“I’m sorry,” I said, sitting alone in a hotel room. “And I wanted to thank you. You helped him, ultimately, and I was the one who complicated things.”
in my head was silent.
“I know we’re not exactly speaking anymore,” I said, pulling a blanket around my shoulders. The window was open, and I peered out over the Pacific Ocean
, looking for something in the darkness, a silhouette or a faint glimmer of anything moving along the water’s edge. Some hidden beast
gliding silently beneath the water. “Anyways, this will be the last time I try to talk to you. I just wanted to say thank you, and I’m sorry.”
She was gone, then, I knew with certainty. Now there was only the memory, which in and of itself is something worth mentioning.
The Vista Pacifica Mental Health Facility sat quietly at the base of a rocky outcropping of San Diego
shoreline, conspicuously signed and marginally gated. If you didn’t know any better — and you didn’t notice the bars over the windows — you could mistake it for a low-scale country club
. There was no fence. Instead, there was a wall, an ancient-looking thing overgrown with ivy that twisted in webs, growing into and out of the cracks between the stones. One could climb over it if they really tried, I was sure, but during my brief stay nobody attempted it. As far as I saw, nobody else so much as looked at it.
Vista Pacifica was a safe-haven for the run down and out of touch. Here were the black sheep
of a hundred different families, the people who fell through the cracks, the alarming statistics in the footnotes of health care articles. These were the people that belonged here because they belonged nowhere else.
There was Chuck
, who’d also introduced himself as Joseph, Michael, and David, all in the same day. There was Stephanie
, who read the same paperback romance novel all day long, every day, curled up and hugging her knees in a corner of the common room. It’s not important for you to remember these people. I never knew their stories to begin with. Most people did not volunteer the circumstances under which they’d originally entered the institution, and I did not ask. More than anything else, I wanted to be alone.
When I checked in, they gave me a uniform set of white clothing, something similar to a surgeon’s scrubs
. They took up my possessions to place them in storage: the clothing I’d worn there, my wallet, my cell phone. My room was identical to all the others, sterile and clean, tiny, with one small window high along the wall over the bed. Almost cozy.
I took a seat in a common room, an open area filled with chairs, couches, and random scattered television sets. A ping-pong
table sat unused in one corner, collecting dust. I collapsed into a seat near a window with an ocean view, lapsing into a tired daze.
In one smooth motion, a man hopped over the back of the chair beside me, slipper-clad feet slapping against the tile floor as he settled into position. He offered the smirk of someone half of his age. “Look at this,” he said, shaking his head. He held up a thick paperback
novel, its cover faded and bent from such use that the title was unrecognizable. “I stole it from her,” he said, pointing to the girl in the corner. “Finally decided it was time to see what’s so great about this damned book.” His voice was rough, raspy, his Southern accent thick. It was the voice of a man who’d picked up smoking at twelve years old behind a barn in rural Kentucky
, a voice unashamed by the edge of violence behind it. Even these relatively harmless words sounded vaguely threatening. Stephanie was still there, balled up in her armchair, eyes lazily watching her hands as if the book were still there, as if she knew that he’d return it to is rightful place soon enough. He opened it up, selecting a random line, and shook his head, laughing flippantly to himself.
For the briefest of moments, I felt a tiny hint of pity, something pulling at my stomach. Just as quickly, it was gone. “What does it say?”
He cleared his throat, sitting up straight, and read with a mock British accent: "With all the courage Lord Swinburne
could muster, he moved his hand from the softness of her bosom downward. Philomena sighed on the bench while his handy journey reminded him of his exploratory evangelical work in Africa
and the jungles of the Sudan
." He twisted in the chair to face Stephanie, then tossed the book across the room at her feet, which she calmly picked up.
"I'm Anthony," I offered.
“I am the placid brook that dreams of being a rampaging river whose violence sweeps over the flood plains, driving men into some ancient terror.”
“Oh?” I asked. I retracted my hand. I thought then that maybe the other people there needed help more than I did.
