I’ve always been different from other kids my age—from everyone, really. Special is one way to put it. The word is attached to me like a shadow. It’s a halo hovering over me as I sit in class or walk through the halls at school. My parents always said that I was special too. Special in a good way, like I was delicate or rare—not special like something’s wrong with me. Not before. Not like now.
Maybe everyone has an adjective attached to them—one they don’t get to choose. A second name that other people know them by.
My dad is successful.
My mom is bright.
The man who works at the gas station convenience store is young and missing teeth. He smiles sideways and winks at me in the summer when I come in wearing flip-flops and a bathing suit under a towel. He is creepy.
Thomas Merker lives down the street from me. Since sixth grade, all the kids I know say he’s cool. Sometimes he’s also funny. He’s lucky to have two words that anyone would want even if I don’t believe they really belong to him.
Special has always been my word. It’s not so much anymore—at least not in the same way. Now everybody thinks I’m sick. That’s why I was sent here to the Wellness Center whose name is like my adjective. It means something other than how it sounds. Wellness Center is just a nicer way of saying loony bin.
I’m here because I’m special. I see things others don’t see.
I see the sky change colors when I wave my hand. I smear sunlight like finger paints and trace the clouds, giving them a soft glow of rainbows. I see dim halos hiding inside the most imperfect stones and I collect them. I keep them in my pocket, in my palm until all the sharp edges are worn down. Once they’re smooth they glow through my fingers.
I feel things differently too.
The wind doesn’t just touch against me, but blows through me—through my bones and through my soul like the fiery wave from an atomic blast.
My mom used to say I had an overactive imagination. —You don’t really see those things, Sabrina— she would tell me. —It’s just how you picture them. There’s a difference.—
My response was always the same. I would tell her —I see what I see. I don’t know how there could be a difference.—
I see the sky wrinkled like faded paper. The sunlight is ink spilling all the way to its edges. I see the swirling lines left behind in the path of birds as they dip and dive. I see the branches of trees dance a ballet in the background.
Kayliegh loves all of the things I see—or she did anyway. —You have a gift— she would say before asking me to draw her a picture. I’m good at that—at drawing the things I see. Once, Kayliegh thought they were beautiful. But she stopped asking for my drawings a long time ago.
It feels like forever since we were close, but maybe it doesn’t seem so long to her. Time is always out of order for me. My memories are like a shuffled deck of cards, each one coming up at random. Every time one of her is dealt, it hurts a little.
I remember the last time we had fun together as clear as today. We were sitting on her front lawn after school, staring at the reflection of our bare feet in the shiny rims of her older brother’s car. He had just washed it even though there were water restrictions due to the never-ending drought. Kayliegh kept reminding him about it. Not so much that she cared, more just to see him get bothered. —Screw that, there’s always a drought— her brother Eric said with the hose on full force. —It’s okay for me to go halfway down 101 and pay some car wash to do it, but I can’t do it myself? That’s a load of crap.—
He stomped around with angry steps. We laughed, because without his shirt on, he moved like a skinny gorilla. Kayliegh pointed at the hair around his nipples and made me look even though I didn’t like to. I thought they looked like pink spiders and Kayliegh made me say it out loud until we both cracked up so bad that her brother turned the hose on us. Then we sat there smiling with water spray on our arms, glittering in the golden sun of a southern California drought.
That was all before.
Kayliegh doesn’t want to know what I see anymore. —Sabrina, that stuff is kind of kiddish— she told me last summer. —I mean, it was fine before, but come on … we’re almost fifteen, going on sixteen. We’re too old for pretend.— Everyone else seemed to agree with her too.
Last year when my grades started to slip and my teachers complained that I didn’t pay attention, my parents got angry. —You’re a better student than this!— my mom shouted until her face turned red. —Your grades are important, Sabrina. College is only a few years away.—
—How you do this year is crucial— my dad said. —College is going to be here before you know it. It’s time to grow up and stop daydreaming all of the time.—
When I was little, they encouraged me to use my imagination. They bought me posters of unicorns and fairies. Everything I had, from my little girl makeup to my glittery pink sneakers, was bathed in make-believe and came from a place where every girl could become a princess. I guess I never knew I was supposed to stop believing. The other girls were able to turn off their dreams in junior high. Puberty flicked a switch inside of them and dreams were replaced by hormones and college prep courses and varsity sports while I continued to look for fairies in the woods behind my house.
