed she’s just sleeping so much blood Ellen get up get away from him don’t let him touch you don’t let him touch me). Something stings my thigh, and then all goes black.
I wake up in my room, lying on my bed. My pajamas are on and the room is dark, as dark as it ever gets here. I have the room to myself; roommates don’t last long with me, they learned, and now they let me have my space when possible. My thigh hurts, itches, and when I scratch it I feel a small welt. Dr. Craig has told me not to think too hard about what happens to put me here, alone in my room with a sore thigh, and though I try anyway nothing comes. I grab my pillow and blanket, flatten out and roll under my bed, and fall asleep.
Saturday. The big day. I sit and watch, sit and watch. Sara hasn’t told me her plan but I don’t blame her. They’ve been watching me closely, as close as they should be watching Maude. Not watching Sara though, letting her skip around and smile and laugh. I can tell by her eyes she doesn’t mean it. She skips near the male nurse who was in the closet with her, whispers something in his ear. They both look over at me. I wave and smile, and Sara shakes her head at me. My hand falls into my lap.
Families are here today. They feign interest in their imprisoned relatives, pretend to like the food or the crafts they’ve been made. It makes them feel good, I realized long ago, makes them feel less guilty about being out there while we’re in here.
They don’t understand that most of us aren’t jealous, aren’t upset about being here. I like Kirkbride. I like its walls, its safety, its protection. I’m comfortable here.
As I watch the families chat, Sara skips over to me.
“Hey, Tim.” She squats down next to my chair, chin on her thin arms which are folded over the side. “We’re going to do this today. You ready?”
I’m still not sure what we’re doing exactly, but I know Sara’s my friend and she needs my help. I nod.
“Okay, then, here’s the plan. I’m going back to my room to get my bag. Then I’ll get you, and we’ll leave.”
Leave. Leave Kirkbride, my home for the last four years. Be around people, people who (don’t worry son everything will be okay the cop gives me his hat Dad used to wear hats wasn’t wearing one today).
Sara is shaking my arm. “No, Tim. Not today. Not now. Stay with me, okay?”
I swallow down the panic rising in my throat. Sarah needs me (Ellen needed me Ellen on the).
“Tim.” Her voice is calm, soothing.
I look into her eyes. She’s terrified, the fear kept at bay just below the surface but still there. Sara needs me. I nod.
We walk towards the main entrance, into the main foyer where a security guard stops us.
“Are you two supposed to be here?” he asks.
I never leave, never even go outside, and he knows that. I glance over at Sara. I’m spoiling her plans, I just know it. Maybe it would be best if I stayed behind.
Sara must be able to sense my thoughts because she grabs my hand, gives it a squeeze. “We have passes,” she says as she hands them to the officer. Sunlight from windows high above us reflects off his badge (shiny badge focus on the badge focus on the hat not on the water not on Mama where’s Mama so much blood). Sara squeezes my hand again.
He studies the papers, frowns at them. “I didn’t think you two were allowed out for the day, but your papers were signed by Dr. Craig himself, so I guess they’re okay.” He makes a note on his clipboard, then smiles at us. “Enjoy your day!”
Sara beams back at him, her charm going full force. “Thanks! You have a lovely day too!”
And with that, we head outside.
Outside. It’s been years since I’ve been outside. The light is bright, brighter than I remember (it’s sunny it should be cloudy should be raining but it’s warm sunny birds singing perfect day perfect except for the blood). Sara pulls on my hand, leading me down the steps.
We walk down the sidewalk lining the drive. Ancient oaks and coordinated flowerbeds strategically dot the manicured lawn, belying the true nature of those making their home here. Kirkbride is a longterm facility; while some do leave eventually, most of us are here to stay. There’s comfort in this, comfort in the knowledge that we’re protected from change, from the world. Except now I’m leaving.
I stop and turn to look at the building. It’s huge, a brick-encrusted castle-like structure with arched windows and tall turrets on the corners, ambling its way across the grounds. It’s airy, freeing, not a prison like some places I’ve been. Home.
Sara tugs on my hand, pulling me to the present. “Come on, Tim. There’s a taxi waiting for us at the bottom of the hill.”
I follow her but my head turns again, watching the building retreat as we walk down the drive. This is the second time I’ve seen the building, theoretically. I must’ve seen it when I first arrived, but I don’t remember. Time is meaningless for me, each day blurring into the next. And I let them; the future doesn’t hold anything more for me than the past.
At the bottom of the hill, a car sits with its engine idling. Sara walks over to the driver’s window, leans in and talks to him. She gestures at the building, laughs a throaty sound that doesn’t sound right; Sara’s laugh is light, a warm tinkling sound. I glance back at the building, wondering if it’s not too late to change my mind.