“I hate rafting trips and people who throw beer cans
into my depths.” He smiled, shaking his head. “Just kidding. I’m just staying across the hall from you. I thought I’d say hello. I'm Paul. Welcome home
There was no irony in his voice when he used the word “home.” Perhaps he was incapable of it.
The rest of Paul was as rough as his voice: dirty blonde hair, straight, nearly obscuring his eyes as it fell clumsily about his chin. His was a brawler’s body, and even his subtlest movements somehow suggested the capability of extraordinary fury. Me, on the other hand: infirm, tired, a bundled collection of nerves
collapsing in on itself.
He nodded, his head tilting to the side awkwardly, studying me. “And why are you here, Anthony?”
I turned my glance from him, returning my gaze once again to the ocean outside.
“I killed my step mother.”
He offered an impressed whistle.
I should warn you now. This isn’t about redemption. It’s not about some euphoric realization of self.
Not all stories are like that.
Where to begin?
I buried my step mother, my self-worth, and the last of my dignity all on the same morning. Her name was Emma. Six months prior, we’d gone to the same cemetery
to find a resting place for my dying father. We had visited seven before we ended up at that one, overlooking the sea, awash in the sound of waves crashing against the shore. This was the one, she’d said. Despite the price, that had settled it.
She’d said that she wanted him to smell the crisp salt air forever, to sail quietly into wherever we go when we die
. She’d chosen a two-grave plot: one for my father, one for her. I had checked my watch impatiently, not at all eager to drag out the process.
How could I have known she’d fill that second spot so quickly?
. She’d done it with Vicodin.
I had never known my mother, who died giving birth to me, but I did know my father. As a child, I was sure he silently resented me for the trade I’d forced upon him, a son for a wife. He never spoke of her, and yet our small suburban home
was littered with pictures of her, framed photographs of cook-outs and days on the lake, the two of them hugging, always smiling. My father was a heavier man then, with no lines on his face.
Don’t get me wrong, he gave me everything I needed. Spending money, a car at sixteen, money for college tuition. He was a wealthy man. I had an abnormal amount of freedom, a testament to the fact that, despite my best intentions, he had never wanted anything to do with me. I tried to fix him
throughout adolescence. Truly. I wrote letters. I suggested weekend camping trips
. Every time I attempted to chip away at the wall of resentment he felt, he retaliated by withdrawing further. One parent dead, the other forsaken — how is that fair?
I attended college in Washington
, dragging out my education until I’d earned a PhD in Botany
, more than willing to keep the state of Oregon
between me and California
. I returned home at twenty-seven in response to one of his rare phone calls in which he’d casually informed me that he had remarried.
The pictures of my mother were replaced with pictures of Emma, a spunky woman who teased him incessantly, who loved the outdoors, and played Bridge
on Wednesday nights with her friends over pitchers of homemade sangria
. He laughed at her jokes and smiled when she kissed his cheek. He was a new man, and his sudden renewed optimism had also instilled within him a sharp desire to reconnect with the son he’d always marginalized. They asked about my work and about Charlotte, the grad student three years my junior who I’d been seeing off and on for months. They asked if she was “the one,” and I laughed at the question mostly to cover the fact that I didn’t have a good answer. After years of not caring, my father’s sudden interest seemed to me a violation, the betrayal of some unspoken treaty that we had made when I left home at eighteen
— that we’d keep in touch, but keep out of each other’s way.
So, there you have it. I hated her. I made no efforts to hide it. I treated Emma like a disease, like a plague-spreading rat
. I treated her like something that would infect me if given the chance.
There was a garden in Vista Pacifica’s courtyard, positioned on a small rise over the beach. I walked it after leaving the common room, Paul still trailing a foot behind, explaining things as we went. A diminutive woman watered the flowers, row after row of the same dazzling lilies
, bright yellow with a vibrant tinge of red creeping in around their edges. At first glance, each plant appeared identical — indeed, they were all of the same species, and they were the only plants in the garden — but I knew that a closer look would reveal endless variation. Angie, Paul explained, had tended the garden
for years. It gave her a way to pass the time. She barely stood out among the plants, her knees pressed into a foam gardener’s pad. Hey grey hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail, and she smiled as we passed. Something about her smile suggested that, somewhere, she had grandkids.
