Steph Wong Ken
Patrice is crouched over the sink when I walk into our room, blood pouring over her lips and chin. “Where the hell have you been,” she says. She tries not to move her mouth too much as the blood dribbles down her face, just missing the front of her white turtleneck. Even in the hottest Florida months, she wears long sleeves and long pants in solid colors, and sometimes, a pair of long white gloves with finger grips. Contact with fluids is a problem for Patrice.
“Another one?” I used to ask but now I just dive for the pink tissue box, pressing the emergency button by the light switch on my way. The nurse will certainly show up too late with the medical pads, her hands reeking of soap and cigarette smoke.
“No one cares,” Patrice wails into the sink. But she’s careful not to move her head around as I hold the tissues against her nose. The fifth one this week. She’s in one of those early wars with withdrawal.
When I first arrived at the Awakenings Treatment Center, Patrice gave me a brief tour of my side of the room: single bed, broken mini fridge, shared bathroom with leaky blue toilet. Then, she explained she wore full coverage outfits because of a man. When she was three, this man told her that private parts were called elbows and knees, and molested her for most of her childhood. Faced with that, I knew my reasons for being in the facility could not compete so I simplified and told her I had a long-standing problem with fire.
“Oh me too,” Patrice had said. “I don’t want anything to touch me.”
I meant I liked setting fire to things, particularly country homes and European cars owned by my prodigal younger sister. But I didn’t bother clarifying this to Patrice.
Her blood soaks through two handfuls of tissue, smudging the whites of my palms.
“Let’s try leaning against the wall,” I tell her. “Don’t look in the sink.”
There are star like patterns on the white ceramic, intersecting red rings. I remind myself to wash them down before lights out.
“Damn, this is a bad one,” Patrice says. She places her head against the peeling white paint, turning her eyes to the ceiling. The hallway is silent, no padded shoes on the move. The nurse is probably smoking in the back closet or on the empty gurney behind the speckled antiseptic curtain. Maybe she’s caught in a R.E.M. dream, her mouth on the sick pillow.
“Oh,” Patrice says through the tissues, “How was the job interview?”
“They wanted me,” I say, “But then I thought, there must be something better out there.”
“God, Flynn. You really are the only functional person in this place.”
Patrice laughs through the blood, her gloved hands clasped together in her lap.
Miss Maxine, the “winner” in our ward, doesn’t seem to get a functional sense from me. The “winners” are the example employees, the women who got it right. She waltzed into the room while I was unpacking my duffle bag on my first day, ready to feel me out. A wide woman with big arms, her head shiny as a spotlight, she addressed me by my full name, which no one who knows me uses.
She held out her hand. It was the size of a baseball glove, and I tried to grip it tight, in awe of the power between her fingers. I guess she scanned my case sheet and decided touch wasn’t an issue.
“Welcome, young lady.” Her voice boomed in the small room. Penny sized medallions dotted the lapel of her jacket, next to a paper badge that said: Call me MISS Maxine.
“Are you happy to be here?”
“Absolutely,” I said.
“I spoke with your sister,” Miss Maxine crossed her arms. “She said you likely are not happy to be here. She also said you can be very manipulative.”
“Really,” I said. “How generous of her.”
I glanced at the supple rise of Miss Maxine’s cleavage and tried to shift my eyes back to her face before she could notice my assessment.
“Pre Awakenings, pre earning this,” she pointed to a medallion just below her clavicle. “I was injecting so much QV and Clomid into my veins, my muscles ballooned to the size of concrete blocks. I could press 290. 2-9-0. Then, my muscles became too strong for my joints. Do you know what happens when your muscles become too strong for your joints? They shrivel into tiny ice cubes and your bones grind together like sticks of paper. And then the left ventricle of my heart swelled up to three times its size and I was unfortunate enough to experience something called severe arrhythmia. Do you know what that is?”
I tried to indicate “no,” my eyes glued to the shine of her head.
“It’s like a chisel is being stabbed into your chest, through your rib cage and straight into your heart. One of the most painful ways to die. Remember that, Laura-Flynn.”
“Thank you,” I said, unsure of how to respond.
She turned on the heel of her foot, and moved toward the door.
“My sister, when you spoke to her. Did she say anything else?”
“If you stay out of trouble for two weeks, you will go out and look for a J-O-B. Then, you can talk to your sister. And Laura-Flynn?”
I glazed over the pins, the cleavage, and met her eyes.
“Try not to screw up your time with us.”
The ads for the Center play on the television in the common area between reality shows and cooking competitions. They feature women running on sandy Miami beaches, smiling on treadmills and lounging on wicker chairs in sun-dappled rooms, laughing together like they have no secrets, like they’ve arrived at a very special, girls-only spa. We all watch the ads, sandwiched between our programs, and hiss or throw pillows at the screen. One woman early in her recovery sobs each time the Awakenings logo flashes against the bright green and white background. We all stare and wonder: Where are the gravel driveways? The parking lot views? The exercise bikes from 1987?