Sara climbs into the backseat then climbs back out, comes over to me. “Come on, Tim. I need you to act normal if we’re going to pull this off.”
Normal. The word stings. My Sara would never say that, not the Sara who lives at Kirkbride. This is a bad idea. I take a step towards the building, back to the world I know.
“This way.” She grabs my hand, pulls me towards the car. I’m so used to being led, doing as I’m told, that without thinking I follow her, and before I know it I’m sitting in the backseat of the taxi.
The driver looks back at my suspiciously. “Everything okay?” he asks Sara.
“Yeah, fine.” From the front seat she looks back at me too. “Put your seatbelt on, sweetie.”
I do as she says, as the driver looks on in amusement. “He don’t seem too right.”
Sara smiles. “My brother’s fine, just a little overwhelmed. It’s been awhile since we’ve taken him off the grounds.”
The driver nods. “Yeah, I see that a lot here. Some of the whackos have a real hard time adjusting to being out here in the real world.”
I frown as Sara laughs. Whackos? I come with her on this trip and she can’t even defend me (I couldn’t defend Ellen couldn’t defend Paul couldn’t defend Mama where’s Mama where did they find her covered in blood too Ellen was covered in blood knew he had a temper his hand reaching for mine reaching with the knife run Ellen would say if she could still talk laying on the floor run he’s behind me reaching for me).
I open my eyes, make myself see. The taxi is stopped and Sara is next to me, shaking me.
“Look, I don’t know about this,” says the driver. “Maybe we should take him back to the loony bin.”
“I’ll give you an extra ten if you just take us to the bus station, okay?”
Bus station? I grab Sara’s hand. It’s bad enough being out here, but a bus too? I want to go back, want to go back now. I squeeze her hand, cold in mine.
The driver sighs. “Fine. But if he freaks out again, that’s it.”
“He won’t. Right, Tim?” She stares into my eyes. It feels like she’s trying to see all my secrets, see what sets me off. I hope she finds something. After twenty-seven years like this, it would be nice to know. I give her a small smile, all I can muster right now, and watch the scenery pass by outside the window.
We make it to the bus station and she pulls me out after she’s paid the driver. She drags me inside. “Sit on this bench while I get tickets. Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be right back.” She walks off, real calm and normal and not my Kirkbride Sara.
So many people here. A man on a bench across from me digs through his backpack, muttering to himself. He wears one white sock and one brown sock. On the other end of my bench is a woman with chipped nail polish who keeps checking her watch. Even from several feet away her scent of baby powder is strong. The man across from me smells like fries. He catches me watching him, frowns at me.
I look away, over to the ticket window where Sara waits in line. In front of her is a man with several large brown suitcases and a red duffel bag that Sara would fit into with room to spare. Every time the line moves, he kicks it with his feet. Behind her is a man with a small child. The child ventures off and the man chases after it, then returns to line. The people behind him frown, arms folded across their chests, roll their eyes, and I wonder how many more times they’ll let him back in before they tighten up, move around him.
A man sits down next to me. “Hello.”
I lick my lips, hunch my shoulders in, and wrap my arms around myself.
“I said hello.”
I look away from him, towards Sara, will the line to move faster.
He mutters something under his breath. All I catch is “rude.” “Look, man, you got any change you could spare? Help a brother out?”
I shake my head, not looking at him.
“I’m asking nicely, man. Just a few dollars, anything to help me get on my bus.”
I shake my head again, can’t stop shaking it. He reaches for me (his hand extends focus on the badge pulls me up from the water it’s okay son it’s okay no one will hurt you now already hurt Ellen hurt Paul where’s Mama so much blood blood on his hand blood on the knife chasing me as I run what happened to Ellen have to hide have to find somewhere safe blood everywhere don’t touch me don’t hurt me where’s Mama). I open my eyes, and I’m under the bench in the fetal position, a large crowd around me.
“Tim!” Sara calls to me, kneeling in front of the bench looking at me. “You can’t do this, not here.” She bites her lip and I can see her rethinking bringing me with.
“He just freaked out,” the man who’d been sitting next to me says. “I asked him for some change and then he started thrashing around and next thing you know he’s under that bench. I didn’t mean no harm, honest, ma’am.”
“Everything okay?” A security officer (bright badge shining in the sun blood on it blood on everything) walks over, looks at Sara, at me. I squeeze my eyes shut.
“Yeah, fine.” She pulls on my arm, tries to pull me out. I’m not that big but neither is she, and I don’t move. “We’re, uh, just about to get on the bus. And my brother doesn’t want to go.” She pulls again. “Come on, Tim. Game’s over. We gotta go.”
“You sure he’s okay?”