For the past thirty minutes, Paul had endlessly rambled. “I ain’t unstable,” he pointed out, jabbing his finger in the direction of my chest. “I just know how to stand up for myself.” He told stories of relentless bar fights
, of how he’d earned his scars
, of smashing in the other guy’s face. There were knives and broken bottles and the breaking of a thousand arms, and I finally asked: “What’d you do to end up here?”
He stopped walking, plopping down unceremoniously between rows of lilies. “You think you’re the only person who’s ever hurt someone else? I shot a man.”
I stopped, turning to face him, and then sat down. “Did he die?”
“Three years ago, and I’m still not sure how it happened. Don’t know if I meant to. kill the poor bastard or scare him. I might have a short fuse, man, but I’m no murderer
“I don’t follow.”
He rolled his eyes, looking away. “Look at it this way. The situation gets out of hand and you’re sure this son of a bitch wouldn’t so much as pause if he saw you bleeding in the gutter
. Then you’ve got a gun in your hand, you’re not even sure how it got there, and it’s like someone else is pulling the trigger. And for just a second, maybe less, you realize there’s a bullet that’s about to fly out and hit this guy, and it’s too late to take it back.”
“Who was he?”
“Does it matter? He wasn’t important. Wasn’t an enemy or a friend. Just a guy who ended up bleeding to death in the parking lot outside of a truck stop. The judge bought that I couldn’t help it. Poor impulse control, they said. Manslaughter
and a long stay here. All that matters is that I don’t do hard time so long as I behave.”
I nodded, eyes narrowed, and stood. “You don’t seem to care.”
He stood up with remarkable speed and took a step closer to me, jutting his chin in my direction. “How would you know? I give a damn about things. Difference is I don't make a big show of it.” His words hung in the air like smoke
, and for an instant I felt a deep-seeded sense of dread, some primeval knowledge that I was about to take a blow to the face, the same as hundreds before me. Instead, he spit, that quiet rage subsiding, and looked out to the ocean beyond. “The water’s rising. See it?” He pointed to the shore, just visible over the surrounding stone wall. The waves
were higher as the tide came in, pounding into the sand with tremendous violence, spraying the coast with white foam. “I swear to God it’s getting higher. Sooner or later, it’s gonna reach this place. It’s gonna tear it apart
I thought about the last time I’d seen a beach like that, standing in a rented black suit beside an open grave, staring endlessly at a coffin
carved from what must have been a massive oak
, a century-old hardwood tree felled to make a box that held the lifeless corpse of my step-mother, Emma.
Before dinner, nestled in a large leather chair, I met with the resident psychiatrist
. He was a West Point
grad with a replica gladius
on the wall behind him, under a javelin
, under a helmet, to the right of a carbine
. (Empty clip, new muzzle.) From the pictures on his desk, I learned that he had one son, slightly younger than myself, University of California at Berkeley
. Duck hunts, golf on weekends. I felt a frantic need to analyze him via the items in his office before he had the chance to do the same to me through whatever things I happened to give away, through either words or some sort of body language that I was pretty sure he’d been taught to understand in one of his doctorate classes. It would have been a pretty intense battle of wits
if he had cared either way. I was acutely aware that I had asked for this. I’d checked myself in. I remember telling myself that I’d wanted help. I would be spending a sizeable portion of my meager inheritance on the bills. It would still take another day to realize my own lie.
The Eli Lilly
company makes mint flavored Prozac
(20 mg of Fluoxetine HCl per five milliliters of liquid, I read in a biology journal) so that toddlers and invalids can feel a false sense of happiness, and I was holding that against him when he offered me the cola that I didn’t take. “Have it your way,” he said, reading the note of dismissal in my eyes. He was solidly built, evidence of his past days as a military student. He ran a hand over his crew-cut head, rubbed his eyes, and leaned back in his chair, holding up a clipboard. “No prior history of mental illness. In fact, there isn’t much in your medical history at all worth noting. You broke a leg at eleven years old. Appendicitis
in your early 20’s.” He set the clipboard down, leaning forward on his elbows. “You’re a doctor yourself, correct?”
