Every morning, the mirror showed me the same damaged loser as it did the day before. Nothing ever changed for me even if the surroundings changed constantly.
“William! Hurry up, baby, or you’ll miss the bus!”
I sat in the front, head down, buds in ears pretending like everyone else that I did not exist. Most of the kids on the bus had known each other since preschool. The ones that didn’t sat like I did – silently praying to go one more day unnoticed.
“Watch it, jerk!”
I felt my shoulder twist in its socket as it collided with another mostly-solid mass. It was the same every day in every school I set foot in. School was just something I did to pass the time and make my mom happy. My demons were my own, but she worried all the same. It’s what moms do, after all, mine more than most.
I rubbed my thumb along the rough fabric of my shirt while waiting for English to finish. I could feel the long, puckered line on my forearm even through the thinning thermal. It had a twin on the other arm. I still remembered the sharp pain, I remembered the numbness more.
Mom said I’d gone into a rage before locking myself in my dad’s old Chevy with a butcher knife and his stashed bottle of Jim Beam Whiskey. I don’t remember anything but the heat of the knife sliding across my arm.
We moved off base after that. Then we moved again, and again, and now one more time with Peter until the day he decides my sister and I were too much to handle like everyone else did; ‘til he decided I was too much to handle.
I looked up at the teacher standing at the front of the room. She held a paper in her hand.
“Doctor Mendi wants you upstairs.”
There was a ripple of whispers and snickers that followed me out of the classroom. It was seventh period; I wanted to leave, not go upstairs. For half a second I even considered it but then obediently shuffled on up the stairs anyway.
The paper in my hand had a giant ‘304’ scrawled on it. The door with the matching number had several construction paper butterflies and pipe-cleaner flowers pasted to it. Somewhere, some kindergarten class was grossly envious of this door. Inside wasn’t much better. Just the little peek I got from cracking the door raped my eyes with rainbows and tissue paper wreaths.
“We only bite if you ask.”
Three faces stared back at me from an eclectic array of sofas and padded chairs. Two girls, one guy.
“Doc’s not in yet,” the guy continued. “Whatcha in for?”
I stared at him, deciding if I wanted to answer or not. He had dark hair tied back in a messy tail and an old Black Sabbath shirt on. The girl beside him looked like a moth got hold of her laundry and the other just huddled on the only single-seat chair like a scared kitten waiting to get beat. I opted to maintain my silence.
“Strong silent type,” Black Sabbath shrugged. “I can respect that. I have an obsessive compulsion to spin yarns so…”
I tuned him out. If he noticed, it did not deter him. Moth Girl stared at me and Mute Girl just tried to make herself invisible. I couldn’t blame her – we were two kids short of a dysfunctional Breakfast Club.
Somewhere, at some point in our lives, an adult of questionable education decided that we were all damaged goods. As such, we were forced to sit together in the Rainbow Room of Zen and pretend like we gave two shits about the labels placed upon us.
“Hadrian, please stop trying to run people off with your endless diatribes,” a woman in a tight business suit said. “We’re here to help each other, not bore each other.”
She sat at in the empty spot beside me, fluffed her bright red hair and settled in with an iPad at the ready. I’d have shot myself on the spot if she was older than thirty.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said. “Meetings. So, how was everyone’s weekend? Katie?”
The mute girl in the corner shrank into a tighter ball. Apparently, her name was Katie.
“I only had two hits of coke this weekend,” Hadrian blurted. Whether he was serious or not, he spoke to pull attention away from Katie.
“That… is an improvement,” the suit said. I assumed she had to be Doctor Mendi. She screamed ‘psychiatrist’ down to her fake Gucci flats. “Amber?”
“Same as last weekend, Doc,” Moth Girl drawled. “Ain’t nothin’ ever changes.”
Dr. Mendi sighed and set her tablet down. It was immediately obvious that she fought an uphill battle with these ‘damaged goods’ she’d been given. She looked at me with a mix of hope and resignation on her face.
“William, you’re new to us – care to tell us where you’re from?”
I stared at her until I saw defeat start to wash over her then said, “Spokane.”
“Washington! Must be a big change for you, coming here to Jersey.”
I shrugged and rubbed my arm again.
“Is there really a place called Forks in Washington?” Black Sabbath asked. I grinned – Katie looked up from her knees.
“Yeah,” I said simply.
“Are there vampires there?” he smirked.
“Uh, no, but the wendigos moved in shortly after sasquatch relocated to Canada,” I threw back.
“Oh you’ll fit in just fine here, Spokane,” Hadrian said while the doc rubbed her temples.
