When I was born, my mother insisted on naming me Blanche, though I can’t imagine why—I’d ask her, but she’s been dead for quite a while. My father, who wasn’t present at the birth, did nothing to try to talk her out of it, so I was stuck with the name, the first of many unpleasant things in life I’d be unable to avoid.
After she died and my father remarried, my stepmother took to calling me Princess. It was an attempt, I think, at winning me over, and one that mostly worked. With twelve years of hearing my name mangled and mocked under my belt, I was ready for any change.
My stepmother was so nearly identical to my mother in both looks and temperament, I had to wonder if my father had access to a secret cloning factory. Both were the fragile, trembling sort of women who tend toward mild vanity and weekend trips to the spa. And both were intent on raising me as their protégé. I would love to say I missed my mother, but the truth is, I barely noticed her absence. The weekly beautician visits, the etiquette lessons and catered luncheons, the carefully planned interactions with other society individuals all carried on as scheduled. The only difference between them was that my stepmother never, ever called me “her little Blanchette”—an irksome redundancy—and therefore she was perfect.
Of course, everything changed with my father’s death.
It wasn’t that my stepmother stopped loving me, or that either of us missed my father terribly. He hadn’t been present often enough to miss. But the nature of his death—sudden and shocking, and totally unlike my mother’s debilitating decline—was enough to disturb us both. With the added stress of managing the reorganization of my father’s multi-million dollar company (which he had, almost unbelievably, left in my stepmother’s completely incapable hands), my stepmother fell apart. Already a slave to her nerves, she developed a series of phobias and refused to leave her rooms, communicating only in the form of written notes slipped under the door which, more often than not, simply requested another bottle of vodka.
For months, the staff didn’t bother to trouble her with my madness. When I refused to leave the gardens outside our home, they set up a tent for me. When I started talking to the animals, they joined in. When I started compulsively scrubbing the porch stairs, they brought me fresh buckets of water and bandages for my bleach-cracked hands. But when I attempted to drown myself in the well, they finally slipped a long note under the door. The following morning they found a response, containing just two words:
Here at the asylum, they don’t bother calling by name at all. The orderlies call me “miss” or “ma’am” when they have to, but when they think they’re out of my hearing, they call me what everyone else in the ward calls me: “the girl.” I’m one of eight patients in the adolescent psych ward here, and the only girl.
Some of the guys are actually troubled, like me—orphaned rich kids whose minds are opting for the road less traveled by—but most of them have just been deposited here by parents too busy to keep tabs on them. We’ve banded together, the boys and I. We entertain each other, tell stories of our pasts, share baked goods and the miscellaneous contents of care packages, play pranks on each other, but most importantly, we help each other try to escape.
We make at least one attempt a week, sometimes together, sometimes individually, but always once a week. We have yet to succeed, but I don’t think this really surprises any of us. I can’t speak for the boys, but I, for one, am not really trying. I have nothing for me outside these walls. I don’t think they do, either; none of us have had any visitors in the three months I’ve been here.
Until today, that is.
Today marks the first time we will actually see Dr. Miir. We’ve heard his name mentioned, of course—“Dr. Miir would like to request a blood sample” or “Dr. Miir would appreciate it if you completed this questionnaire”—but none of us have actually spoken to him.
We are all, the seven boys and I, gathered together in the ward’s community room, awaiting our turn to talk to the doctor. I, it seems, will be last. We sit in silence as we are pulled out one by one. At some point, Chester tries to break the tension with an old story about his crazy ex-girlfriend (“Real crazy,” he says, “not just sad like all of us”), but it’s half-hearted and his voice trails off before he gets to the good part. Normally, we’d all laugh at exactly the right places, but not today.
The waiting is the worst when it’s just me. I feel the tick of the clock as each seconds passes, swear the slight vibration is actually pressing into skull. There are magazines on the coffee table in front of me, but I can’t touch them. I can’t move. I can’t even blink. I wonder, briefly, if the water in the toilet is enough to drown myself in, but I already know it’s not (I’ve tried), so I stay put.
“Miss?” The orderly motions that I should follow her. I do, marveling that my legs are working properly. She leads me back to my own room, where I find a slight, middle-aged gentleman waiting for me. He’s sitting on a stool, a clipboard propped on his knee, and he gestures to my bed. I sit, and the orderly leaves.
“Hello, Blanche,” he says. “It’s good to finally meet you.”
His hair is greying and very well groomed, and it makes me self-conscious of my own disheveled locks. I idly twist a strand between my fingers, waiting for him to continue.
“As you know, I’ve been studying you for some time now.” Dr. Miir pauses, watching at me, and I nod. “I believe I have developed a treatment for you and the boys. It’s experimental, but it should improve your mood significantly. Your stepmother has already signed the release form.”
I stare at him, unsure what to say. In the months that I’ve been here, the madness has mostly receded. Sure, I still attempted suicide now and then, but being around the boys, being around people who care about me again, seems to have worked wonders. Do I need treatment?
