Light swirled around her like the rotating beam from a lighthouse. Crimson light, the same shade that had flowed down her arms when she cut her wrists. She'd walked down the dark hallway from her bedroom into the bathroom, the soft toffee-colored carpet silencing her footsteps. Had it been hours ago? Or minutes? She had no idea now. However long, she very distinctly remembered her demeanor as she made her way to what she expected to be the end of her life; not devastatingly angry or tearfully distressed as you may picture someone getting ready to drain their life-force out through slits on their wrists. She had only been walking, the picture of serenity and certitude. To an outsider, she may have looked like any simply beautiful girl on a leisurely afternoon stroll, or returning home after meeting her first true love. Nothing about Cleo Winters' deportment hinted at the disaster that was to come.
The room flooded with bright florescent light as she flicked on the switch near the door before she entered. She walked across the cool, smooth tiled floor to the blue rug in front of the sink. Her fingers traced mindlessly across the chrome hardware and pristine white porcelain. Everything from the flowered wallpaper, to the decorative lamp on the counter, to the curtains on the shower was done in soft pastel blues. Her mother had decided to carry on the same color-scheme in every other room of the house, saying it was clean and elegant. Cleo found it repulsively suffocating, and one day in a fit of helpless rebellion she covered her bedroom walls in the most hideous shade of bright orange that she could find. Later on, she proceeded by continuously filling up her room with every obnoxiously bright color she could think of: a canary yellow rug in the shape of a daisy, hot pink curtains, a lime green bedspread and rainbow-colored lamps, all except blue. Her mother found it revolting, and Cleo was satisfied.
Hanging on a small tack above the mirror was a wooden doll her mother's best friend had made and painted for her when they first moved in right after Cleo's fourteenth birthday. It was dressed like Dorothy from "The Wizard of Oz" with her blue and white farm-dress and dark brown hair made from yarn pulled into pigtails on either side of her perfectly round head. Dangling from Dorothy's ruby-red slippers were huge block letters that had yellow bricks painted on them. They read 'Home Is Where The Heart Is'. As Cleo stared at it she felt a bitter, humorless laugh bubble up into her throat. What a terribly benign white-lie that was.
A brand new set of razorblades sat on the middle shelf in the medicine cabinet, right next to her father's shaver. She took one from the red box, holding the rectangular piece of silver metal between her thumb and forefinger. It glinted and winked as she held it up in front of her, examining it the way a jeweler would inspect a rare gemstone. Slowly, she pushed up the sleeve of her black shirt, turning her arm so her palm was facing up as if to receive water. It almost felt spiritual. The razor was cold against her skin as she dragged it up her arm, carefully, with the precision of an experienced surgeon. She did not grimace or cry out, and she felt no pain. Bright blood seeped up through the line she created, staining her ivory skin. She created an identical line parallel to the first, her eyes focused and her fingers steady. The blood trickled down her arms in thin rivers, dripping into the sink and staining the rug in purple blotches. Yet, she still felt nothing. Curiously pensive, she rolled up her other sleeve and began again. On the razor's fourth journey inside her skin the blade found what it was searching for and snagged. There was a tearing sensation inside, followed by a sweeping rush of relief that started in her stomach and quickly radiated throughout her body. She felt everything flowing outwards, felt herself drifting away. Then she was taken into the blackness.
There was no blinding light, no pearly white gates or city in the clouds, no heavenly rejoicing voices. And there was no falling into a blackened abyss, no lake of fire or demonic eyes. At first there was only The Void, blissfully numb and silent. Then, slowly like sand running into an hourglass, the voices seeped in. After that, she became aware of the red, dancing light. The only thing she could think was that light didn't belong in The Void, and faintly, that it reminded her of blood.
Somewhere in the black nothing she'd been pushed into she must have lost some fundamental comprehension of this world, because she couldn't understand anything. It all passed through her without any true registration like water passing across stones without halting. The voices floated nonsensically in her mind, an endless string of meaningless sounds and syllables.
