Every ticking second urged: run run run. My heart hammered so loudly, I splayed my hand against my ribs to calm it and held my breath so they wouldn’t hear. I don’t belong here. The walls of the empty corridor pressed closer, and the air seemed too thin.
Murmured conversations echoed down the hallway from rooms. In controlled steps, I shuffled toward the exit, feigning interest in my nails. Wish I knew how they got so ragged. Like the rest of me. Someday I’ll find out. But not today. Today was all about getting the hell out of this place, with its too-sanitized rooms and its less than sanitary personnel, pushing pills, or threats, at every opportunity.
If I move slowly enough, no one will notice. My steps soundless, I glided toward the doors. Only a few more feet. I’ll make it this time.
“Where are you going?” a woman called from down the hall.
Surely as if her voice had been a Taser, a shock went through me, froze me in place. Shit! I made myself as immobile as possible, wanting to fade from sight. My nerves threatened to shake loose from my skin. Don’t show fear. If they’re ever going to believe me, I have to show them I believe in myself.
I infused authority in my voice. Certainty. “It’s almost three thirty three. I have an appointment.”
The nurse heaved an exasperated sigh. “No, you don’t. We’ve been over this. Come back to the common room.” Rubbery soles squeaked nearer as the woman crossed the floor.
Nails bit into my palm as my fists clenched. I fought to maintain my composure. I’m so close. I can’t lose it now. “They’re waiting. If I don’t go soon—”
“Didn’t we talk about this?” The clatter signaled the nurse had set down her clipboard on the front counter. Any moment, the woman would be within reach.
Dammit! My chance would be shot. Again.
“Yes.” No use trying to make them understand. My mind raced with possible arguments, but I could never remember who, exactly, I was supposed to meet. Only that it was critical.
“Let’s go to the common room and see what the others are up to.” The nurse’s lack of enthusiasm balanced her exasperation.
“No.” Damn these ceiling lights, so bright the grit on the tile showed. Why couldn’t they do something about that? Why always pester me? Force me to play inane board games? Ask stupid questions when they knew I had no answers? I hated them, hated the therapy groups, hated the staff. Especially the night attendant, who watched me too closely, who whispered strange things to me. Things I couldn’t repeat because no one would believe me about that either. Warnings, about keeping my mouth shut, or I’d be ‘dead for real’.
Better than this twilight haze I endure every day. Dying would at least give me a clear direction. Right now, I knew only one thing: I had to leave. Get away from the stale air, pompous staff and regimented schedules. Oh, I’d had a tough schedule before, I was almost certain, but on my terms. I pushed myself, not the other way around. Always my worst critic, but how else could I stay on top?
Right. If I could only remember: on top of what? And where? I could conjure no memory of arriving here, only awakening to a roomful of strangers. Including myself.
The nurse sighed. “I hope I don’t have to ask again…”
An implied threat hung in the air like a bee with its stinger pointed directly at me. A stinger I knew would take me back to the hazy place, where shadows lurked. Menacing images that meant more harm than these bozos.
I can’t let them trap me any longer.
A wisp of a whisper rushed through my head: Run. It echoed, its force pushing the word at me again and again in a never-ending wave of frothing urgency. It built inside me like a whirlwind. Like a scream. It propelled me out the door, arms and legs scrambling wildly. Blood roared in my ears, muting the cacophony of shouts erupting behind me. Closing in, becoming louder. Shoes thudded nearer on the pavement. Damn the sunlight – too bright, blinding. Tires squealed and a horn blared as a car screeched to a stop inches away, the heat from its engine rising like a breath beneath the metal hood.
The noise and light paralyzed me. I covered my ears to block out the screaming, mine or someone else’s, I had no clue. But instead of bringing relief, everything collided in my head. A stream of memories rushed up like a roar until my senses threatened to explode. Screams from another day, disconnected flashes of another accident. One that hadn’t missed. And another place, even more terrifying than inside this facility. The weight of those memories sent me crashing to the pavement.
On either side, strong hands grabbed my stiffened arms and jerked me upright.
I twisted in their viselike grip and yelled, “Let me go! I have to go.”