For a while it wasn’t such a big deal. I was labeled immature, but that was fine with me. Then kids at school started to say there was something off about me. I was too much of a dreamer for them. They began saying I was mental.
—I don’t care— I told my parents. —I like the world in my dreams. It’s a happier place than here.—
Everyone else in the world is missing so much and they don’t even know it. They’re in such a rush that they blaze past all of the secrets there are to see. If they just paid attention, I’m sure they’d see what I do. They’d understand how the subtle changes in the sky can slow time. Or how the sound of ghosts is trapped in old records, whispering confessions about things they’ve learned since being carried off to heaven. Nobody else hears anything.
They are blinded by distractions. But I can tune out all of the noise that fills the world like so much screaming in the sky. I know how to stand still even when the Earth spins faster and faster than it ever did before. The rest of them try to keep up with the rhythm until it makes them dizzy. And with dizzy eyes, they stare at me and say I’m crazy.
Sometimes I like being alone in the truth.
Sometimes, though, I just feel lonely.
It’s lonely here in the hospital, but things move slower here. It’s not as loud and rushed. I don’t feel so confused.
Here, I can walk for hours along the paths that carve up the grounds around the large brick buildings. Not red brick—gray bricks that make it feel like an old church or a boarding school like the ones in black-and-white movies set in England. I like that about it. The buildings feel out of time and I feel that way too.
From three in the afternoon until six in the afternoon, I’m allowed to shuffle barefoot over the lawn and through the gardens within the surrounding walls of the hospital. Sometimes I keep my head down, looking for stones with a hidden glow. When I find one, I pick it up and put it in the pocket of my sweatshirt because the nurses don’t like me to collect them.
Other times, like today, I prefer to stay in one place, staring up at the sky and waiting for it to change. Here, it doesn’t change as much as it used to. I still need to watch, though. I need to make sure those perfect moments don’t go away forever.
* * *
There’s a boy in the common room who I haven’t seen in here before. He stays apart from everyone else the way all new patients do. His body sinks so low that he becomes part of the cushions. He’s almost flat, fading into the furniture like a small beetle trying for invisibility. His hair ruins the illusion though. It’s so bright and clear, as if part of the world has been bleached out of existence.
I don’t notice people most of the time. They pass by in a blur and it’s rare when anyone stands out—especially here in the hospital where the nurses are all in uniform and all of the patients try so hard not to be seen. None of them have strong outlines to bring them into focus the way he does.
A soft glow surrounds this boy, whoever he is. It makes me want to memorize the shape of his face and collect it like all the little stones I keep in my pocket.
I’ve been sitting silently and staring at him since he came in. That’s allowed in the common room. This is the room where all of us are free to play games, read, or do nothing at all while we sit and stare. It’s a kind of indoor recess. Sometimes I draw, but not recently. Nothing quite looks right anymore. Everything stays the same color from one minute to the next and the scenery is as steady as a photograph. Dr. Richards says that’s part of getting better. She says I’m better when things are plain and not worth putting on paper for saving or sharing. She’s a doctor, so I guess she’s right. But I’m glad the boy isn’t so dull as everything else around me. I’m glad that I have something interesting to watch.
He’s watching me too.
Every minute or so, he lifts his head. His eyes search the room with a strange light. His eyes have the green glow of a radiated cat under a full moon. Darting here and there and into every corner, they search. But they always settle in the same place. They always end up on me.
He smiles every time.
Strangers make me shy. Usually their smiles make me turn away, but he isn’t like other strangers. He’s a familiar stranger. I’ve seen him before in a dream. I believe sometimes my dreams are of memories from the future. Sometimes they are about places I will go someday or people who I’m going to know but don’t know yet.
