The REC room was relatively quiet for a Friday afternoon. A ray of sunshine shimmered in beautiful reds and vibrant oranges along the far wall. It almost made up for the dark grey water spots I had to stare at every day. Sometimes, if I focused on the spots long enough, I was convinced I could see them spread.
The air was thick with humidity. A stagnant heat hung in the air from the century old radiator. A boiler in the basement pushed wet air thought the pipes. The built up pressure making the pipes rattle and clang through the depths of the hospital.
Two kids, both in stained bathrobes, played table tennis in the corner. Neither had bothered to change into something clean. In all likelihood, they would wear the same soiled clothes until Monday. They were unfazed at the social implications of being dirty. Another two guys sat around and watched the white ball go back and forth.
Entertainment was scarce. We weren’t allowed any electronics, including our phones. All we had was a single television set enclosed in a white metal cage on the far end of the room. There was cable, but all of the good channels were blocked from our access. There was a small library of paperback novels, but all of the books were geared towards children under ten.
Everything was censored from the books to the mail we received. Our minds were easily influenced by the stimuli around us. The doctors were careful in what we had access to.
I sat with three other guys at a square table playing Texas Hold’em. We couldn’t play for actual money, but I was still theoretically up by thirty five thousand dollars. When you’re committed to a mental hospital did reality matter all that much?
One of the lesser known departments at the hospital was the adolescent mental health residential rehabilitation center. Some of you might know it as an insane asylum for kids. Kind of like Batman’s Arkham Asylum, without all the murdering. People avoided us like the plague. We were the unwanted. We were the deranged, and like many here, held against our will.
Was it surprising the judicial system favored the sane? Striping our civil liberties because we were labeled dangerous to the public. We were all minors and at the mercy of our parents and guardians.
It’s not hard for a parent to have their child committed. A quick call to a crisis team and bingo, bango you can end up in a psychiatric hospital, too. My own mother had me committed a couple of years ago. It was against the advice of my therapist, my psychiatrist, my school social worker, and my step-father, but my mother felt differently. She did it anyway.
“I’ll raise a hundred,” Zane said. “If I were you, I’d be worried. You should all just fold now. This hand is insane!”
Zane was a seventeen year old schizophrenic high school student. Don’t let his age fool you. He already resembled a guy over twenty one. Didn’t even need a fake ID to buy booze.
Zane nervously, but with intensity, pulled a hair out from his dark brown beard. Examined it and rolled it around in his thumb and index finger. When he was satisfied he flicked it onto the floor.
In poker when players bluffed or held a great hand they gave off unintentional signals with their bodies, called tells. Everyone had at least one tell, whether they knew it or not. Sometimes they were more obvious like Zane’s consistent hair plucking when he was lying or nervous. Other tells were harder to identify, but always there if you paid attention.
If he was holding a good hand, he would raise his eyebrows as he shuffled his cards. A simple gesture, but something I’ve picked out. The reaction only lasted a couple of seconds, but he had already done it six out of the last ten hands. I knew all of his tells from playing poker with him, twice a day, for the last two years. He was actually a terrible liar, which was ironic considering the nature for his delusions. He was convinced he played roulette with Marilyn Monroe in a Las Vegas casino during the 1950′s. According to Zane the casino also happened to be run by a organized crime family of werewolves. Again, wasn’t judging, just making entertaining observations.
I considered Zane a friend, but I didn’t know if it was out of necessity or if I actually wanted to be friends with him. It could be depressing without someone to talk to. It was hard having a normal conversation up here. It was easier talking to one person in private than a whole bunch of other people in group therapy. It was difficult divulging your most intimate details around a bunch of guys you didn’t know. Not to mention there was a therapist sitting smack down in the middle of the group to judge us all. He had the ability to transfer you to the adult mental ward on the eighth floor. As much as I hated the tenth floor, the eighth was much scarier.
I never said I wasn’t crazy. Everyone had there own reasons to be locked up and I was not the exception. That didn’t mean I had to like the experience.
To my side was Aaron, a fifteen year old kid with bipolar depression disorder with psychotic episode. He was obsessed with complex conspiracy theories, of which everyone in the end was somehow conspiring against him. He already held a bachelors from an ivy league school in Boston. I thought it was bullshit too, until I saw the newspaper article he keeps in his room. Aaron is a genius with an 171 IQ. A really smart kid, but you would never know it. It was rare for Aaron to utter a word over four letters.