“Enough,” Mrs. Gallo finally announces, jabbing a finger at a thin, blonde woman on the television, grinning at a flower.
Even Bianca the floor manager agrees the ads are bit off. She speaks to Miss Maxine about them, and then informs us the ads are educational, part of “y’all’s recovery.” In response, Mrs. Gallo starts a collection, a paper box with a slot, and buys a video camera from a pawnshop on one of her afternoons out. The video camera can only be used in the common areas, but this also means you can’t talk on the phones without a patient filming somewhere in your vicinity.
“You tell him about the outer darkness, okay?” The woman in the next booth whispers into the phone. “You tell him what that means.”
I slide onto the bench and dial. She picks up after the fifth ring.
“Flynn,” she lets out a tired, jangly snort. “I only have two minutes.”
“Well, I have a lot of time.”
“Good for you.” She snorts again. “I mean, I hope you’re getting the help you need in there.”
She’s using her professional voice, the rounded English tone that landed her shares in diamond mines in Africa and South America.
“We need to talk about what happens in two weeks,” she says.
A few feet away, jazzy piano plays from a boom box. Mrs. Gallo begins to move for the camera, raising her arms over her head, flexing her wrinkled calves.
“Sis, I thought we agreed, I’d be getting out of here in two weeks?”
Her teeth clamp down against the phone.
“Getting out? You torched everything during the incident so where, exactly, do you think you are going to go?”
Mrs. Gallo places her hands around her face, palms out, lines of brown cutting across white.
“It’s not like you don’t have others,” I tell my sister, “You own at least three homes.”
“I thought they were supposed to be rehabilitating you,” she says, her professional voice slipping. “I don’t hear progress.”
Patrice gives Mrs. Gallo a plastic rose with a long stem. She holds it between her lips, showing off what she must think is her good side.
“Look,” I lean into the booth, “There’s a performance going on right now in here, a major one.”
“Flynn. Do not—”
“I have to go. I’ll call you again soon.” I shut my eyes and hang up.
Mrs. Gallo does a shuffle to the left, showing off her legs. The red light on the camera glows, the glass lens propped up on Patrice’s lap.
“The darkness,” the woman whispers into the phone. “I’m not messing around.”
When you talk in group, you get applause and a firm wink from Miss Maxine. “Anyone else?” She’ll ask once the clapping in the sacred circle stops, “Anyone? Anyone?” her head swiveling like a beam over my chewed up nails and fraying sweatshirt. In a back room, the Center has a chart mapped out in swim lanes, one for each patient, and my name hasn’t moved an inch. But the nurse doesn’t seem to care about the source of my problems. She’s simply here to treat.
“What kind of addict doesn’t like to smoke?” She looks me over on my third night visit to the infirmary. Her white outfit is still half on. The cigarette in her mouth is an orange hole in her perfect face.
“Plenty, I’m sure.” The gurney feels cool on my back, the sheet pressing traces of lilac and bleach against my legs. “Besides,” I tell her, “I’m not an addict.”
“I don’t know,” she says. “You look like one to me. Not as bad as your friend, the mummy. But you have that look.”
“Gosh, thank you so much.” I brush her earlobe with my thumb, drawing an invisible line from her ear to the dimple on the side of her cheek.
The nurse exhales and stubs it out in the metal bowl on the floor, meant for teeth and body parts. She taps the pack and pulls out another, the lighter making a nice crack as she flicks it on. Above the door and the coiled light, the clock ticks. Another hour until I skulk out into the darkness of the bathroom and use a washcloth to clean off the smell of her. A ritual I’ve started that I can’t seem to shake.
During my first week, while everyone else was throwing up and pounding the button for detox support, I buzzed the nurse for Patrice’s nosebleeds and a cold compress for my head. “You know what you’re doing?” the nurse had said, after I called her four times that week for a job I could easily do myself. “You’re disassociating,” she told me, her face hovering a little too close to mine.
“I like you, Flynn,” she says now, lying back down beside me. “So you better not hang around too long.”
I turn over on my side to look at the door, my back pressing against her arm. The coiled light begins to flash. A bleeder, a shaker, some bad DTs. The nurse exhales and starts to rise, closing the buttons on her uniform, tiny pearls stitched on with X’s in white thread. Someone is heaving on the floor by a window or bent over a sink. But I place my hand on the inside of her leg and lead her back down. The light keeps flashing as I move my mouth under the white buttons and slits.
Patrice wakes me up, poking my arm with a blunt, plastic fork. “Tell them why I can’t go,” she says, her bottom lip shaking. I peel open my other eye to see Miss Maxine at the door of our room, flanked by two employees.