Six weeks passed in that fashion. Hadrian and I made it a game of sorts to banter until Katie smiled and the doc gave up on ‘group therapy’. By Valentine’s Day we had exasperation down to a five minute battle of witty words. Much to her great dismay, none of us were as damaged as she thought we were.
Hadrian was a drug addict and compulsive liar. He also lived with his sister and helped raise his niece. Katie refused to speak. No one knew why but she liked to draw and eat celery sticks with Nutella. Amber was a diagnosed nymphomaniac that got herself off twice in front of everyone despite the doc begging her to show some self control. Neither of us hung out outside the Rainbow Room of Zen but we had a good time of it while we were there.
Then, Amber stopped coming.
The problem with being damaged was that very few people actually noticed when something went wrong. The only kids to show up at her funeral was us.
“She had two weeks left,” Hadrian said. He cried for her, for the girl everyone took advantage of but no one remembered.
“Two weeks ‘til what?” I asked.
“She turned eighteen. That was her out. She was gonna leave; go to Paris or something, be a model or a porn star, I guess. Just two weeks…”
Amber’s dad was arrested two weeks later for child molestation and murder.
“Anger management,” I said one day in group after Amber’s death. No one else was talking, not even Hadrian.
“I’m sorry?” Doc said.
“Hadrian asked what I was here for my first day,” I explained. “Anger management.”
“Seriously?” Hadrian snorted; he didn’t believe me. I nodded and looked right at him.
“My dad used to beat us up – me and my mom, my sister, even the dog. Snapped the little thing’s neck cuz it kept barking. He was beatin’ on me one day, mom tried to stop him…”
I paused, feeling an uncomfortably familiar tingle rise up my spine.
“I heard her scream,” I said. “I don’t… I don’t remember anything after that. All the doctors that saw me said it’s like amnesia or something. I killed him. Grabbed a butcher knife and put it through his chest. Mom says it was like someone else took over. I just lose it anytime I get mad – can’t remember nothing after. Beat up a little kid was picking on my sister. Put him in the hospital. Every time we move its cuz I’ve done something to someone else. I tried stopping it…”
I rolled back my sleeves for the others to see. Thick white and pink scars ran up the length of my arms from wrist to bicep.
“You want us to talk, to open up and help us solve our problems – do you even know what our problems are, Doc? Did you know about Amber’s dad, what he was doing to her? Or did you just think she was ‘sick’ – a broken doll you have to play with.”
“She’s useless, dude,” Hadrian said with a hand over my white-knuckled fist. “They all are.”
I looked at his hand on mine and felt a rush of adrenaline ooze out of me. I stood up, stood ready to fight. I wanted to fight. To speak out for those that wouldn’t, to tear down the bullshit everyone waded through. I was not OK – we were not OK – and sitting in an overly colored room wasn’t ever going to accomplish anything.
I don’t remember walking away. I don’t remember climbing onto the small bridge near my school or decking Hadrian for trying to get me down. I don’t remember Katie hollering my name. I only remember being angry, filling with rage, and then smelling antiseptic plastic in my nose. There was a bandage around my arm and another just above my left brow. I heard the blip of a heart monitor and felt the icy cold rush of fluids being pumped through my veins.
“Your mom left just a minute ago.”
I let my eyes roll towards Hadrian’s voice. It was distinctive, almost nasally. He sat in a dark corner with a little girl at his feet brushing out the tangled mess of hair on a naked Barbie doll.
“She said she’d be back in the morning,” Hadrian continued. “I told her we’d stick around til you woke up. Say hi, Lexi.”
The girl had a short-cropped pixie cut and pink cat-eye glasses.
“Niece,” Hadrian explained. “Aubrey works here; she’s a nurse. She’s off work in like an hour so we’re just hanging here with the beeps.”
The spot just beneath Hadrian’s eye was black and blue that spread across his nose and up into the corner of his other eye leaving it all bloodshot.
“All the crazy leak out of you yet?” His insatiable need to hear his own voice was both endearing and maddening all at once. “You do that often? The freakout HULK thing?”
I didn’t actually answer. I turned my head back towards the ceiling and sighed. Every time I moved it was because I ‘freaked out’, because I hurt someone before hurting myself. Seven times in five years.
“How many times?” Hadrian asked.
“Seven,” I croaked.
To his credit, Hadrian only nodded. Sort of. “Never remember anything?”
I shook my head. Nothing ever surfaced when I had an ‘episode’ except the damage left behind.
We didn’t talk about it much after that. I home-schooled for a month then went back for two days a week with the behavioral kids. Everything happened in an old church rectory that the school bought with the same four teachers and the Doc taking turns babysitting us. Katie sat beside me on the days I was there. She still never said much and never when anyone else was around. Hadrian would meet us after class everyday until we became the only ‘normal’ we knew.