His room was plastered with the most random butch of pictures, news articles, and charts. There were headlines reporting the death of politicians, the creation of new drugs that were no better than the old, climate changes blamed on aliens, CIA dealings in New Zealand, and even sightings of alligators in the sewers of New York. Just some of the unrelated topics littering any empty space along the wall.
At first he was using red string to show the connections, creating spider like webs around his room. The nurses were afraid he would strangle another kid with them so made him use marker instead.
Zane showed his hand with two jacks. I could beat that with a pair of fours and queens. I watched as Aaron set down a full house; two sevens and three kings. He had me beat.
“Thought I had that,” I said as I threw my cards into the pile. “I won’t miss this crap, I can tell you that.”
Aaron pulled in his winnings. Several stacks of multi-colored poker chips, a Superman comic, and a candy bar. Value was sometimes determined on the spot. A comic book was considered entertainment and something to idolize. They were more valuable than money in this place.
I was pretty sure out of the four of us, Tommy was the only one with violent tendencies. We had all seen his tantrums. He could be a danger to everyone around him, so we tried not pissing him off. I saw one of his tantrums before. It wasn’t pretty. Tore everything up in his room and tried stabbing a nurse. The majority of the time he was quiet, calm, and pleasant to be around. You could tell when he was going to loose his shit. It didn’t feel right to judge. After all, we were all here for a reason. Everyone on the tenth floor of Jefferson Presbyterian Hospital was.
“I can’t believe you’re leaving us, Charlie.” Tommy said as he shuffled the cards. He was a sixteen year old short black kid with bad acne. In the year I’ve known him he never shared his diagnosis and no one ever asked. Sometimes he freaked out putting everyone around him in danger. But when he was calm he was also a really cool guy. Guy could talk your ear off. He could destroy a bed room in the middle of the night and no one would know why, but he had your back if anything happened.
“Who’s going to be our forth?” Tommy asked while he waved his hand. “You tell me. You think any of these dum dums could replace you?”
“It’s going to be fine, man,” I laughed. I bet you replace me before dinner tomorrow night.”
“That’s not my point, Charlie,” Tommy explained. “I know your ass is easy to replace. I already have a list of seven dudes.” He pulled out an actual piece of paper with names and waved it in front of my face. “I’m talking about our crew. We need at least four guys in this crew. You see anyone else that could take your spot?”
I knew Tommy would miss me. It was just his way of saying good bye. He wasn’t completely in touch with his feelings but he was better than most. All of us except had trouble with things like emotions. It was something we were all working on, so it was cool that Tommy tried.
Aaron spoke up next while Tommy dealt out the next hand. Everyone tossed in two red chips for the ante. The pot quickly grew by several comic books, more candy, and a bag of Doritos.
“Charlie,” Aaron began, “You and I have been roommates for two years, five months, three weeks, three days, eight hours, and twenty two minutes.”
“You just pulled those numbers out of your ass,” Zane butted in causing everyone including Aaron to laugh.
Without acknowledging the interruption Aaron continued, “In all of that time, I never once made a crude remark about your sister, your mother, or any other female member of your family. I want you to know that I used restraint because unlike these other heathens I respect you as a friend.”
I wasn’t sure where this was going, but the others were grinning like idiots. The filth that traveled through our conversations would make a seasoned carny blush.
“Thank you for that?” I questioned.
“You are welcome,” Aaron replied. “Now that you’re eighteen and getting out of here, I can say for certain that I would bang your sister.”
“If only you could keep that restraint for another eight hours,” I replied with sarcasm. “Okay... So I know none of you guys will miss me, but I’ve given my number to Zane just in case you loons ever get out of here.”
It occurred to me Aaron, Tommy, and Zane were the only friends I had. They were three of the nicest sociopaths I knew. I would miss them, even if being friends in the real world wasn’t an option.
Zane didn’t say anything about me leaving. He was usually quiet, but I wondered why he hadn’t said goodbye. He knew I was getting out months ago. He understood the law better than any of us. He seemed intelligent, and wise beyond his years. He was also incredibly relaxed for a mental patient. He seemed to be happy as long as I’ve been here. It’s like he’s on vacation from his real life.
