“How wonderful is Death,
Death, and his brother Sleep!
One, pale as yonder waning moon
With lips of lurid blue.”
-Percy Bysshe Shelley
After my second brain surgery, the doctors thought things were going to get better. It couldn’t have gone more smoothly. As time passed, my vision began to improve. There were no complications, and I was healing just fine. Physically.
In my mind, however, everything felt disconnected. Once-familiar people would walk into my hospital room and greet me, and I would have no idea who they were. This scared me, and I told my mother about it after several incidents. She, in turn, told the doctor. He informed us that this was normal in the case of brain trauma. He said I would recover.
But I didn’t. Familiar faces faded from my mind, and I sank into a thick stew of depression. When everything is unfamiliar and unimportant, you live, day by day, in isolation. At first, I could fight this with the simple joy of having my parents around. They were paying attention to me for the first time in years. Aiden and Lucy visited after school. But no one would tell me what happened to Courtney. Mother just told me not to worry about it.
The light having been snuffed from my life, I fell into despair. I couldn’t move past each present moment, loneliness and confusion plaguing my every step.
Then, a seedling of a thought grew in the dark murk of my mind.
How could I know I was really alive?
How could I know I wasn’t someone else?
Doctors had been probing around my brain so much that I was beginning to feel like Frankenstein’s monster. I was exposed, vivisected, and I had somehow lost my sense of self. I began hearing voices, quiet at first but growing louder...more distinct. The more they spoke to me, the more I believed I was no longer quite alive.
When I was released from the hospital, my parents took me home in a haze of eagerness. I feigned joy but couldn’t feel anything. Home didn’t look like home anymore. There was no emotional connection, no familiarity, just this striking disparity that left me hollow inside. That night, I questioned them again about Courtney, and, this time, they had no way around it.
Her parents had received a call the same night I arrived at the hospital. The men that kidnapped her were demanding a huge ransom, and they wanted it in exactly 48 hours. My parents said the kidnappers wanted the money left in a drop spot, and they promised to deliver Courtney shortly after. Courtney’s parents scrambled to scrape the ransom together, emptying their bank accounts and even trying to get loans. The police planned to bug the money so they could track down her kidnappers. Courtney’s parents couldn’t get the full ransom, but they delivered what they could to the chosen place. The signal from the bug cut out before the money was moved.
“But what about Courtney?” I demanded, exploding with impatience. “Did they take her home? Did they send her back home?”
My parents exchanged uneasy glances. Then my father leaned toward me. He had a stern, charming face with furrowed brows and stiff lips. There was sadness in his eyes as he said, “They didn’t take her home, Jack. The police found her three days later near the edge of town.”
I fell silent, my tongue numb inside my mouth. Something in me broke that day. “So...she’s okay, right? She’s in the hospital. They’re taking care of her.”
He shook his head.
I walked to my room without saying a word or shedding a tear, flopping down on my hard, unfamiliar bed. Everything inside me rejected my parents’ explanation. I didn’t believe a word of it. She wasn’t dead.
Those men still had her somewhere.
I don’t remember much about the time after that. People told me I did strange things, getting up at night and sitting alone in the darkness, staring at the blank television screen. Sometimes I shrieked and wailed in my sleep, clawing the right side of my face until I bled. I heard the demon-faced man’s words echo through my mind like an arcane chant again and again; I was desperate to understand what he meant.
Our duality is the most important aspect of our lives.
It can save us.
My sleep was haunted with dreams of my body decaying around me. My skin rotting and drooping, maggots dripping from my eyes like tear-drops.
Several times, people found me wandering outside at night through nearby parks and once through a graveyard. They always found me laying in the grass with my arms spread wide, staring up at the sky. I couldn’t remember these escapades, but they sure set my parents off.
After a few months, I was diagnosed with Cotard’s syndrome. A delusional belief. A psychosis. Damage to my frontal lobe, misfiring neurons in my FFA, and a bunch of other bullshit.