Then, of course, it happened again.
“No fags on the porch.”
“John,” Kayleigh said. We walked Katie home every day and, every day, her sister Kayleigh sat on the front porch waiting for her. That day, her jackass of a boyfriend sat with her. A jock that flunked out on a knee injury but still thought he could act like an athletic god. His voice was the first tick on my annoyance scale.
“Find a different place to be, fag,” John continued.
“No worries,” Hadrian chimed in with a too-casual shrug. “We’re just depositing our newest convert to the world of heterophobic overlords. We won’t be here long.”
Katie smirked. So did Kayleigh.
John moved before we blinked and landed Hadrian on his back with a welt forming on his cheek, blood oozing out of his eye like unholy tears.
That time, I remembered the rage welling and the twitch in my muscles. I remembered the smell of blood, the taste of vomit, and the sound of sirens screaming all around me. Then, I remembered the all-too familiar smell of the oxygen tube in my nose. My head hurt. No, not hurt. It felt like it’d been simultaneously crushed and burned and stabbed with ice picks all at once.
Mom. She sniffled, wiped her eyes and squeezed my hand. The first thing I tried to say ended in a choked off croak.
“It’s OK,” she said. “Everything’s gonna be OK.”
“Who’d I kill this time?” I said finally. It felt like swallowing sandpaper. My mom blubbered, sniffed again then:
“I can’t, I can’t…”
She let my hand go and all but ran from the room. I lifted my head, watching her crash into my step-dad’s chest and fall apart. Who had I killed?
“You’ve got no tact, Spokane,” Hadrian said from a corner I hadn’t even noticed. I saw the welt on his face and flinched.
“No,” he said, moving to my bed. “John did. I think he got the worse end of the stick though.”
“In ICU. Sadly, he will survive.”
I shook my head, thoroughly confused. “What the hell, man – why’d my mom flip out like that if John’s ok?”
“Survive,” Hadrian corrected. His arms were folded across his chest. “OK is still up for debate.”
“It’s you, William. You. You’re not OK.”
He’d never actually used my full name to my recollection. Will; Billy the Kid; Spokane; Hot Pants – never William. I didn’t have to ask for clarification. All I did was look at him, see the pain in his face and knew.
“I’m dying, aren’t I?” I asked. Hadrian nodded. He told me what my mom could not. I had a tumor the size of Baby Jesus in my head. It affected my memory, my inhibition, my aggression. It was the reason I flew off the handle when I got agitated and why I could never remember any of it. It was too big to remove. None of the doctors understood why I was still among the land of the living. They also couldn’t tell how much longer I had left.
“So… are you and Katie, like, a thing or what?”
I frowned. “You just told me my brain is being eaten and the first thing you wanna know is if I’m dating Katie?”
I snorted and shook my head, chuckling at my absurd friend. “No, we’re not dating.”
“Pity, you’d make a cute couple.”
I smiled and let my head rest against the hard pillow behind me. An hour later, I sat in the back of Hadrian’s sister’s tiny ass car with Katie hanging out the side window as we raced down the Jersey turnpike.
I only left a note tucked up under my untouched pudding. I refused to remain trapped in the suck of my life. I would not sit through anymore useless lessons. I would not listen to anymore shitty therapy advice that had no bearing on my actual problems. I existed on borrowed time and I was gonna make the most of it.
So, I dated Katie. We had sex in the back of that car at least once a day while Hadrian drove. We went to Graceland and Atlantic City and drank until we puked and then screwed each other in the giant soaking tub the next morning. We ate three-pound steaks, watched crappy movies, toured museums, and read every volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
We learned more in six months by living than we ever could in school. We sent postcards to our parents and posted stupid selfies taken with wax figures to Facebook and Instagram all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
Katie still never said a word but she always smiled. Hadrian said too much, recounting our adventures with personal embellishments. I listened to every syllable with my toes in the sand.
“There’s a whale watching thing tomorrow – wanna go?” Hadrian asked.
“Sure,” I said. I was tired. Not just sleepy either. It was honest and true exhaustion. Katie ran her fingers through my hair and kissed my forehead. She knew what I did.
“I love you,” she said quietly while Hadrian prattled on about humpback whales. It was soft, meant for my ears only.
“I love you too,” I whispered back, nuzzling the tiny swell taking over her lap. She sat with me all night, holding me in her arms until I drifted away to eternal sleep.
I was seventeen years old when I died. My son was born six and a half months later in a hotel bathroom in Laguna. Hadrian stayed with them and gave my son a half-brother two years later. They never settled down, never stopped moving and learning. They did what Amber and I and any of the other damaged goods of the world couldn’t do.