I crossed my arms over my chest, relaxing into the arms of the chair. “Not like you. I’ve got a doctorate in botany
. I study plants.”
“I know what botany is. What was your thesis on?” His tone was friendly, though I suspected this was all part of his routine. This was the psychiatrist’s version of bedside banter.
. It’s from Africa. It’s a phytopharmaceutical.”
“Basically. A mild stimulant.”
“Never heard of it. What do people take it for?”
I thought briefly of my father, who had mixed the herb into green tea for the last two years of his life in a half-hearted attempt to improve his health. I suspected that his desire to find a medicinal cure for some of his life’s little discomforts might have coincided with his plan to remarry. I answered, truthfully: “Weight loss and erectile dysfunction
For a few minutes, he said nothing, probably waiting for me to volunteer more information. I didn’t. He perused the documents on the clipboard once again, and finally asked, “Why, Anthony, did you come here?”
“I’ve been hearing voices. My step-mother’s, specifically. Sometimes my father.”
He nodded slowly, his expression impossible to read. “Where are they now?”
“Dead. My father had a spinal tumor
. They caught it too late. It was inoperable.”
“Was it a long process?”
“It was quick. The cancer took him piece by piece, growing from base of his neck and racing downward along the spine and upwards into his brain. Six months.”
“And your step-mother?”
“She was devastated. Didn’t leave the house for a month. Didn’t eat.”
“What did you do?”
I shrugged, fidgeting nervously in the chair, trying hard not to remember the myriad of phone calls from her I’d ignored and all the chances I’d had to visit her. “I did nothing,” I admitted. “I went back to Washington and left her there.”
Saying it aloud triggered something visceral
, and I was overwhelmed with the weight of my inaction and my apathy. I closed my eyes, trying to shake the vision of her face from my mind’s eye. Again, I heard her voice.
It’s too late
, she said. You can’t take it back now.
“That’s enough for one day,” the doctor said, and ushered me out of his office.
There was a letter, wasn't there?
Yes, of course there was. Was I trying to delete that part from my memory? She'd written a letter. "I can't go on," it had said. Things of that nature. I was ready to divorce him from my memory and she along with him, to rid them from my bones, but it was me she reached out to. Me. As if we were family
I do remember my reply: "Dear Emma: I don't care. I won't miss you."
I could feel the guilt gnawing away at me like a parasite
, feeding on a tired mind incapable of warding it off. I could feel it sink its teeth into every corner of my pitiful brain and knew I deserved all of it.
I jogged with a sense of urgency to my room. For every step I took, I could swear I heard another set of footsteps behind me. I could feel her breath on the back of my neck, the ice cold exhalations of something that should be dead but wasn’t. While the other patients ate in the cafeteria, I collapsed into my bed, shivering, willing myself towards sleep. Would they medicate
me the next day? Anything to stop this feeling. Anything. Shock therapy
, endless counseling sessions, a steady diet of pills, whatever it took to rid myself of her memory.
I’m not going anywhere
, she whispered.
I surrendered to it, begging her silently to be gentle, to take whatever toll on my mental health she desired. I fell asleep and dreamt that I was a wrecking ball and that she was an oak tree
. I dreamt that I burst through her without prejudice, ripping roots from the ground, noisily conforming to the purpose I was built for: to destroy things that others have made.
I remember the night that I had another such dream, the first, one week after Emma’s funeral.
The light cast from a solitary candle near the windowsill was enough to illuminate only the vague outline of Charlotte’s body, to capture the angles and curves without distinguishing details. The tattoos running along her sides stood out more, patches of black ink against otherwise pale skin. They were roses
. Unoriginal, she would be the first to admit, but I liked them nonetheless. I was on my stomach, lazily edging towards sleep. She straddled me, working her fingers into the muscles of my back, unrelenting, forceful, just as I’d asked her to be. Her old roommate was a massage therapist
, she said. She said she had an ex-boyfriend who had asked her to learn. I didn’t much care, so long as she didn’t stop.