Who were they to tell me what I felt? What I knew? Who were they to attack my world with their cruel logic and closed-minded science?
I was certain that I wasn’t the same person, that I had died that night.
For several months, I managed to refuse treatment, much to my parents’ discontent. Aiden and Lucy tip-toed around me those days, morose and scared. My usual habits went down the tubes. Unless someone reminded me, I forgot to do the important things – eating, bathing, shaving, dressing... Before the accident, my room was the most organized one in the house, but now it was a disaster. My parents tried to force the “truth” into me every change they got, trying to pick apart my “delusional beliefs” and “erratic behavior”. It gnawed on me, and I began to hate them for it. Uncontrollable rage mixed with the depression and despair. Every time they told me Courtney was dead and I was alive, I wanted to yell and scream and force the truth into their stupid heads.
I managed to hold my crumbling self together until it was finally too much. It was the stick that broke my back.
My parents were at the end of their leash. My impairment, once a means of media attention, was becoming an embarrassment. Bad publicity. I imagine they were desperate to thump that toxic reality into me, and they only had one more card to play. One winter evening, they sent Aiden and Lucy across the house with the nanny and sat me down on the couch. The living room was cold and unfriendly. Father looked stern and mother looked calm, her China doll face set in a you-made-us-do-this expression. I folded my arms with disinterest, whispering voices twittering back and forth in my head.
“Jack, your father and I have been talking, and we decided it’s time to show you something.” Mrs. O’Dair was dressed in all her finery, earrings likely made from the pearls of endangered clams and heels three inches tall. She sounded regretful but determined. “We know you loved Courtney very much, but hanging onto her like this... It’s not healthy, Jack. It’s just hurting you.”
I snorted, gazing out the window. “I’m not giving up on her. She’s still alive, and I’m going to find her.”
“The police found her body,” my father said in a business-like tone. “You’re in denial.”
When I didn’t reply, my mother glanced toward Mr. O’Dair, then patted the folder in her lap. “We didn’t want to do this...but we’re beginning to think there’s no other alternative.”
I stared suspiciously. “What is it?”
Without saying a word, she handed the folder to me. I hesitated a moment before opening it. The content froze everything inside me. They were crime scene photos, likely acquired from the police station. They were of her. I swallowed hard, shaking all over. To this day, I don’t know how my parents snagged them. The photo was taken in what looked like an alley. Courtney lay there with a sheet half-covering her naked body. What I could see of her was bruised and mangled. The blood on the surrounding pavement had turned the color of copper. My lips trembled as I looked at her angelic face, now swollen and unrecognizable, surrounded by matted red hair. In one picture, her eyes stared straight at me, blank, frozen in horror.
I dropped the folder like it was on fire and jumped to my feet, my knees wobbling and horrible rage filling my head. My parents looked at me with a mix of sadness and determination, and, in that moment, I hated them. It was a few seconds before my sputtering lips formed words. “I—it’s fake.”
My mother frowned. “Jack, what are...”
“It’s fake!” I hissed, my rational self retreating to leave something I’d never seen in myself. “It’s a damn fake! You’re lying!”
“We’re not lying to you,” she protested. “Those pictures are from the police department.”
“THEY’RE FAKES!” I screamed at her. A vein pounded in my forehead, and my fists clenched so hard my fingernails began digging into my palms. “YOU’RE BOTH LIARS!”
“That’s enough,” my father growled. There was concern in his eyes, but it looked forced. Phony. “We know you miss her, but you need to be rational about this.”
“I don’t have to do anything!” I stalked away from them, my vision writhing, no longer in control. My head felt ready to explode. Without really being aware of what I was doing, I knocked over a nearby table, shattering one of my mother’s vases. Then I rammed my fist into the wall over and over, bellowing, “Dammit, dammit, dammit!”
My voice was so loud it made my ears ring. Sweat beaded on my forehead, and tears boiled in my eyes.
“That’s enough!” my father roared. His hand came down on my shoulder.