Without warning, the overhead lights dimmed, which usually signaled lights out, but it was hours too early for bed. Seconds later, I heard the singing before the door to the REC room opened. Nurses and orderlies walked in carrying a cake topped with lit candles. I counted eighteen and blew them out when the song was over. Everyone clapped and wished me luck.
“Happy birthday, Charlie,” Zane said to me when the group finally dispersed. He handed me a small green felt box. The ones used for engagement rings. I questioned him with a look.
“I’m not proposing,” he smirked, “Just don’t open it until later.” After an awkward moment of silence, he added, “I might not show it, but I’m going to miss you, man.”
“I’ll... miss you, too.” I awkwardly replied. “When you get out hit me up in New York. You can stay with me until you get on your feet. The city is a great place to live.”
“Thanks, man,” Zane said as we pounded fists. “Don’t open that around any of the other guys.”
“What a strange request,” I pointed out.
“I don’t want the others feeling jealous, because I didn’t get them anything,” he joked.
I thanked Zane for the going away present and put the box away, promising I would wait to open it.
I checked the clock. I still had five hours until my actual eighteenth birthday. Tomorrow morning I was legally an adult. That meant I was still too young to drink, but old enough to take control of my life. Starting tomorrow, I was no longer going to be a patient at Jefferson Presbyterian Hospital.
For the past two years I worked their programs and played their games. I’ve convinced them that I was doing well and didn’t need further treatment. I wasn’t completely free just yet. I still had an exit interview with my doctor to pass the next morning. The doctor could easily force me to go to adult residential treatment if he thought other wise.
I was completely packed and ready to go. My bag was neatly resting on the floor near the door. I would leave at the stroke of midnight if they let me, but discharges only happened in the mornings before lunch. That way, if you couldn’t handle being out of the hospital, you could just come back later that day.
When I returned to my room I found a large package resting on my bed. I asked Aaron where it came from, but he hadn’t seen who left it. It didn’t have a name or label on it either.
Before I realized it, Aaron started to wig out. He called for a bug sweep, which meant I had to check the entire package for electronic listening and tracking devices. It was one of those times Aaron’s paranoia could be a burden.
After five minutes without finding anything wrong with the package Aaron gave me permission to open it. I tore open the wrapping and on top of a red box was a small white card with three words. I knew my mother’s handwriting the instant I read, “Happy Birthday, Charlie.” She was never one for flare. I opened the box and found a black puffy winter coat. It was my favorite color, and water proof, if the tag was telling the truth.
Was this destiny? Did my mother know where I was going when as soon as I left the hospital? I hadn’t told anyone and yet I had a strange feeling she had known. Wasn’t the coat an indication of her acceptance of my journey? Did she have any idea in what I was really doing?
I remembered the small box Zane gave me and took it out of my pocket. I looked around but Aaron had wondered away disappointed my present wasn’t more fun. I was relieved there was no ring inside when I opened the box. At first I thought it was a pearl, but then realized I was wrong. In the missing ring’s place was a lone glass marble set snuggly into the box’s felt interior. I took it out and rolled it between the tips of my fingers. It was a normal toy marble with blue with white ribbons circling around the inside of the sphere.
I had never seen anyone actually play marbles before. I was uncertain what to do with it. I wasn’t sure I understood the significance. After a moment of confusion I thought there was no way this kid’s toy held any real meaning. It was a gift from a crazy person, nothing more.
I laughed to myself, but in an instant everything turned solemn. The marble held significance to Zane. That was enough. I didn’t have the slightest idea what the marble was supposed to mean, but he did. The more I thought about it, the more it became easier to accept. Zane was delusional, making the marble that much more special for reasons only he knew. Nothing more to it. I set the marble back into the box and tossed it into my duffle.
My entire life fit into one military size duffle bag. My whole life summed up with one week’s worth of clothing, one cheap prepaid cell phone for emergencies, and one blue and white marble a friend had given me for a going away present. What more did I need?
The next morning, I woke up early to get ready for my final meeting with Dr. Patrick, my psychiatrist on the tenth floor. The shrink channeled Dr. Sigmund Freud, fully equipped with a white neatly trimmed beard and brown tweed jacket.
He was leaning back in his chair, relaxed, and his leg were crossed at the knee. He scanned his notes and added a few more words to the page. Flipping back and forth he compared some point he made months ago back to the current analysis. Was he pleased? Did he buy it? Had I fooled them well enough?