Sensing my hesitation, he pulls a pill bottle from his coat pocket, holds it out to me, and adds, “The boys have already agreed to undergo the trial.”
And that’s all it takes. I grab the bottle, down a pill, and the world goes black.
When I come to, the boys are with me. Dr. Miir, it turns out, was lying. The boys didn’t agree to undergo the trial; I am the only one. I try to feel sad about this, but I don’t.
We’re not sure what’s going to happen now. No one has ever taken the medication. Anything could happen.
The boys watch me expectantly, worriedly, for a few minutes before Chester launches into his story once again. This time, we all laugh in the right places, and by the time Chester makes it all the way to the punch line at the end, we’re in an uproar. But something is different, and I can see that the boys notice it, too—my laugh is off, fake-sounding, and I realize that the story isn’t funny to me anymore.
Over the next few weeks it becomes clear: I am dead.
Well, not really. Just dead inside. At least, that’s what Dr. Miir is calling it. He’s come back twice since his initial visit—first to make sure I was taking the pills as instructed, and then to tell me to stop. His medication doesn’t work exactly as planned, it seems. It blocks the pain, the suicidal tendencies, but it blocks everything else, too.
I’m no longer depressed, it’s true. I am a void. I wander the ward, watching the boys as they continue their activities as usual (last week’s escape attempt was the closest yet; I almost thought Brian and Scat were going to make it out), but I don’t take part. I don’t talk. I don’t feel. I try to spend as much time as possible asleep, because at least the time goes by faster.
I haven’t been taking the pills for two days now, but their effect appears to be permanent. I am a sleepwalker. I close my eyes and pretend to be asleep when Chester comes in to tell me stories. He’s been doing this every night since the first: so far he’s told me all about ages seven, eight, and fourteen. Each time he leaves, I see his shoulders hunch a little more, and I know that if I could really do anything, I’d do my best not to wake up.
Dr. Miir has attempted several reversals now, but my condition is only getting worse. My mental lethargy is spreading to my body; my organs are slowing down, their production drawing closer and closer to nothing, and I am bound to my bed.
Nothing helps. Miir went through food therapy, shock therapy, hypnosis, and everything in between. They even tried (with my stepmother’s approval, of course) stopping and restarting my heart. I can no longer speak, though my eyes remain open. The boys are sitting here, tear tracks marking their sweet faces, and I know they are trying to say goodbye. The pain would be unbearable, I imagine, if I could feel it. Instead, I focus on the passing of time, the ticking of the clock, waiting for the boys to give up and leave.
But when the door opens, it’s not them leaving. Dr. Miir enters.
“I have one final option,” he says. He looks much more tired than when I met him a month and a half ago. I notice that his hair is no longer kempt; the grey patches are larger. “Hormone therapy.”
Seven heads turn to look at him; my own is still. “As an adolescent, your body’s hormones might still be rampant enough to be interfering with the benefits of the medication. Or, conversely, elevating your hormone levels might be enough to halt the adverse effects of your medication.”
“What are you saying?” Thom asks.
“I’m saying,” Miir pauses, as if the words are causing him pain, “that positive physical stimulation might be the solution.”
“You’re saying we should kiss her,” Brian says. Miir nods.
“Worth a shot,” Alex says. And so they do—one by one, each of the boys gets up, shuffles to my bed, and awkwardly pecks my lips. With every kiss, every lack of reaction, I see the hope fade from their eyes, until finally Chester is the last one left.
He looks into my eyes, smiles, and whispers, low enough that I’m the only one that can hear, “I always wanted to do this. Doctor’s orders.” And when he kisses me, it’s barely noticeable at first—a little warmth in my fingers, a faster beep on the heart rate monitor. But when Chester wipes at my cheek with his thumb and it comes away wet, it hits me: I’m waking up.
“I knew there was something there,” Scat says, breaking the silence, and I look around to see six teary faces and one very relieved doctor. Everyone laughs, even Dr. Miir.
“I would advise caution,” he says, “But the more hormonal stimulation, the faster and better your recovery should go.”
“Guess we should clear the room, then,” Brian quips, and the guys all slap Chester on the back as they leave us in peace. As the door closes behind them, Chester grins at me.
“Have I told you about my crazy girlfriend?” he asks. Then he touches his lips to mine, and when the tingle shoots all the way to my toes, it’s the first thing I’ve felt in weeks.
Jenny Kawecki is an aspiring author, a fairy tale enthusiast, and a general lover of things. 22 years ago she was an awkward infant, and has since had the good sense to grow into an even more awkward adult. She currently lives with her husband in Annapolis, Maryland, where she can usually be found curled up with a book or editing articles for Ampersand Lit, which she co-runs with the amazing Clare Moore.
You can follow her on Twitter @JennyGrudzy.