It drives my parents crazy whenever I try to explain this idea to them.
—Sabrina, dreams are just that … they’re dreams— my dad always says. —You can’t believe what a dream tells you.— He believes dreams are only your brain scattering your thoughts while you’re asleep. But mine aren’t like that. Mine stay around even when I’m awake. They are everywhere around me, shadows that I see out of the corners of my eyes. Sometimes they are more than shadows. Sometimes they are real enough for me to see and hear, even touch. Those dreams aren’t dreams at all but windows into other places. Those special dreams exist in the small places where two worlds rub up against each other.
The longer I stare at the boy from across the room, the more I remember that we’ve met.
When I close my eyes I see him dressed only in the sunshine. The clouds above him are in the shape of stick-figure ballerinas with rabbit ears made out of paper. They dance in the sky, high above us as we sit on a tire swing, swaying back and forth. Our thumbs are looped together around the frayed rope suspending us both above the ground. I can remember the way his fingers feel on my wrist and the sound of his voice even though we’ve never spoken.
When he looks at me, I wonder if he sees it too.
Is it possible the dream was his to begin with? Maybe I just wandered into it? Dreams can work like that. As long as we’re the same, they can—as long as he’s special like me.
I get caught in another one of his glances, another smile, and this time I smile back. When he stands up, the light catches his eyes. They shine brighter than the sun when you stare directly into it.
My blue eyes are shimmering stones just below the surface of clear water when I stare at him. Once his eyes and mine meet, the two colors make a halo around us the way clouds can sometimes make a ring around a bright moon.
There is a split second before he speaks when his mouth rests open in the shape of a pink oval. I see not only words waiting to come out but also the entire story of his life wanting to be woven together with mine. As he exhales, I hold my breath.
—Hi— he says, saying that one word as if he’s said the same thing to me every morning of every day he’s ever lived. —I’m Alec.—
I know he’s waiting for me to talk and it makes me smile. He can’t see it though. I’ve brought my hand up to my mouth and placed the sleeve of my sweatshirt neatly between my lips. Then, slowly, the purple fabric falls from my mouth and I tell him —I’m Sabrina.—
He makes a quick movement. Flicks the ends of his hair before he speaks again. —I’ve sort of noticed you staring at me. Thought I’d come over and make sure you weren’t a psycho or anything.—
My eyes grow bigger and I shake my head nervously.
—Sorry. Bad joke— he says.
—Oh— I say, letting my breath out quickly. —I guess … I didn’t get it, that’s all.—
—Forget it. It was dumb— he says, tilting his head up toward the ceiling. —It’s just that I was watching and you don’t seem like the others. You don’t seem crazy. That’s all I was trying to say.—
—I’m not— I say. —At least … I don’t think I am anyway.—
—Yeah, I don’t think you are either— Alec says.
—How can you tell?— I ask him.
—Because you actually understand the words coming out of my mouth. Most of the kids here … it’s like they’re from another planet. I’ve tried talking to some of them, but I don’t get very far.— He raises his eyebrows and looks from side to side as he says it, but none of the kids nearby return his glance.
—Oh … yeah— I say softly, sadly. I know the ones he’s talking about. Ones like the girl at the table next to me with heavy circles under her eyes like she’s been awake for days. Her mouth is always moving. Talking to someone who isn’t there. There are a lot of kids like her here. They scare me a little. That’s why most of the time I try not to talk to anybody.
They don’t scare Alec though. From the way he looks at them, I get the feeling they simply frustrate him.
—Mind if I sit down?— he asks, kicking gently at the empty chair across from where I am. —I won’t bite, I swear. The medicine I’m on makes sure of that. Or, so they tell me.—
This time I know he’s kidding and I nearly laugh except that it seems so out of place in this room. I cover it quietly with a cough instead. He covers his with the sound of the chair’s metal legs scratching over the floorboards.
Once he’s sitting down, he is just as I remember. The bend of his elbow on the table is familiar. So is the way his chin rests in his palm. The bright morning light shining in from the window to touch his face at just the right angle is exactly how it was on the tire swing when the sky changed colors each time we pumped our legs to go higher. The memory sends shivers through me.