“Don’t touch me!” I wrenched away from him. Bitterness swelled inside me when I realized that was the first time he’d touched me in months. Was it a wonder I’d given up on them and invested everything in Courtney? “Don’t you dare touch me, you asshole!”
My mother had got to her feet, looking at me with horror.
I turned to do more damage to the drywall, but my father clamped down on my arm, hard. “Get off!” I shrieked, jerking against him, my face contorted in rage.
“Jack, stop it!” my mother shouted.
I saw myself take a swing at my father. It caught him across the chin, and he took a step back, shocked. I threw myself against him, screaming with fury, in the hopes of knocking him over. Instead, his arms locked around me, and my father hauled me back toward the couch. I thrashed and kicked and screeched, desperate to get away. My body bounced once as I was flipped onto the couch cushions. I twisted to my side, ready to spring back up, but sudden weight forced me down. One hand pressed against my head, and the other gripped my right arm, pinning me against the cushions.
I screamed and writhed, spewing curses and calling him every name I could think of.
“What’s wrong with him?” Aiden’s anxious voice joined the chaos.
“Go in the other room, honey.” Mother’s rushed footsteps. Her voice was choked with tears. “Go. Go stay with Lucy.”
“Get off! Get off me!” My angry shouts dissolved into pitiful wails. “You’re a filthy liar! She’s not dead! You’re a liar!”
“Jack, why would we lie to you?” my father demanded, clamping me against the couch.
I let out a rage-filled growl, tears welling up in my eyes and streaming down my face. His grip on my arm was beginning to hurt. My chest began to heave with agonized, wracking sobs. I buried my face in the cushions as I cried, trying to shut out the world. Everything inside me screamed against the reality that my parents had shoved in my face. It wasn’t real. It just couldn’t be real. A painful silence settled over the room. My father’s grip loosened, then released, and his weight lifted.
“It’s okay, sweetie,” my mother murmured between sobs, stroking my hair. “It’s okay.”
Through blurred vision, I saw my father dialing the phone.
A week later, I was taken to the institution against my will. I couldn’t remember the name of the place. It was outside town, white inside and out, a clean, cheery hell. My parents helped me pack and then dropped me off with promises of visitations and blah blah blah. I hated it there, and I hated my parents for separating me from my brother and sister. My room was small and confining. No windows. The people running the place – smiley bastards as cruel as any killer – treated me with drugs and counseling and all sorts of rehabilitation classes. They played with my mind, observing my every step and controlling everything around me. They tried to pick apart my reality, my beliefs.
They filled me with drugs until nothing mattered anymore.
My days were ordered for me – meals at the same time, lights out at nine-thirty, a walk in the courtyard every afternoon. The consistency gnawed at me, leaving each day a mirror-image of the next. Madness crept into my head, and they began using more sedatives to keep me “under control”.
My roommate, a middle-aged, volatile man, always said, “Better drugs than the straight-jacket.”
He chanted that phrase over and over while I was trying to sleep, making me shiver.
Months later, my parents got a court order, allowing them to give me electroshock therapy. This wasn’t as bad as the drugs, but I hated waking up disoriented and sore, my memories slurred together like a bad night of drinking. My health continued to deteriorate.
For my eighteenth birthday, I got another court order holding me there against my will, but I was determined to get out. I went to their classes, participated in the exercises, acted like I was getting better. Sometimes I questioned myself, my beliefs, the idea that I was dead, but the truth returned to me, and I clung to it with all my might.
A year later, they determined me fit to leave, and my parents welcomed me home. I treated them with calm, cool distance and moved out the first chance I got. I couldn’t stand being trapped at home with all those bad memories. I acted as cordially as I could manage and jumped through their hoops, letting them check on my apartment every week and occasionally seeing a counselor. After wasting a year and a half of my life locked in a white-walled cage, I never wanted to go back, so I hid my “delusion”.
But they can never take my truth from me. They can never steal the precious reality I’ve created for myself. I will keep looking for Courtney. I will keep following the light of my beautiful star.
And I’ll never forfeit my freedom.