“Yeah.” Another pull. “C’mon, sweetie.”
I slowly crawl out.
“Where you headed?”
“What’s in Albany?”
“My aunt. We’re going for a visit. Tim, well,” her voice drops to a whisper, “he’s not all there.” She resumes her conversational volume. “Sometimes he likes to play these games. But we’ll be fine on the bus.”
I sit on the bench and Sara brushes the dust off my knees. The officer watches us, eyes narrowed. Sara smiles at him, her big winning everything’s-okay smile, and I do my best to imitate it. The officer shrugs, walks away, pausing every few steps to watch us, to watch me.
“Okay, Tim, enough of that,” Sara says to me. She puts her hands on my shoulders, stares me in the eyes. “This is real important, what I have to do. My soul is on the line, Tim. My soul. They told me this is my last chance for redemption. And I know you have issues too, but I can’t let you mess this up for me. Comprende?”
Can’t mess it up for Sara (messed it up for Ellen for Paul for Mama where’s Mama no sign of her just blood just Paul’s hand Ellen on the floor). She shakes me. I nod.
“Okay.” She smiles at me, gives me a hug. “Ready to get on the bus and head to Albany?”
I follow behind her as she walks to one of the bays, a big shiny bus waiting. She hands the driver our tickets and climbs aboard, me just a couple steps behind. She stops towards the back, pushes me into one of the seats. I watch the people out the window while waiting for the bus to load. I wonder where they’re going, where they’re coming from. I wonder about their lives, their ability to move so freely.
With a jolt the bus backs up, pulls out of the station. The sun is setting but as we pull out of town, I like to think that I can see Kirkbride, up on its isolated hill, a bastion of hope in the world. I wave as we pull onto the interstate.
“What are you waving at?” Sara laughs at me. “Kirkbride? I’m so glad to be out of that place.”
I shrug, look back out the window.
“Well, I am.” Her slight pout is reflected in the window. “I’ve made some mistakes in my life, Tim. I’ve messed up. When they pointed it out, I realized it. And I realized I had to make up for it. Which is what I’m doing, right now. I won’t bore you with the details of the conversations we had. Just know that this is big. It’s my soul we’re talking about. A second chance. And the people at Kirkbride, they didn’t understand.” She puts her hand on my slacks, khakis that I’ve worn for as long as I can remember. Cheap material, of course — what do you expect if it’s on the state’s dime? — but comfortable. Comfortable in their continuity. “I’m not asking you to understand either, Tim. Just know that I’m not crazy. I’m just taking control of my destiny, which is what this was about. My cat, the fire — it was just stuff to goad me into action. And that’s what I’m doing. What you’re helping me with.”
She continues to talk, about her cat and the voices that try to control her life, and I drift off to sleep.
I wake minutes or hours later; I have no way of knowing. The bus is quiet, dark. Sara is next to me, asleep with her head on my shoulder. Her hair slumps into her face, and I reach up, push it away from her eyes. She stirs but doesn’t wake. My stomach growls, and I need to use the bathroom. I poke her arm with my index finger until her eyes open.
“Wha?” She sits up, stretches.
I stare at her. My stomach growls again.
She laughs as she checks her watch. “We should be stopping soon at a rest stop. We can get something then.” I continue to stare at her. Her brow furrows, then she brightens. “Bathroom’s at the back of the bus, in case you need to go.”
I nod. She stands up, lets me pass. While washing my hands after using the toilet, an unrecognizable face stares back at me from the mirror. Dark, red-rimmed eyes. Pale, gaunt face. A shock of tousled dark hair. Staring back at me is my father (hand dripping blood holding a knife standing over Ellen blood everywhere what’s the matter son? screams who’s screaming why won’t Ellen get up where’s Mama’s where’s Mama don’t run Tim it’ll be over soon Ellen lying on the floor missing her arm covered in blood come back son it won’t hurt but a little Mama screaming again where’s Mama behind me with that knife dripping blood shirt soaked in blood Mama Mama help he killed Ellen Mama run Tim just run Mama you come too no Tim just run run and don’t look back Mama’s screams bright sunshine cold and dark underneath the dock Paul’s hand floating blood something brushes my leg head underwater can’t hear Mama screaming dark under the dock sunlight on the badge blood footsteps getting closer I know you’re here Tim come out it won’t hurt but a little creaks overhead Paul’s hand next to me holding my breath blood so much blood where’s Mama).
I open my eyes to darkness, to cool night air, to rough pavement beneath me. Sara stands over me, worry and fear and anger etched into her too-thin face, pouring out of her hazel eyes.
“You got us kicked off the bus.” Her voice is flat, tired. “We can sleep inside the station and maybe hitchhike to Albany tomorrow. We’re only about 250 miles away. Come on.”