The sting of a needle burned through my thigh. Even as I floated down, weightless, a black edge closing out the sunlit world, I knew.
I’d missed the appointment again.
They wouldn’t wait much longer.
The sedative haze thinned. Without opening my eyes, I knew I was back in my room. Exactly where I didn’t want to be.
I kept my eyes closed and tried to float on the sunshine pouring in, warming me. A night must have passed. Waking would mean going through the same meaningless routine. Breakfast with a roomful of strangers. A walk outside. Interrogations masked as therapy, all of which ended in a stalemate.
The doctor insisted the appointment I insisted on keeping was simply a metaphor for something else. When I countered it could be a memory – my sole memory – he waved it off as impossible. I’d stopped arguing, but remained convinced. Every day, the need to keep that appointment intensified, tugging on me with greater and greater urgency. And every day, my desperation grew.
Fingering the edge of the sheet, I wondered how long I could pretend to sleep. If I pilfered food from passing trays, I could avoid the structured nonsense they forced on me. If I had to sit through one more group session, I might go postal. Such a farce, all of it.
Two orderlies shuffled in and talked in hushed tones. Their conversation had taken an interesting turn, so I silenced my brain and listened, trying not to wince at the pine-scented cleaner as they swished their mops around the bed.
“Have they found out yet?” one asked.
“No, still no idea. Weird, huh?”
“You wouldn’t think it possible. Not when a freakin’ cell phone can locate a person these days.”
“She didn’t have no cell phone, no purse, nothing.”
“What about fingerprints? Everybody got those.”
“Hers don’t match any in the system. There’s no record anywhere.”
One woman hooted a laugh. “A person can’t exist without a record.”
“Not unless something’s really wrong.”
Not unless something’s really wrong. Tell me something I didn’t already know. Can’t exist without a record? That held a kernel of truth too. My very existence felt wrong.
Like the first time I’d caught my reflection in the bathroom. I’d said, Excuse me, thinking another patient stood in front of me. When no response came, I stared for the longest time, unable to process that the eyes I looked through were set in the face looking back at me. I still had no clue who that person staring out from the mirror was. Not me, that was for damn sure. The mousy, shoulder-length brown hair matched mousier brown eyes set in a round face. The sight still stunned me.
But could I conjure a clear image of my true self? Hell no.
It was all wrong. Most of all, being trapped here.
An involuntary shudder made me clutch the bed sheets closer. Even that small motion brought the reminder that this body was all wrong. Legs and arms too short, my limbs never moved like I expected, always making me reach further.
Through a smile, an orderly said in warning, “Oh look, she’s awake.”
Great. Now I’d have to deal with them. Feigning confusion, I fluttered open my eyes, glanced around and sat up a little.
One of the woman adjusted the pillow behind me. “Feelin’ better now?” she asked, her smile too bright.
My nod dismissed the question. ‘Better’ had come to be a relative term. Relative to each bizarre moment.
“Need anything?” the other asked.
Nothing they could give me. I shook my head and turned to the window.
The other woman reached for the blinds. “Does the light bother you? I could close—”
“No.” My hand shot out, the window as far from my reach as the too-blue sky, the idyllic panorama beyond the glass.
Both women startled, and sent warning glances to one another.
To calm them, stop them from calling for someone to inject me with more drugs, I softened my voice. “Please. I like to look outside.”
Someday I’d be out there. Someday soon.
Ms. Harding sat at her desk, pleasantness masking the urgency of her words. “Have you any clue where your family is?”
Did they think I wanted to be abandoned? I’d have called someone – anyone – the first second I’d awakened in this hellhole. “No.”
On the credenza behind the director, silver frames displayed photos of Harding with a man, their smiles stiff. A boy and girl smiled from flanking photos.
Leaning forward to study me, Harding splayed her hands across the leather-bound ink blotter, perfectly arranged on the desk.
How did I know details like that, and not my own name?
The director’s chair squeaked as she shifted. “We have a dilemma.”
As if it were somehow my fault. Or had been withholding information on purpose. Right, because I loved the tapioca so much.