We sat in his office and talked about my time at the hospital. Did I find the experience helpful?
Would I want to be referred to an adult out patient program?
When he jotted down more notes I wondered what I said that was so interesting. I wasn’t sure what constituted importance anymore. I wouldn’t need a doctor in the first place if I understood that.
“In my opinion,” Dr. Patrick began, “I think you should find a therapist in the city that you find comfortable enough to share your thoughts with. If you change your mind about it give me a call and I can refer someone to you.”
I took the doctor’s business card and slipped it into my jean pocket. “If I change my mind, I will,” I said.
“Just sign this and you are free to go,” he added as he handed me a clipboard.
I held the release papers on my lap and all I had to do was sign them. Then I could finally escape this place. I was a completely free man once my signature was set in black ink. I started to put the pen to paper, but I could feel a shift in my vision.
The shadows were moving again. All around the room, blobs of darkness were taking shape and moving around everything. They danced in my eyes, but I ignored them and focused on the papers in my lap.
I looked up after a long moment of silence. I held the pen, ready to sign, but I was stalling. The shadows swirled around, as my mind thought through all of the possible outcomes once I signed the forms. Why was I stalling? I wanted to get out of here more than any other patient, so why was I stalling?
“Are you certain about this?” The doctor asked when I looked up. I realized he had asked the question several times without my response. He looked genially concerned about my wellbeing, that much I understood.
“Just because you’re old enough to make this decision doesn’t mean you have too, Charlie. Don’t let the resentment you hold towards your mother cloud your judgment. Continue under my treatment for a little while longer.”
“Sorry, doctor, I just needed a moment to collect my thoughts. No need to worry about me. I’m already much better, thanks to you,” I said with some embellishment. Yes, I made progress, but no, I wasn’t cured. “I don’t want to be here anymore,” I declared. I couldn’t look him in the eyes when I spoke. I needed to be out in the real world, not caged up like an animal. “I can tell the difference between what’s real and what isn’t.” I looked around the room at the shadows that weren’t there and sighed after Dr. Patrick looked away. “I’m not like the rest of them,” I said as I tried to believe my lies. “I know when I’m seeing things that aren’t real. I know my brain is messed up, Dr. Patrick, but I can tell the difference,” I continued. “You’ve tried to help me the best you could, but I’ve given up on getting any better. I just want to live my life. Out there with normal people.”
“I assume your mother doesn’t know about your decision, Charlie. Are you going home? If not, do you know where you’ll go? What you’ll do for money? I don’t want you sleeping in the streets.”
Dr. Patrick was the closest thing I had to a father. A very analytic father who prescribed powerful sedatives. My real dad died years ago, before I can even remember, at the age of four. The first four years with him were long enough to feel the empty space his absence left behind.
“I have a plan Dr. Patrick, but I appreciate how you’re looking out for me.” I played with the pen, clicking it with my thumb. “I know how much you’ve helped me the past couple of years. I just want to thank you for everything.”
I signed the forms and left them on his desk. I was done stalling. I was ready to go, but not entirely ready to go home. I had to go somewhere first. Somewhere I would get answers about my past. About who I really was.
“You’re welcome, Charlie,” Dr. Patrick said as he shuffled the papers on his desk. “Should I get you a copy of these? I could mail them if you don’t want to wait.”
He noticed my anxiety. It must have been all over my face. If he mailed the forms home, my mother would know I was gone. That was if Dr. Patrick hadn’t already told her. She was going to find out one way or another. Did I care how it happened?
“Mail them, please,” I answered before picking my duffle off the ground. I was ready to step out the door, and into freedom when doubt entered my mind. What if I failed? What if I couldn’t live outside these walls? Again, I clung to my belief. I could tell the difference. I could distinguish between a hallucination and the real thing.
The bus reached Allentown on time. When the overhead lights came on everyone stood to collect their things. I swung my duffle over my shoulder and followed the line off the bus. I immediately checked the schedule for my next departure.
Unfortunately, my bus out of Allentown didn’t leave for another hour, which meant I had time to kill. Killing time in a bus station was hard. Unless you brought your own entertainment you were pretty much screwed. I didn’t even have a smart phone. On top of that, there was nothing around the station for miles in any direction. I wish I had kept a couple of comics to kill time.
I wasn’t hungry, but I still hadn’t eaten since breakfast. I knew if I didn’t get something in my stomach I could get really bad heart burn. Or worse, trigger an episode.