Cool night air brushed across her skin momentarily before she was incased in a tomb of white. They were above her, pairs of eyes and mouths hovering as hot, rough hands tugged and groped. She was immobile, entrapped in her own body. She wanted to scream at them to get away, whoever they were, just leave her alone. Let her go back into the safe, comforting nothingness.
One of them inserted something into her arm. She felt a quick stinging pain, and then a warm rush very similar to the one she'd felt earlier, but instead of going out she felt like everything was falling back into place. No! Her mind screamed frantically. It was so loud that she thought she must have actually said it, but none of them looked up or seemed to notice. The last thing she remembered before falling into a deep, dreamless sleep was the feeling of hot tears making their way down her face.
The next time she returned to consciousness she was still encircled in white, but her parents were there now. Her mother's normally strong, almost impervious face was quivering and frightened. On her opposite side her father stood over her in stoic, melancholy silence.
And from somewhere unseen, there was a voice she didn't recognize. It was smoother than the others' from before had been, gentle and unobtrusive. Though she never saw him, in her mind's eye she pictured him; a tall, slender young man with an unpresumptuous face. Dirty blonde hair, maybe even dark-rimmed glasses. Cleo imagined him standing there in his long white coat that he obviously felt was too pretentious for him to be wearing. Every bit the reluctant hero, he stood rigidly by the door, staring uncomfortably at his hands as he spoke earnestly.
Feeling came back to her in the same gradual, sand-through-an-hourglass way that ration, lucid thought had come. The first thing she felt was exhausted.
Before she fell asleep, she heard the sound of her mother's strained, tearful voice whisper, "Cleo… We love you…"
The next morning thought and feeling had returned completely, and before she opened her eyes she was aware of a deep, burning pain in her lower arms. White bandages coiled around her arms from wrist to elbow. White, everything here was blindingly white; the bare, uncongenial walls, the neatly pressed sheets that smelled faintly of ammonia, to the curtains that framed the small window to her left. There was only a single item that was colored; a faux-leather chair next to her bed. It was dark, crimson red.
Her fingers skimmed over the raised bars that encased her on both sides. Horrifically, she was tied down by leather traps that were hooked with metal buckles around the bar handles.
"Just a precaution," a sweet, quiet voice told her.
Startled, Cleo whirled around toward the doorway. A young, pretty woman in sea-foam green scrubs was positioned half in the room and half in the hall.
"To make sure you can't hurt yourself again."
"Who are you?" Cleo asked warily. There was nothing threatening about the woman, but Cleo was afraid of her.
"I'm Leanne," she told Cleo. "I'm a nurse on the West Psychiatric Ward."
Psychiatric ward? Cleo thought, frenetically confused. Then she saw the suitcases sitting by the chair. "I have to stay here?"
"Your parents and the doctors have decided that it's in your best interest for us to keep you here until we can evaluate you and decide how we can help you," she explained as she walked over and unbuckled the straps. After Cleo was partially free, Leanne began unplugging all the machines she'd been hooked up to.
Evaluate me? Like I'm some kind of newfound species of reptile they've captured, and now they're bringing in experts to poke and prod at me from behind glass and document their findings? Call it foolish pride, but more than anything she was insulted by the idea. She wasn't about to be made into a chapter in a mass-produced textbook to be studied in college psychology classes. "Don't I have a say in anything?" She asked defensively.
Leanne gave her a sympathetic little smile that Cleo didn't like. "I'm sorry, but no. Because you're a minor your parents have the authority to decide whether or not you should be hospitalized, even without your consent."
There it was, that word: hospitalized. It made her shiver the way it was so casually said, how carelessly it was thrown into her face. Yet, hearing it so plainly stated was strangely liberating as well. Deep inside she felt an odd sort of relief that it was finally put on the table. She was being hospitalized.
"How long?" Cleo asked while slowly pushing herself upright. Her muscles felt weak, like it was the first time she'd used them in months.
"Initially, thirty days," Leanne replied, still in that maddeningly businesslike way, as she clamped off the IV in Cleo's hand. "Then, we'll re-evaluate your case and decide whether or not you can be released."