The night nurse accidentally mentioned something about this meeting.
Ever since, I couldn’t wait. For weeks, I’d played along with their suggestions. Agreed with whatever they said. Pretended to downplay the importance of the appointment. It had killed me, but if I was going to get out of here, I had to play nice. Follow the rules. Just so I could get to this moment.
Now that it had arrived, I thought I might jump out of my skin, waiting for it to happen.
Mrs. Harding spoke as if reciting the rote sentences to a group. “Our services here are top notch, but are limited without the proper paperwork.”
Insurance. Just say it. You can’t keep me here without someone paying for it. A distant recollection struggled to come to light from the back of my brain. Who knew, all I had to do was remind them I had no way to pay for my stay in their facility? A news story teased my brain from its recesses, but I couldn’t recall the details – something about state cutbacks, agencies closing cases of need and passing the buck to other agencies, severing benefits to people who couldn’t live without them. This facility must depend on state funds.
“Given your steady progress…” The director put on her glasses, pretending to read a report in her file.
What a joke. The woman couldn’t even look me in the eye.
Mrs. Harding continued. “…we’re releasing you.”
The word released something inside me too. Finally, I could walk out and no one would stop me. “When?”
It seemed to pain Harding to say, “Today.”
Tensing, I willed myself not to jump up, give them cause to detain me. Let me out. Now.
“We’d prefer to have family pick you up,” Harding said, “but due to the circumstances, that’s impossible.”
The circumstances. Nice way of dancing around the obvious. They had no more clue about my identity than I did. “No problem.”
Harding frowned at the paperwork. “Though we’d rather have verification, you appear to be of age, so I’ll ask you to sign.”
Grabbing a pen from the silver holder, I leaned forward. “Where?”
Momentarily startled, Mrs. Harding slid the paper toward me and pointed to the line marked by an X.
Elation heightened the moment, but then I gripped the pen, frustrated. “I…”
Sympathy filled the director’s face, and her voice softened. “Jane Doe will do. Any signature might help us later.”
Identifying a person by handwriting was an imprecise science. That I knew the fact irked me further. I scrawled the name anyway, but felt like a fraud.
Another sheet slid toward me over the shiny wooden surface.
“These shelters can help you until you find your way,” said Harding.
Oh, I’d find my way. Today, I’d make that appointment.
Harding droned on about my options for outpatient care, local support groups, the case worker that would follow up. “If you’re unable to find work, the state has programs to assist you until you’re back on your feet.”
Back on my feet? Oh, how priceless. It was all I could do not to laugh, so I nodded. To argue now that these were not my own feet would set me back too far. I had to get out today.
In frustration, Mrs. Harding pursed her lips. “You’re obviously educated. Many employers would be happy to hire you.”
The implication came through clear: find a job, support yourself. Thanks for the recommendation. Sure, Harding’s hands were tied, she had to work within the system.
Identity crisis aside, what if I was truly insane? Would they still kick me to the curb?
The urge to write about my experience, share it with the world, would have to wait. “Are we done?”
As if the words smarted, the director’s brows flew up, and then furrowed with sadness as Mrs. Harding nodded.
Save the pity for someone who needs it, lady. “Goodbye then.” Before—in other times—I’d have wrapped it up with Nice to meet you, or some other pleasantry. Vague images of walking away from meeting acquaintances, maybe associates, disturbed me. Always dressed in fashionable clothes. I had been educated. Held a job of influence. I was almost positive. Where had it all gone?
After clenching the chair arms, I propelled myself through the door.
The appointment. I’d find out. This afternoon.
Anticipation pushed me down the hallway. No point going back to my room. Everything I owned, I wore. Though who selected the worn jeans, the tee shirt and oversized hoodie sweatshirt, I had no clue. Certainly not an outfit I’d choose for myself. The shoes alone made me cringe – dingy blue Keds. My toes curled in protest, longing for sleek spiked heels.
Light streamed through the entrance, unusually bright. Something in it called to me, urged me on. I had to follow it. With one final glance at the clock, I hurried to the door. One forty seven. Less than two hours.