I didn’t notice when the sun set, but it was completely dark outside. I grabbed a chocolate bar from the vending machine and coffee from the small cafe. The terminal was nearly empty so it was easy to find an open bench. The sickly glow of yellow fluorescents gave everything and everyone an ill and pasty appearance.
The bus terminal was a melting pot of the poor and disenfranchised. From a high school stoner on the way to a concert, to a homeless man heading to the V.A. The estranged mother. The absent junky dad. Everyone here had only one thing in common. They were alone.
A nurse was on her way to see her daughter for the first time in ten years. Her daughter didn’t know she was on her way. The woman thought the surprise would work in her favor. I wondered if her daughter would forgive her mother for abandoning her? Or was the woman just wasting her time?
The hallucinations were easy to ignore. They were just strange dark shadows and flashes of color. No, the hallucinations were not the problem. They were a piece of cake compared to the migraines.
The episodes started out as annoying headaches, and over time grew in severity, exponentially. It was a major attacking force on my brain and turned my innards out, every time.
Add extreme vertigo, a large amount of vomiting, and the all so vivid hallucinations and you began to understand the world I lived in since the age of ten. At least one migraine every three days depending on stress. Since being admitted to the hospital I was able to limit them to one every week with the help of medication.
The hallucinations were annoying, but not as intense since I started the antipsychotics. They were not vivid enough to cause me any confusion with what was real. Now, the visions would blend in with the back ground. I could tell the difference between a hallucination and what was real. I wasn’t lying to the doctor about that. I wasn’t harmful to myself or anyone else. I was completely safe outside the hospital, as long as I took my medicine.
The better part of my adolescence was spent being poked and prodded with large painful needles, and subjected to loads of radiation from the EKGs, MRIs and CAT scans. Video games were out of the question in case the game caused me to have an epileptic seizure. I had to be careful around bright lights, loud sounds, and anything that could overwhelm my senses.
When I started to go through puberty I became sickly looking. The migraines made it impossible for me to gain any weight. The headaches grew worse until a little over six months ago, when Dr. Patrick was finally able to find a combination of drugs that would help me. Since then my migraines decreased in frequency and intensity.
The hospital helped me, but it was time to get out. I was aging out of the adolescent unit and didn’t want to get placed in an adult treatment program. I needed to escape from the sterile environment I was trapped in. I could manage the rest of my life on my own.
Every medical test I was given to explain the migraines came back inconclusive. Meaning they couldn’t find anything wrong with me. Medically speaking, I was healthy and in great shape. Every test given showed no sign of what was causing the problem. Every pin prick, every vial of blood given, and every known physical test came back normal. If nothing physical was wrong with me, the doctors assumed my problem was undeniably mental health related. Everything was in my head, they told my mom. She committed me to Jefferson Presbyterian and the doctors came to a conclusion to keep me.
I boarded a bus at grand central station an hour after I left the hospital. I needed to leave the city today, before my mother could stop me.
I didn’t tell my mother because I didn’t want her to ruin my plans. She wouldn’t know I left until tomorrow, probably. I could use the head start. It was easier to ask for forgiveness, than it was to ask for permission.
I never really knew my father. How much can a four year old know about another human being? My entire life my mother kept me away from my father’s side of the family. I was never allowed to meet them and I never knew if they tried to ever find me. Maybe they could tell me what’s wrong with me. Maybe my dad suffered from the same thing. For fourteen years, the problem was I didn’t know where they were.
Then three months ago, I stumbled onto something while searching the net for the Kane family name. With a little detective work I was able to locate my dad’s parents through a review site for bed and breakfast places.
From what I could tell, they owned a bed and breakfast in the mountains of West Virginia. They lived there alone, running the inn together. Other than the location I didn’t know much else. There were no websites for the bed and breakfast called, Sunnyledge, just a review on a message board I traced back using my last name and some hazy photos.
I knew if I asked my mother she would try to persuade me from going. She didn’t want me knowing anything about them. She always changed the subject when I asked or would just outright refuse to tell me. She never let me even talk about my dad’s family in fear she would slip.
With the help of therapy, I knew I was scared of rejection. Therefore, I decided not to call ahead, in case my grandparents didn’t want to see me. I didn’t want to get my hopes up, but at the same time I desperately needed them in my life.