A month - well, that was just a little too perfect; the perfect amount of time for all her friends to figure out what really happened to poor, little Cleo. Just long enough word to spread that she had gone insane and been thrown into a padded cell somewhere upstate. Enough time for her entire world to fall apart.
"As you can see, your parents came by this morning while you were still asleep to drop off some things for you," Leanne continued. "I'll show you the bathroom so you can take a shower, if you want. Then I'll take you to your new room."
A shower, for one thing, sounded great to Cleo. She found a change of clothes, and then followed Leanne down the hall to the shower. She kept her eyes to the floor as they walked down the long, bright hallway, avoiding the curious glances of the other patients and nurses. She could imagine what they must be thinking: Look at this, guys, we got another one… Another spoiled, attention-starved little girl who just couldn't bear her perfect world of designer clothes and fancy cars, so one night she decided to play with daddy's razor to end her suffering. But, as most over-privileged kids find out, temper-tantrums never pay off the way you want them to. So instead of finding sweet nirvana in The Void - yes, most of us have been there, too - she ended up in here with us. Well, sweetheart, what do you think? Is it everything you wanted? Better get used to it, you're going to be here for a long, long time… She hurried to catch up with Leanne, suddenly feeling like the walls were shrinking in around her. And those voices, the laughter she couldn't hear but she could feel. Once again, she felt lightheaded.
Leanne must have sensed all of this, because she turned abruptly and put her arm out as if to catch her. "Are you all right? Do you feel dizzy? If you don't feel well, I can take you back to your room and you can shower later. You lost a lot of blood, and -"
"I'm fine," Cleo interrupted, but weakly. Grayness threatened to steal her sight, but she gripped the railing on the wall and pushed it away.
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah," Cleo lied, forcing herself to keep her balance.
Leanne gave her an uneasy look, but nodded and unlocked the bathroom by punching in a code on a keypad next to the door. The room was more like a cylinder-block closet with a toilet, sink, and shower stall that reminded Cleo of the girls' locker room at school. Apparently, the hospital also took the 'precaution' of having someone watch you while you showered. It was humiliating to have someone there with only a sheer curtain to keep her from being totally exposed. Shutting her eyes tightly, she tried to imagine being at home in that bathroom of hideous blue-and-white, Dorothy smiling down at her from her place on the wall. She could almost smell her lavender shampoo, and the jasmine candle that was always burning. For once, the thought of home actually comforted her.
"Are you almost finished?" Leanne's voice cut through her fantasy.
Cleo opened her eyes, and once again was back in the coldness of the small hospital bathroom. Taking as much time as possible, she dried off and got dressed, and then followed Leanne back to her room.
"Can I help you with something?" the nurse asked while Cleo got her things.
"No," Cleo said quickly, hugging the bags closer to her body.
Leanne nodded understandingly, giving her that same pitying smile. Cleo shifted her eyes downward and stared at the floor. The nurse motioned for her to follow and they began making their way to Cleo's new room. Her new room on the psyche ward.
This can't be happening, her mind demanded as she trailed after Leanne. This cannot be happening…
Before they left she put on her boyfriend's blue and gold letterman's jacket to conceal the obscene bandages that felt like a scarlet letter, proclaiming her crime to the world. They passed the nurses and turned left to a pair of large automatic doors that, like the bathroom, was locked by an electronic security system. Mounted on the ceiling was a discreetly placed video-camera given away only by its glowing red eye. Leanne typed in another code and the door unlocked in a series of hollow clicks. She opened the door and allowed Cleo to walk ahead of her into the main hospital building.
