by Heather Lynn Horvat
Each night was the same: the needle pinched me awake from a deep sleep, a soft female voice told me everything was all right and to “go back to sleep, honey.” Like an apparition, she’d leave. At six a.m. a different nurse—an assertive female voice sounding as if a frog was in her throat (as my mother used to say)—woke me, telling me I’d miss breakfast if I didn’t get out of bed. I never asked, “What if I’m not hungry?”
This morning was no different. The underside of my left arm was wrapped: the blue bulging vein ran from one side of the nude-colored bandage, disappearing. Above, the angry red gashes were beginning to heal. I picked at the scab; I wanted a scar.
My roommate snored. That’s all she ever did. I tapped my middle finger on the thin bunch of blankets. Thirty-six rhythmic snores before she choked momentarily on her tongue. A person doesn’t dream while snoring. My roommate, with her tawny hair, was never awake long enough for me to develop pity for her, or to know if her snores were a defense mechanism of sorts. Dreams were all I had left of my sister. Even the nightmares, I savored. I tried not to snore in my sleep.
I didn’t look in the mirror when I went into the shared bathroom. There was no point. I hadn’t changed. Nothing changes here. Except the head count.
I brushed my teeth while counting to one hundred and twenty. Always to one hundred and twenty. I spit the pinkish goop—blood mixed with toothpaste— into the sink. Still refused to look in the mirror.
“Let’s not be late, Sylvie,” Frog Nurse said from the doorway. There was no door to separate bathroom from sleeping room; I couldn’t slam a door like I’d done when I was home, shrieking at my parents that it was their fault, even though I knew it wasn’t.
I emerged and confronted Frog Nurse, her face already dark and tired. She handed me a small white paper cup. More poison. I took the cup without hesitation. I tasted the trees and chemicals that went into molding that cup for me to use, crumple, discard. The pills were coated and had no taste. She watched me dress in dark blue scrubs. Each morning she stared; I suspected she checked for new cuts.
I took my breakfast tray back to my room. An orange. Hot tea now lukewarm. A piece of toasted white bread, the butter already melted. I broke off a corner of the toast, chewed twenty-eight times—the age my sister should have been—and swallowed the gummy mess. Another bite, another twenty-eight chews. The tea I sipped six times in a row, small sips. I hated the taste of Lipton. A nurse walked by the doorway five times, seemingly casual, but I knew she watched me eat.
The toast finished, the tea partially drunk, I set the orange on my roommate’s nightstand in case she woke hungry. I stared at my food journal, the doctor’s voice echoing in my head, “Journaling is based on the honor system. But weigh-ins are mandatory.” He spoke with a lisp that sounded like a hiss.
“How are you feeling today?” The day nurse appeared in the doorway. She asked that every day. I liked the warmth the fine lines of her face offered when she spoke.
I tried to smile. It hurt. I didn’t know if it was because the muscles were unused, or if the hurt was psychological. Those were the terms I learned while here. Terms I overheard. The terms doctors had said to my parents.
“We believe she’s doing this for attention. A compulsive liar. Her symptoms are psychological.”
“She cut herself.” My father.
“It wasn’t a deep cut. She has been nothing but acquiescent since she’s been here.”
“She refuses to eat.” My mother.
“She eats here. We can’t keep her if she displays signs of recovering.”
“She can’t recover in three days. Her sister died in front of her.” My mother, again.
I stopped listening. Tasha had taken her last breaths next to me. By the time I’d unbuckled my seatbelt, her body was still. I don’t remember the blood, the broken bones, or the broken windshield. Just how still her face looked as we both hung upside down, suspended in time. She seemed peaceful after she took her last breath; no longer had to suffer. The last image I have is of her face—still so beautiful—and the smell of wildflowers. Then I awoke in a hospital. Alone. The numbing drugs caused tunnel vision. Whenever I tried to peer along the sides of the tunnel, pain in my head would bring my finger to press the morphine button. I wondered if the button had been disinfected after the previous patient.
I followed the friendly nurse to my daily one-on-one with the doctor. We walked in the opposite direction of the cafeteria’s lard and cinnamon smells to the Lysol-infected area of the hospital.
My parents had taken me home after the accident. At first I picked at the stitches in my stomach and leg. I bled, and it brought Tasha closer to me. All wounds heal, a therapist said. My stitches eventually healed to raised scars that I could no longer make bleed. Sleep was taken from me, replaced by the need to watch Tasha’s music box she’d gotten from Italy. I ate less. I became a ghost—hoping that if I were a real ghost, I’d see Tasha. I just wanted to tell her I was sorry.
“What do you think of when your sister is mentioned?” the doctor asked me once I sat in the black pleather chair across from him. His moustache twitched, like a bushy caterpillar crawling on his face. The pleather squawked with each movement, piercing the otherwise silent thickness of the room. I tried to keep my legs still.
“That she’s dead.” I hadn’t quite mastered the art of deception whenever Tasha was mentioned.
“Do you still believe the accident was your fault?” The doctor’s pen was poised in his bulky fingers.
“No. The roads were wet from a summer rain.”
“She was driving you to the store.”
“I needed tampons.”
I couldn’t decipher the squiggles of black that the doctor wrote in his notepad.
“When was the last time you got your period?” He wasn’t asking me, he already knew the answer.
He took more notes.
“But I felt cramps this morning.”
He leaned back. Pressing his forefingers into a temple, his hairy wrist elongated from his coat sleeve. “That’s good,” he said.
I pulled the sleeves of my shirt over my hands, a nervous habit under his stare.
“How’d you like to go home?”
“I’d like that very much.”
Back in my room, I packed. “Of course they still need to tell our parents, but I’m going home. I can go back to our life together. I can finally show you how sorry I really am, Tasha,” I said. This time the smile did not hurt my face.