Was I ready to do this? Was I ready to know them? Was I ready to see them? No to all three questions. I wasn’t ready, but I didn’t think I ever would be.
I could always wait to tell them who I was. I could rent a room under a different name and surprise my grandparents when I was finally ready. I had some money saved, so I could spend time getting to know them before revealing myself.
The Sunnyledge was in the mountains along heavily used hiking trails. The message board I found the review on mentioned the busy season was nine months out of the year. Nine months out of the year it was busy, and only during the winter months did it slow down. With the new year coming up it was the perfect time to visit.
I just finished the candy bar when I felt it. A low buzz, the start of a new headache, at the center of my brain. It started with static. A low frequency shriek at the back of my head. It felt like I was picking up white noise. It acted as a warning that something much worse was about to happen.
I had about thirty seconds to find a relatively clean bathroom. Unfortunately, bus stations were not known for their sanitation. I wondered if I would be better off going outside in the snow. I peered out the window and saw only the dreary weather. The cold air would be a relief, but what if I blacked out? I would freeze to death if I wasn’t found in time. I decided to stay inside and found my way to the bathroom.
After checking each stall I choose the lesser of all evils, and went into the middle one. I set my standards lower when I absolutely had too. In this case it was lower than normal.
Inside my head, pain silenced my thoughts, and the state of the facilities dropped to the waste side. My skull felt like it was being ripped in two. The vertigo started next, a world spinning before my eyes.
I hit my head badly on several occasions in the past when I lost my balance. I braced myself against both stall panels. I was just in time. I leaned forward as everything I consumed that day came rushing out. I looked down and the candy bar looked the same as when I ate it. It’s appearance hadn’t changed, because it hadn’t been digested yet. It looked chewed, but still whole. I could have probably pieced it back together.
I could expect a throbbing headache for the next two hours and a guarantee my vision would be clouded by dark shadowy spots. I waited until the room stopped spinning before I cleaned myself off. No sense in cleaning up if I was just going to hurl on myself again.
I looked up at my own reflection in the mirror. My eyes were completely blood shot, void of any other emotion except utter exhaustion. I washed the sickness off my mouth and made the foul taste go away with a pocket tooth brush I kept on me at all times. You never really got used to the taste of bile.
I splashed water on my face. The cool liquid felt refreshing against my burning skin. If only I could stay to ride out the storm brewing inside my head. I needed rest at times like these.
I was extremely hungry at the same time, but the thought of another candy bar from the vending machine made me wince. I decided instead on a bag of corn chips and a bottle of water.
I checked the time. Back at the hospital, on the tenth floor, my friends would be sitting down to salisbury steak and mashed potatoes. I ate a couple of corn chips, but was already wishing to be back in the comfort of my own bed. The chips upset my stomach more, so I gave them away to another lonely traveler.
When I boarded the bus I decided to stay awake for the rest of the trip. I needed to figure out what I would say when I got to the Sunnyledge. While my headache dulled and the spinning slowed to a stop I tried to come up with some inventive lie that would explain my sudden appearance.
Would I tell the truth right away? Or would I create a fake identity? Gradually get to know them. If I told a lie would they forgive me once I told the truth? I didn’t want to start my relationship off with a lie. I was going to have to decide soon.
It was only a two hour ride from Allentown to Dumont, West Virginia. I weighed the pros and cons of each choice in the little amount of time I had left. If I told the truth there was a chance, a good chance, they would reject me on the spot. What if it was their choice not to see me this entire time? And what happened if they didn’t let me stay? I had nowhere else to go.
If I lied about who I was I could take the time to get to know them. Decide for myself if it was worth having a relationship with them. Yet, if I lied would they hate me for not telling them sooner? They could resent me either way if they didn’t want me.
It was better if I just told the truth. Tell them who I was right away. I would take my own advice. No sense starting a relationship based on a lie.
As the bus pulled into town I watched the houses zoom by. Their Christmas lights blurring as my eyes kept refocusing. I closed my eyes before the lights triggered my headache.
As we pulled into town I realized how small Dumont really was. Only several blocks created the town square. The driver dropped me off in front of the court house. I was the only one who stepped off the bus.
Seconds after I stepped out onto the snow covered sidewalk, the bus pulled away. The only shelter from the snow was driving out of town as fast as it arrived. Sparkling vibrant white covered every bit of space I could see. The only pause in the endless void were the tire tracks the bus left as it rolled out of town.