I close my eyes, unmoving on the sidewalk. My stomach growls, reminding me that I haven’t eaten since lunch at Kirkbride. It seems like lifetimes ago.
“Fine, lay there then!” Sara shouts. “It’s just my soul, right? Who the fuck cares about my soul? I turn twenty-five tomorrow. I’m out of time!” She stomps off, muttering under her breath. I don’t know if she’s talking to herself, or to me, or to the voices. I don’t care. I miss Kirkbride.
She returns in a few minutes, holding a couple of sandwiches. She lays one on my chest, then sits next to me. Without sitting up I eat the sandwich, stale bread with unidentifiable meat. When she’s done with her own she goes inside. Still I lay on the ground.
She’s back again, pulls me up. “You can’t stay out here all night.” She leads me inside, to a hard bench with a couple blankets sitting on it. When she pushes down on my shoulders, my body complies, tired from whatever happened on the bus. She tucks a blanket around me, kisses my forehead. “Good night, Tim.”
I wake in the middle of the night. The station lobby is empty, lights off but the parking lot streetlights provide more than enough illumination in here. Sara lies next to me, curled in a ball, hair in her face. I reach over, brush it off and behind her ear. Her face is relaxed as she sleeps, peaceful.
I stretch, return to sleep but I’m awakened by a loud noise. I open my eyes, afraid to move. Sara is in the corner, pleading with someone who may not even be there, stomping her feet, crying. I know I should help her but I’m afraid of her voices, afraid of what they might make her do if they find out I’m listening. My eyes close.
I open them to bright sunlight. Sara sits next to me, no sign that she was so tormented in the middle of the night. She sees that I’m awake, smiles at me.
“I got us some donuts for breakfast. And I persuaded them to let us back on a bus. Think you’ll be okay?” All signs of her anger from last night, her fear, are gone. Just smiles today, relaxed smiles that make her eyes sparkle. This is my Kirkbride Sara. I nod.
“Good.” She leans over, gives me a hug. I smile. My Sara is back.
We board the bus and the trip is uneventful. I watch the other passengers, their clothes, their mannerisms, their luggage. Try to guess where they’re going, what they’re running from, running to. It doesn’t seem like much time has passed before Sara stands as the bus slows once more.
“This is our stop, Tim. Come on.” She takes my hand, leads me off the bus. In the station she studies a map. Closes her eyes, points. A park.
After lunch, more sandwiches past their prime, she gets us a taxi and we head to her park. It’s on the edge of town, deserted. An empty baseball diamond, a playground with no children. A big grassy field, full of knee-high flowers, yellows and whites crisp in the sunshine.
She reaches into her bag, pulls out something I can’t see. I move closer to her, try to figure out what it is, but she laughs, throws her bag to the ground, takes off running. “Come on, Tim! Push me on the swings!”
I follow her, laughing myself. The sunshine feels good on my skin. Birds chirp to each other, narrating our actions. We push each other on the swings, our laughter mixing with the birds’ calls. Sara takes off again and we chase each other down the slides, across the monkey bars, into the field.
She pauses, takes my hands, starts spinning. “Ring around the rosy, pocket full of posies, ashes, ashes, we all fall down!” Again and again, until we’re so dizzy that we actually do fall down, into a laughing jumbly mess.
“Are you having fun, Tim?” Sara asks.
I nod. Yesterday, Kirkbride, everything is forgotten but lying here with her.
“Good.” She stops laughing, fumbles in the waistband of her jeans, pulls something out and lays it next to her, bites her lip. “I think I’ve done all I can.”
I prop myself up on an elbow, study her face. She’s calm, relaxed, at peace.
“Thank you, Tim. You really helped me through this. They promised me you’d be rewarded for your help.” She sits up, leans over, kisses my lips.
I’ve never kissed a girl before, never even really thought about it. Her lips are warm, soft. I close my eyes, lean into her, taste her. A gunshot breaks the silence. My eyes fly open to see the glint of sunlight on metal and (blood blood everywhere on Ellen on him on the knife I run run into the yard past Mama run Tim run and hide I run run to the field the field with the flowers with Sara take my hand Tim you’ll be rewarded there’s no blood no knife no gun just Sara and me holding hands in a field of flowers).
E.D. Martin is a writer with a knack for finding new jobs in new places. Born and raised in Illinois, her past incarnations have included bookstore barista in Indiana, college student in southern France, statistician in North Carolina, economic development analyst in North Dakota, and high school teacher in Iowa. She draws on her experiences to tell the stories of those around her, with a generous heaping of “what if” thrown in.
She currently lives in Illinois where she job hops while attending grad school and working on her novels. Read more of her stories at her website.