Walking from the section of the hospital - the sign by the doors said 'Critical Care' - to the main building was like stepping into an entirely different world; it was much brighter out here, and surprisingly, there was actually some color. The walls were a dusty rose pink with a flowered border at the top, the floors toffee-colored marble tiles. Warm sunlight poured through the large windows on either side of her, flooding the halls with light. Outside she could see the autumn-colored leaves trembling and swaying in the breeze, and thought of how wonderful it would feel on her skin. A gentle rain had begun, pattering against the windows temptingly. Below she could see people on the sidewalks with umbrellas and newspapers over their heads, rushing to get inside. City traffic remained sluggishly as usual, cars pulling out of the hospital parking lot and disappearing off into the horizon. Silently, Cleo felt a dismal sort of envy and contempt for them all - they carelessly took for granted their freedom, showing no empathy or concern for the ones who couldn't leave. But, hadn't she done the same thing? Isn't that why she was here in the first place? Really, she was just like them, a realization which only served to dishearten her even more.
The hallways twisted and turned in a dizzily confused pattern, all seeming to lead everywhere and nowhere in particular. As they walked endlessly down one then up another, Cleo began to feel somewhat like a lab rat in a 3-D maze, with Leanne acting as the piece of cheese the enigmatic 'they' were using to lead her. But, unlike those poor ill-fated creatures, she had no chance of escaping. She would just continue wandering aimlessly down each passageway to one dead-end after another.
Marked signs with painted arrows were the only indication of where she was going - Up led Day Surgery, Left was Pediatrics, Right to Diagnostics. There were doors on both sides of them, some offices with doctors' names on them, others waiting rooms where families huddled together on the uncomfortable-looking chairs, anticipating the bad news. Eventually they came to a second ward like the one she was in, and even before they walked inside she knew where they were. The sign above the door said Pediatric Oncology. As she stepped through the door, she was immediately struck by a wretched smell that washed over her like a tidal wave. She recognized it from the nursing home that her grandmother had been in when she was a little girl - it was the musty, stale odor of a place where people were dying. But the ones dying here were not eighty-or-ninety year olds with graying hair. These were young kids, some looking all of a day past five, in wheelchairs or pushing IV poles alongside them. Most of them had no hair. They stared at her as they walked by, and she knew she would see their sunken, hollow eyes in her dreams for the rest of her life. The last door in the hall was open, and Cleo saw a little girl lying in the bed with machines around her. Her light brown hair wasn't completely gone, but it was thin and patchy. In her arms she held a brown and black teddy bear that was holding a red heart. As they walked by the little girl's dim, tired hazel eyes opened and shifted toward Cleo. Her eyes were spiteful and full of hatred. Do you see now? Her glaring expression asked bitterly. You're here because you chose it, and why? Because it wasn't enough for you, because you wanted more than just simply to live. People like you always think they want something more, but you'll never have any idea what it's like to be me; to give anything to just be. Well, you made your choice, and I sure hope it was worth it. Look at me, what choice do I have?
Cleo looked away in shame, tears burning her eyes. Suddenly, she felt like she was going to go insane if she didn't get out of here, away from all the scornful, knowing eyes. Everything was closing in around her, making her want to scream. She walked closer to Leanne, almost running now.
"It's hard, isn't it?" Leanne said as she unlocked the door on the other side of the ward.
Cleo looked up, surprised. "What?"
"Being here," Leanne said, waving her hand around. "Seeing the kids like this. It makes you think about things differently." She glanced back at Cleo as she said the last part.
Cleo nodded a little, but didn't reply. Beyond the Oncology Ward there was a Skylab that connected the main hospital to the psyche ward. From there, Leanne took her to a bank of elevators and they went to the second floor. Finally, they made it to her room, done in soft, pastel yellow. Unlike her first room, the beds did not have bars or shackles on them, but instead had brightly colored sheets and a small dresser. The bed next to hers was all in pink and had little knick-knacks on the desk.
"Obviously, you have a roommate. Don't worry, you'll love her," Leanne told her as they walked in.
Don't count on it, Cleo thought to herself. She almost said it, but decided to bite her tongue instead. She just wanted to be alone right now, so whatever she could say to get Leanne out was fine by her. "Okay."
"I think you're off the hook for tonight while you get settled, but tomorrow you're going to have some visitors tomorrow," Leanne explained as she took Cleo's bags from her and set them on the bed.