I watched the bus shrink as it made its way into the distance. When it was finally out of sight I realized I was completely alone for the first time in my life. I had no one to tell me when to eat, when to sleep, and when to go to the bathroom. I was on my own and utterly petrified, but adrenaline gave me something that resembled courage.
I began to worry that I wasn’t ready to be on my own. My heart rate shot up as my anxiety started to weigh on me. If I wasn’t careful I would have a panic attack, or worse, start to hear the static again. I was still feeling the effects from the last episode and didn’t want to make it worse.
I was able to calm down with a breathing technique I learned in therapy. I closed my eyes and focused on my diaphragm rising and falling. I began to take long and deep breaths, letting them out slowly and methodically. After a few minutes I realized I was calmer.
When I was able to continue I checked the directions. The Sunnyledge was six miles south on Main Street. I turned south, threw my duffle over my shoulder, and began my trek.
I was thankful to my mother for getting me a winter coat, but I hadn’t factored in my other clothing. My sneakers were already soaked through to my socks, less than a mile in. I couldn’t stop and there was no where to go back to.
By the second mile I was feeling my muscles straining under my jeans. My legs were working but I was having trouble feeling my feet. The cold was causing them to go numb. My heart was pounding in my chest, but it felt amazing. The mountain air tasted clean, crisp, and unpolluted. I exhaled a cloud of wintery vapor and thought about how much I was sweating. I could feel the roughness of the wet cotton begin to chaff between my legs. Even with how uncomfortable I was, for the first time in years I felt alive.
I looked up into the sky as if I had never seen it before. I was drawn to the brilliant full moon hanging around a blanket of stars. Billions of bright balls of fire stretched out into space, going on forever. I started to feel I would fall out into the open sky if I didn’t get a handle on things. I stopped and looked down at the ground around me and took the time to catch my breath.
The reflection from the moon on the sheet of snow illuminated the world. It was night, yet I could see everything as if it was mid-dusk. I imagined the view from the sky. I was on the earth in the middle of a forest, walking along a windy road. I felt insignificant and lost in the world. I was afraid the sky above and the land below would swallow me whole.
By the fifth mile I thought I would never find the house. After a moment of panic, I relaxed when I saw the large house from the pictures. In the distance off the main road stood the somewhat intimidating bed and breakfast. Another half mile and I found the entrance sign at the driveway. I walked up the slight incline towards the house and marveled at my six mile hike.
Cast in an eerie blue light, the Sunnyledge was disorienting. There were no shadows to distort my perception. Every detail of the house was vividly clear. It was like I was looking at a life size model of a mansion.
It was a massive structure that once housed my entire family on my father’s side. The paint was peeling around the porch, cracking in large patches over the stairs and ready to fall off. The house had seen better times, but it was still slightly overwhelming. Oversized white rocking chairs lined the porch, in different states of disarray.
I looked around for a door bell but all I could find was a brass knocker. I could feel each thunder clap against the wood, causing vibrations to move down my arm. In the quiet night, the noise was loud enough to raise the dead.
Before I knocked a second time a light from inside came on. A lone figure came up to the door and undid a dead bolt. The door swung in, revealing a petite middle aged woman wearing a light purple bathrobe and a set of fuzzy pink slippers. I knew it was my grandmother even before she spoke. I could see my features mirrored back to me behind heavy eyes.
“Young man, I hope you want to rent a room and are not just needing directions at this god awful hour.” My grandmother looked me up and down, her eyes scrunching together in confusion. Was there some possibility she knew who I was?
“Hello, yes… well...” After all this time I still didn’t know what to say. I wanted to yell, “I’m your grandson,” but I couldn’t get beyond a few words. I walked in as any other traveler would do. I wasn’t sure if my grandmother recognized me or not.
“I’m sorry I woke you up,” I finally said, “I just got in on a late bus and didn’t have time to call ahead. Is there an available room I could rent for the night?”
She hadn’t heard a word I said. Was she still trying to place me? Did she know somewhere deep down who I was? Then, her face smoothed out in recognition. She smiled for the first time since I walked in.