“It’s time for the beach, Laura-Flynn,” Miss Maxine barks, stepping into a beam of sunlight. She throws a ragged looking towel on my bed.
“Miss Maxine, I don’t think this will be very good for my recovery, I mean, the sand, the water,” Patrice holds her fists by her sides, her eyes blinking.
“Nonsense. It’s a beautiful day. We can all heal with some fresh air,” Miss Maxine throws a towel on Patrice’s bed. “Bus leaves in five,” she holds up one massive hand, “Best both be on it.”
“Don’t cry,” I say gently once they leave, more for practical reasons than anything else. Tears, like blood, are a problem for Patrice. She blinks again and holds the towel against her chest, creasing her long sleeves and the top of her long pants.
The bus driver keeps the windows shut but leaves the radio on, turned up so it reaches us all the way in the back. A pile of animal floats with oversized heads and foam tubes in primary colors are stacked on a seat beside Patrice. I spread out on the seat across from her and close my eyes as the bus jerks over the potholes in the road. By special arrangement, they allow us to take the video camera and it’s passed around over the brown leather seats. The view out the window shifts from the freeway to grass and pebbles, a bright blue sky. Rows of palm trees, broken up by pink hydrangea bushes, sit in the middle of the road. The familiar send out to the 85th street beach.
“Hey girl, you alright?” Bianca calls to Patrice. She has her back turned, sitting as close as possible to the dirty bus window without having to actually touch it. The animal floats shift on the seat next to her, leaving multicolored stripes on her clothing. I grab the camera from someone’s hand and hold it up, zooming in on the top of Patrice’s head. A shiver goes down her back and she turns her head to look straight into the lens. Against her long white shirt, the reflection of the sun makes her skin glow, light radiating from the blue black of her cheeks and chin. She narrows her eyes and gives me a look that could split a block of ice in two. I zoom back out and lower the camera.
“Okay, ladies,” Miss Maxine says. “Buddy up and follow the flag.” She lifts a thin rod with a shiny orange triangle, the type made for tour groups, but repurposed for us.
“Hey, buddy.” I place my hand on the float.
“I can’t,” Patrice says. She holds a gloved hand to the collar of her blouse.
“I’m not a child,” she says, gazing out the window. “I can make my own decisions.”
“I know,” I tell her. “But you can’t stay in here.”
Patrice studies the back of the brown leather seat, covered in graffiti. The metal walls of the bus have already started to cook. I stick a plastic float under my arm, clearing a path to the aisle.
“Let’s be functional, girl,” I say, doing my best Bianca impression.
Patrice wavers, considering the boiling metal, the view of the beach, and I know she is already trying to figure out how she can walk on the sand without it getting in her shoes.
We find the group easily, without the flag. A few eager patients are playing volleyball, running back and forth on the sand bar. A tanning station is being set up, with coolers of water next to a lawn chair labeled “Maxine.” Children play with buckets and shovels at the other end of the beach, tiny, moving specks against the horizon.
“Glad you could join us,” Miss Maxine says, standing with her arms on her waist by the umbrella. Patrice strains her mouth and uses her hand to fan one side of her face. I can feel the approval radiating off Miss Maxine, straight through her sporty sunglasses and straw hat. She starts to slap her big hands together until the entire group is clapping for and at Patrice, who has turned red in her white outfit, her eyes narrowing at the piles of sand. The camera appears and we’re being filmed, all of us, surrounded by applause.
Then, as quickly as it started, it stops and everyone goes back to lounging, tanning, talking. I squint and pretend three figures at the end of the beach are a family, me, my sister, and our mother. My sister and I dug a hole to China, so large we could both lie down side by side. We placed sticks, rocks, and shells into the hole while our mother slept and then spent the rest of the day using our hands to cover them back up.
“Wait here,” I tell Patrice. I go into the cooler and pull out two waters. I take a towel from the pile by the umbrella and wrap the bottles to keep them cold.
“Don’t go too far, ladies,” Miss Maxine calls from her chair.
After a slow mile of gulls and stray pieces of garbage, I find the cross section of palm trees. The same angle of shade hits the space between the trunks, and each tree has three coconuts, just dangling there.
“Okay,” I tell Patrice. She uses the towel to dab carefully at her temples and the back of her neck. I tell her to move closer to the water and look down.
“Don’t worry. You won’t have to touch anything. Just look.”
The edge of the shore is glass blue, splintered with light. Clouds of sand rise in the water. The stingrays hover at the bottom, their green gray bodies spread out like UFOs.
“Sweet baby Jesus,” Patrice says, leaning her body forward, her gloved hands resting on her chest.
The stingrays fold themselves like wings. We watch as they sit close to the surface, billowing with the momentum of the water, and then fall back down again.
