A Danger to Herself and Others(9)

“Lightfoot’s shoes must drive you crazy.” I point at my own feet. We’re not even allowed socks. They give us these flimsy cloth slippers. You can barely walk in them. You have to sort of shuffle just to keep them on. I only wear mine when I’m cold. Which is all the time because they pump AC into this place like they’re trying to keep us fresh.

Lucy doesn’t answer. She rolls over so her back is to me, hugging her pillow.

I get up and start walking, counting my steps. I’m not sure eight feet (steps) by seven feet (steps) is enough for two people. The room I shared with Agnes wasn’t much bigger and look how that ended.

The walls seem to shake in time with Lucy’s sobs (she’s not calm and quiet like I was), but then this is California, earthquake country: the ground beneath your feet can be unreliable here. I press my fingers against the vomit-green stone (the color suddenly seems appropriate), to make sure it’s still solid. But it’s impossible to tell with all those manufactured imperfections.

“I miss my boyfriend,” Lucy says finally, like I asked for an explanation.

The back of my neck tingles.

The first time Jonah called Agnes his girlfriend, we were walking back from American Studies class. I asked if he wanted to grab some lunch, and he said he was meeting his girlfriend.

You’re welcome to join us, he added quickly.

No thanks, I said. I’m not exactly third-wheel material. It’s not as though I didn’t know he and Agnes were together.

Jonah grinned. He knew he looked irresistible when he grinned. No, he agreed. You’re not.

We started hooking up a week later.

Lucy wipes her eyes. “What do you have to do to get phone privileges?”

I shrug. “I don’t know.” Lightfoot hasn’t said a word to me about any kind of privileges.

“These places all work the same way.”

“How many of these places have you been?”

Lucy doesn’t answer. Instead, she recites: “Gain a pound, get an hour online. Gain two pounds, get twenty minutes on the phone.”

Does she think I have an eating disorder too? I walk back across the room and sit on the edge of my bed (it’s simpler to call it that now that there are two of us), keeping my back straight like she did.

“I don’t think this place works like that.” If this place rewarded good behavior with privileges, surely I’d have earned some for having come so calmly and quietly.

“I’m never going to make it if I can’t call Joaquin.” Lucy rolls onto her back and starts biting her nails, then laughs. Her throat must be scratched raw from years of making herself throw up because her laugh doesn’t sound like anything I’ve heard before.

“Figures this place would be different.” She practically spits the words this place.

I’m tempted to ask why exactly it figures, but I don’t want Lucy to know that I’m not sure of the answer. Instead, I lie on my side, facing her. She clutches her pillow like it’s her boyfriend. She even sort of kisses it. As if anyone would want to kiss her so soon after she threw up.

Jesus Christ, they put me in here with a real crazy person. Now Lucy isn’t the only one who wants phone privileges. I’ll call my parents and demand a private room. I’m under eighteen. They can’t stop me from contacting my legal guardians.

For the first time, a slim ribbon of doubt snakes its way through my brain: Can they?

Up until the day I arrived here, my parents and I spoke every single day for more than seventeen years. But my parents weren’t the ones who chose to send me here, to a place where (apparently) I have to earn the privilege of talking to them.

Lucy rolls away from me again, and I stare at my new roommate’s back. I can see the knobs of her spine through her paper-thin shirt, and I watch the muscles—a sign of the years she’s spent dancing—ripple beneath the surface of her skin when she moves.

It’s actually not all that different from staring at the ceiling.


“I’m afraid you can’t call your parents.”

Dr. Lightfoot drags her plastic folding chair into the room for our next session. It’s white and cheap-looking, and unlike our beds, it isn’t bolted to the floor. She unfolds the chair, but she doesn’t sit. Neither do I.

“Of course I can call my parents,” I counter. “They’re my parents.” I emphasize the word, but it’s not enough to make Lightfoot understand how close we are.

Mom used to say she couldn’t understand parents who left their children behind when they went on vacation or complained that they needed a break from their kids.

Other families aren’t like ours.

I add, “I’m a minor. You can’t keep me from them. It’s against the law.”

It’s probably also against the law to keep me in this room for days on end. Well, against the law if I’m a patient. Probably not if I’m a prisoner.

“Your parents understand that isolation is the best course of action for you right now.”

No, they don’t, I think but do not say. Somehow, Dr. Lightfoot must have talked them into believing it. I study her mousy face. She could be some kind of sadist, taking advantage of the fact that no one on the outside takes the complaints of patients on the inside all that seriously.

Alyssa Sheinmel's Books