"Staff, mostly, just -"
"Standard procedure," Cleo finished for her.
Leanne smiled a little. "Right. Dinner is in a little while if you're hungry, and I'll be down the hall so you can buzz me if you need anything, okay?"
"Thanks," Cleo said softly.
Leanne smiled and turned to leave, looking back at Cleo once more. "Cleo?"
Cleo looked at her questioningly.
"It will be okay. I know it seem like it right now, but it will be soon," Leanne promised her.
She didn't believe her, but she was grateful to her for trying. In spite of herself, she was starting to like Leanne. She nodded and gave the nurse her best smile. After Leanne was gone, Cleo sat on the bed with her back pressed against the wall, pulling her knees up to her chest and resting her head there. Sitting here in the silence, the reality of everything came suddenly crashing down on her. It was really happening; she was really here in this place surrounded by all these people who didn't know her, and didn't really care anyway. With her family and friends miles away, she realized how more than anything else, she felt alone. She was so lost in her thoughts that she didn't even hear the door open again.
"Hi!" A voice chirped.
Cleo groaned inwardly, Oh, God, what now? Couldn't everyone just go away and let her feel sorry for herself? She finally looked up reluctantly, her vision blurred with tears.
Sitting on her bed uncomfortably close to her was a girl who Cleo guessed was about her age, with bright blue eyes and bouncing light blonde curls. She didn't seem to notice that Cleo was crying, but just simply grinned even wider at Cleo's acknowledgement. Her teeth were pearly white and perfectly rounded, giving her the impish look of a sprightly young child.
"They refer to me as the manic-depressed girl, but my name is Arianna- Ah-ri, not Airy," she told Cleo, and giggled. Cleo had a feeling she'd made this introduction several times before.
"Hi," Cleo said flatly, wiping at her eyes.
"What's your name?" Arianna asked, sitting cross-legged next to Cleo like best friends sharing a secret.
"Like Cleopatra?" Arianna said excitedly.
Like she hadn't heard that a millions times in her life. She had to resist the urge to roll her eyes, reminding herself that Ari didn't know it was one of her biggest pet-peeves. "No, not like Cleopatra. I was named after the ."
Arianna wrinkled her nose, as if she didn't understand or wasn't satisfied by this. "Oh, I like Cleopatra better. So, anyway, what did you do to get yourself in here, Cleo?"
Cleo lifted up her sleeve to let Arianna see the bandages.
"Ah, yeah, I did that once, too," she said, and showed Cleo the horizontal scars on her wrists. "I think that was my… Let's see, once when I was thirteen, once when I was fifteen… I guess about my fourth try, almost one year ago now."
Cleo gaped at her, horrified. "You've been here a year?"
"Next month, officially. My parents kicked me out, and I'm too old to go into foster care, so I really don't have anywhere else to go. Kind of sucks, but it could be worse, I guess," she sighed and leaned back on her elbows. She narrowed her eyes at Cleo thoughtfully. "Why did you do it?"
Cleo shifted uncomfortably. All morning she'd been asking herself the same question, and she hadn't been able to come up with a good answer yet. "I…I don't know," she replied shyly, and felt herself welling up again.
"Well, don't worry, I'm sure one of the geniuses in here can tell you," Ari told her with a roll of her eyes. Then she tapped Cleo on the knee. "Hey, come on, it's dinnertime. I'll introduce you to everybody."
Meeting everybody didn't sound very appealing to Cleo. "I'm not hungry," she said, which was only partially true. It occurred to her that she hadn't eaten for the past two days, and while the idea of food wasn't appealing, she was hungry.
"Aw, come on, you can't just sit around here all day, you'll go crazy…Well, you know, I mean you'll go crazier," Ari corrected herself and laughed again.
Cleo didn't return the laugh, but Ari wasn't bothered. "Let's go," she pulled Cleo up and started leading her toward the door. "They're going to start thinking we actually did kill ourselves…"
Cleo sighed deeply and followed after her. She had a feeling it was going to be a long month.