“Charlie!” She yelped as tears began to form at the corners of her eyes. I nodded and the gap between us shrank considerably when my grandmother pulled me in for a fierce embrace. She pushed me away to look me in the eyes and then pulled be back. “It’s been ages, Charlie. Look at you. The last time I saw you I could pick you up with one hand.” The tears began. “It’s been so many years. I didn’t think I would ever see you again.” She was crying for joy. “Sorry, I’m just so happy to see you,” my grandmother said. If only your grandfather could see you grown up.”
“Papa,” I said. The nickname had come to me out of nowhere. I remembered my grandfather as soon as I said the name. I could remember him, a large man with a thinning hairline and a full mustache above his lips. I remembered sitting in between him and my grandmother... “Nunny,” I said out loud. I called my grandmother, Nunny.
I remembered being in the middle of them in an ancient model Cadillac, a full bench in the front seat. I had been young, a small boy out with his grandparents. I looked around for my grandfather.
“Where is...” I started to ask.
My grandmother shook her head and with a frown said, “Your grandfather passed away, Charlie.”
“When?” I quietly asked.
“Its been several years now, sweetie.”
When we finely parted she eyed my sickly looking frame. “Look at you, you must be famished. It looks like you haven’t eaten in a year.”
I could feel my stomach rumbling at the idea of food. I was rarely hungry and took it as a good sign. I followed her into the kitchen where she started taking out leftovers from the fridge. Our mutual excitement could be felt across the room, while my grandmother put together a plate of chicken and pasta.
She still had a youthful glow around her face and was possibly in her early fifties. The roots of her brown hair were starting to show grey. I could remember her from before and yet she looked no older now.
We started with small talk and moved into the heavier details of my life. I told her all about New York, my condition, what it was like at Jefferson Presbyterian Hospital, and all about my half-sister, Madison. I spent a while telling her about my mother, but changed the subject when I didn’t want to talk about her anymore.
“I thought you wouldn’t remember me.” I said shyly.
“How do you think I could forget my only grandson?” My grandmother said sincerely.
She patted my hand and asked me a question I wasn’t prepared for, “In the morning, would you like to see your daddy’s grave?”
The question threw me off. I hadn’t thought about that. My father was still the furthest thing from my mind. I was just happy to meet my grand mother. I never knew where he died or even was buried. My mother would never tell me and after some time I stopped asking.
“I didn’t know his grave was here.” I sheepishly admitted. “Mom doesn’t talk much about my dad. I didn’t even know you existed until a couple of months ago. I found a review on a travel website and had to connect some dots. I was hoping I could stay here for a bit. I’m good at fixing stuff. I can do work around the house if you want. I can even paint the porch before the busy season.”
“You even sound like your daddy,” She grinned. “Especially, his charm,” she added. “Of course you can stay here, Charlie. It’s always been a family business, ain’t it? Stay as long as you want.” I gave my grandmother a hug. Nothing else at that moment could have made me happier.
After she showed me to my room she said, “Charlie, do me a favor and call your mother tomorrow. Let her know you’re safe. A mother always worries about her children.”
“I will,” I said and gave my grandmother a kiss goodnight. I didn’t want to argue about it. In truth I wasn’t sure I was going to tell her yet.
“Charlie,” my grandmother said before turning away, “It’s good to have you back.”
“Thank you, Nunny. It’s good to be back.”
I unpacked my clothes and placed everything in a large ornate dresser. I picked out a thick grey wool sweater and a pair of blue jeans for tomorrow. A hole in my jeans formed at the knee and another one around my back pocket. They were still the nicest pair of jeans I owned.
I didn’t need much in the way of comfort or accommodations, but the Sunnyledge’s guest rooms were extravagant. I had a king size, four post bed, and surrounded by matching night stands. A single column dresser with four drawers was placed next to the window. The room was much more elegant than I was comfortable with, but I wasn’t going to complain.
I didn’t see a flat panel anywhere. A lack of a television was going to be a bit of a problem. Even in the hospital there was always something to watch. Although there was a lot of the Disney Channel playing. I would have to figure it out in the morning.
As I got ready for bed I stood in the bathroom looking at my reflection. I was a shell of who I remembered from before the hospital. I looked exhausted. My eyes were sunken, with dark circles hanging like shadows around my cheek bones. I looked like I hadn’t slept or eaten in a year. The hospital had taken more out of me than I realized.
I was too exhausted to worry about sleeping in a strange bed. Especially when that bed was as comfortable as this one. I fell asleep happy for the first time since I could remember. For the moment everything was perfect.