“I read somewhere that your body reacts to stimuli created by your mind,” she said. “For instance, there’s a spot on my back, a very small one, that makes me cry any time someone touches it.”
I nodded, pretending to buy into this idea. She shifted her weight, her fingertips tracing their way up my spine, stopping at the base of my neck.
“Every tense spot I find on you, that’s something you’ve bottled up. It’s a secret feeling. You don’t do anything with it, so it grows inside of you. That’s what I’m working out of you, Anthony. It isn’t as simple as twitching muscles and nerve endings.”
I opened my eyes. “Why are you telling me this?”
She stopped, pressing her palm flat against my back. “There’s a huge knot
just below your right shoulder blade.” She pressed hard, and I could feel it, a persistent stiffness when I moved my arm. It had become noticeable over the past few days. “It’s like trying to massage stone or something. What is it? Insecurity? Sadness about the funeral?”
I realized the answer immediately and undeniably: “Guilt.”
That was the first time that I was able to give a name, this thing I was feeling.
I had killed my mother
. I had sentenced my father to a life of loneliness. He moved on, found happiness again, and I had hated Emma, detested her for no other reason than that she had fixed him when my presence could not. She too had been left alone when he died, and instead of reaching out to her I’d allowed her to wallow in her own sadness. She had swallowed a handful of Vicodin
, and when I received a call telling me she’d died I didn’t feel the slightest bit surprised.
In Charlotte’s arms, I drifted steadily towards sleep. On the outskirts of slumber I saw them clawing their way free of their graves, desperate and furious and pitiless, fingernails caked in cemetery dirt
. I saw the look on their sunken faces as they stumbled towards me, hand in hand, forcing me to recognize the perfection of their union. Not asleep and not quite awake, I heard their voices, shrill and high-pitched, moaning that I’d done this, that I’d delivered them into the ground and into eternity.
I was allowed to come and go from my room, but some others were not. Those labeled as “a danger to themselves and others” were escorted by security personnel
, young men in dull brown knock-offs of police uniforms. There were no straitjackets
, no padded walls; theirs was a quiet kind of force, the reminder that we were being monitored.
I sat on a bench in the courtyard early that morning, watching Angie tend to the flowers. A uniformed guard stood near the door, opening it for Paul, who sneered at him and spat near his foot. The guard shook his head, giving him his best screw-you smile, as if daring him
to do something more. Paul hesitated for a moment, and then saw me.
I hadn’t bothered to shower. My hair was disheveled, my eyes blood-stained from a night of frantic sleep
that was anything but restful.
“Chin up, kid. At least we’ve still got our health.”
I looked away as he approached, watching Angie kneel quietly among the flowers. I felt him settle onto the bench beside me, but I said nothing. There were hundreds of these flowers, and footpaths criss-crossed the garden in uneven patterns, places where her constant walking had worn down the soil
. When I turned my head just right, I was convinced I could catch the silhouette of my step-mother casually trudging through the flowers, lazily enjoying the morning. She was dead, I told myself. But there she was, always. My new shadow
“Do you like the flowers
?” The voice was Angie’s, though she hadn’t spoken all morning. Her voice was almost too soft to hear over the nearby crashing of the waves, and I stood up, joining her to hear her more clearly.
“They’re beautiful,” I told her, offering the best approximation of a smile that I had at the time.
“Lillies,” she said, and gripped one at its stem. She looked it over for a moment, smiling softly, and then plucked it from the ground with a surprising intensity. I understood on some level that she was choosing to kill it quickly. Then, she looked to me, sliding the flower behind my ear, allowing it to become tangled in my matted hair.
Up close, for the first time, I recognized the specific species of flower.
“These are Gloriosa lilies, aren’t they?”