The phone booths are empty for lights out. No distractions. I pick up the phone and listen to the tone. She doesn’t answer until the eighth ring.
“Flynn? What time is it? What are—”
“Do you remember that Saturday at the beach? The 45th street beach.”
She drops the phone on her 500 count sheets, fumbles around for the light switch by her king sized bed.
“Sure,” she says when she gets back on the line, “I mean, we went to that beach a lot, Flynn. Are you allowed to call me so late?”
“We would play that game, bury me. Remember? We’d bury each other in the sand until we couldn’t take it anymore and one of us would say, stop. But once, when I buried you in jelly fish.”
“Yes,” my sister said, breathing slowly. “I remember.”
“The jelly fish were so fat, so beautiful. And you got stung all over, you kept screaming, and I had to wake mom up to help me dig you out. But I don’t remember if I didn’t see the jelly fish or if I just ignored them.”
“What difference does it make?” My sister said, “I still got stung.” She begins to laugh, deep rumbling laughs into the phone, at me, at my late night epiphany.
“Good night, Flynn,” she says when she composes herself. “Don’t call me again this late, okay?”
Good night, I mouth to the dial tone.
I skulk into the infirmary. The nurse is breathing though her nose, asleep on her back like a vampire. I reach over the edge of the gurney for the pack of cigarettes. I find the lighter by the bowl and watch the flame as it burns the top of the cigarette. I try to drag on the end like the nurse, inhaling, inhaling. I sink into the gurney, a speckled cocoon in the sterile room. I exhale. At the other end of the hallway, someone screams.
“I’m 75 damn years old. You people are killing me.”
I place the cigarette down so it balances on the edge of the bowl, just below the curtain. Through the rectangular window, I watch the night staff wrestle with Mrs. Gallo, her grey hair wild and her nightgown falling off her skinny arms.
“Give them to me,” she screams, digging her heels in so they can’t pull her back into her room, her voice echoing in the empty hallway. “You people are killing me.”
Mrs. Gallo stumbles and falls backward on the floor, her arms twisting behind her, her mouth repeating “No, no, no, no.” I open the door of the infirmary.
“Hey,” I yell at the staff as they surround Mrs. Gallo. I feel a sudden need to stick up for her, for all of us, the dumb addicts. “Let her be.”
Everyone looks in my direction, even poor Mrs. Gallo. And then I smell the burning fumes. I turn around to see the antiseptic curtain set ablaze, the flames eating the sheet on the gurney, racing towards the scrambling image of the nurse trapped against the wall half in white, and as the room begins to fill with heavy black smoke, I face the second time I have set things on fire in my short life.
“You know Laura-Flynn, I should give you a medal.” Miss Maxine stacks her fingers under her wide, smooth chin. She sits at a desk shared by the other volunteers under a row of photographs, gold star “winners” glaring down on me in the straight backed chair.
“Maybe this one?” she points to a round medallion by her cleavage. “If we remove the words recovery and honesty next to the seal, it just might be the one you’ve earned.”
I let my mouth fall open, as if to add to my existing explanation.
“Please,” Miss Maxine says, raising her hand over her desk. “Luckily, the nurse was unscathed, though she has been let go. And thankfully, I have the power to sign you out. Do you understand, Laura-Flynn?”
“Yes,” I told her, trying to sit up straight in the chair. “I understand.”
“I’ve completed your papers so you are free to leave as soon as possible. I will call your sister and let her know her hard earn dollars have, literally, been set on fire. Good bye Laura-Flynn.” Miss Maxine’s eyes look right through me one last time and then return to a stack of new prospects on her desk.
Patrice watches from the corner of the room as I pack my clothes in the small rolling suitcase and clear out my side of the bathroom. She folds and refolds one end of her shirt, making perfect half squares, cut at an angle.
“You should be happy, Flynn,” she says, finally. “You can leave now. You don’t have to deal with any of it anymore.”
“Actually,” I tell her. “I’m not happy.”
Patrice stops folding the end of her shirt. She rubs out the creases with her fingers until they lay flat.
Bianca appears at the doorway. “Hey crazy,” she says, “come to the common area before you go.”
We roll down the hallway, past the infirmary, the walls blackened, the door blocked off with red caution tape. Everyone is seated in a semi-circle of chairs around the television. Images from the past week start to play, unedited clips that run too long, full of awkward pauses and cuts. The scenes jump from faces to moments that were caught by mistake. At the other end of the hallway, my sister has arrived. I keep watching, though she is calling my name.
Steph Wong Ken won the 2016 Cosmonaut’s Avenue Fiction Prize. Her work has also appeared in Catapult and Joyland. She was born in Alberta and grew up in Florida. She is currently working on a collection of short stories.