She nodded, her smiling growing. “My daughter’s name was Gloria
.” She began humming softly to herself as she dug her fingers into the divot she’d created by ripping out the flower, repairing it.
For the length of a heartbeat, I thought I saw Emma, pressing a flower to her nose, taking in the scent as if everything were right with the world instead of the other way around.
,” I told her. “I think they’re safe to touch, but swallowing them can kill you. I don’t know that I’d want to be around them all the time.” I looked over my shoulder, and Paul was still sitting on the edge of the bench. He’d lit a cigarette
, though I can’t imagine where he found it. The guard near the door was shaking his head as he approached, and I turned back to the flowers.
Angie laughed lightly, shaking her head. “I love them, though.”
Paul scoffed, standing up slowly. The cigarette hung loosely between his lips. “Just because you love something doesn’t mean it can’t kill you, grandma.”
Angie shot him a modest look of reproach, then dismissed him, turning back towards the flowers.
I would’ve liked her
, Emma’s voice whispered. She seems sweet. It’s a shame you had to meet her under these circumstances.
I froze, standing up, walking away from both Angie and Paul, moving towards the far end of the garden. “Leave me alone
,” I muttered under my breath, hands wringing. “Don’t take me with you.”
I could say the same to you, kiddo.
“I don’t get it.”
“Not if I go crazy first. If I haven’t already.”
I collapsed into a crouch, eyes closed, hands covering my ears, trying not to draw attention to myself by squatting low among the flowers.
, she said. Turn around and look what becomes of you when you carry around all of that guilt. That anger. That self-absorbed bullshit.
I opened my eyes and stood, turning back towards the others. Though I couldn’t make out what was being said, the guard was dangerously close to Paul’s face, grinding his foot into the pavement
where he’d stepped on the cigarette. Paul shook his head, mumbling something, and I approached cautiously. They were arguing, trying to stare each other down.
“If you don’t want to be shipped off to a real prison
, I suggest you learn to respect the rules,” the guard said, his eyes brimming with arrogance and the satisfaction of having a pretense upon which to engage Paul. “Nobody here thinks you’re anything but a common criminal
.” He shook his head, then spit in the same manner that Paul had done, missing his shoe by inches.
There was a remarkable look of serenity on Paul’s face, as if he’d finally made a profound decision
. The moment I’d registered what it was, it was too late; a fist flew and landed. The guard’s head whipped back, blood immediately springing from his nose. He collapsed backwards over the bench, and just as quickly Paul was on him, knees pressed into his chest, making up for lost time with each merciless blow to his head and face, staining the grass with rose-red blood
. I broke into a run. I yelled for him to stop as I closed the gap between us, implored him to quit. He would kill him. I knew he'd kill him. Within seconds, three more guards burst through the door to the common room, throwing themselves atop him, pinning his arms behind him.
In a haze of sweat and hatred he spit at them, cursing them, struggling against them. They dragged him through the flowers towards the door, and he saw me, his face contorted into a mask of disgust and revulsion. “Don’t you dare think you’re better than me,” he spit, gritting his teeth. “You ain’t special. I know who you are, you son of a bitch. You’ll rot in here
like the rest of us.”
Angie burst into tears, crawling on her hands and knees towards the ruined patch of flowers, desperately trying to wipe the blood from the ones around the fallen guard.
I heard Emma’s voice clearly. It rang out in my ears, reverberating in the back of my head:
Not so pretty, is it?
“I’m sorry,” I muttered. “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”
I ran. I ran past Angie, through the common room, and down the hallway towards the main entrance. I didn’t stop to check myself out or to reclaim my possessions, instead dashing into Vista Pacifica’s parking lot like a madman
. It had been my choice to come and now it was my choice to flee, to leave this behind.
I thought briefly that I heard someone running after me, the effortless gait of one who doesn’t tire in their endless pursuit, but then knew that, no, I’d left Emma there in that garden. I’d left her to rest in a patch of lilies beside the ocean, where she could breathe in the crisp salt air of the sea forever, sailing peacefully back into silence