—So, how long have you been here?— he asks.
—I’m not really sure— I say. —Sometime after the start of the school year, I know that. Sometimes it feels like a long time ago and other times it seems like it just happened. I lose track of time easily. It’s part of why I’m here, I guess.—
—Consider yourself lucky. I’ve only been here a few days and it drags … so … slow— he says, spacing out his words. —All these stupid tests they’re giving me, it’s like spending three straight days at the dentist, you know what I mean?—
—The tests stop— I say. —I mean, once they know what’s wrong.—
Alec rolls his eyes. —You know what the real problem is?— he says. —Maybe there’s nothing wrong to begin with.—
—They say … that I live in my own thoughts too much— I say, putting it as gently as I can. I’m still not comfortable with the word they use—with saying I’m schizophrenic. I’m not even sure it’s true.
—What does that mean? You daydream?— he asks.
—Sometimes— I say.
—Me too— he says. —Sometimes, I just think up stories and get lost in them. Beats being stuck listening to some teacher talk about algebra.—
—Yeah— I say. —They say I do it too much though … and too often.—
—You know what? I bet if you told them it was because you wanted to be an actress, like every other girl within a hundred miles of L.A., they’d encourage you. The problem is that you’re probably different from those girls and that’s what bothers them. I bet they put you here for the same reason I’m here … because you aren’t exactly like all the other brain-dead teenagers walking through the malls. Am I right?—
I shrug one shoulder and look away.
—I’ve never really been like everybody else— I admit.
—Thank God for that, right!— he says, tapping his fingers on the table in applause. It startles the whispering girl at the next table. She stops mumbling for a second, twists her hair tightly around her finger too, but Alec never looks over at her. His eyes never stray from mine and it’s like we’re the only two people in the world for him. —I mean, why would anyone ever want to be like everybody else? But you see, that’s what places like this are all about. Robot factories. All of the defect models are sent here for new programming until they get everybody thinking the same way and sharing the same opinions. You know what I mean?—
—I’ve never thought about it— I say. —Not like that.—
—Maybe you should start— he says. —They’ll zap away those daydreams of yours, just watch.—
—Do you think they can?— I ask, suddenly alarmed.
—Only if you let them— he says. —They won’t change me though. Know why?—
—Because I know what they’re up to, and like they say, knowing is half the battle.— He pauses then and smiles. —Also, I have superpowers.—
I bite my lip for a second because I know a boy in my group session who believes he can blink people into and out of paintings and he seems crazy to me. But then Alec raises his eyebrows twice and winks. —You’re kidding?— I say, and we both laugh.
—Of course— he says. —But I wish I did. I could straighten some things out in this world if I did, that’s for sure.—
When he’s finished talking, his eyes flash in annoyance as he nods in the direction of the door. I turn my head and see one of the nurses standing there. Her blue scrubs make her look like a crayon. Her white sneakers are like clouds squashed under her. I don’t recognize her. She’s not one of the nurses who come for me. Nurse Abrams says I won’t ever know all of the nurses because they have different units working different shifts to cover the patients who all have very different needs. That was her word. Needs. But I know it’s like so many other words here that are used instead of saying sick.
—Alec? It’s time— the nurse says, and I wish I could wave my hand to make the words vanish.
Alec blows his breath out slow and angry. —Got to go— he says, pushing the chair away as he stands up. —Can’t wait to see what they have lined up for me today. A little shock therapy, maybe? Or worse, they’ll probably just talk me to death like usual.—
—Wait— I whisper desperately because I don’t want him to go. There are so many things I want to ask him.
His hand is still flat on the table and I cover it with my palm.
His skin is warm and mine is ice—they meet with electricity.
He looks at me curiously, but doesn’t pull away. His fingers yield to mine and I squeeze his hand. Our eyes meet and hold their glances. When he smiles, I have all the answers I need. Alec is the same as me—special like me.
The nurse grows impatient and clears her throat. She clicks her fingernails against the open door and calls for him again because everything here runs on a schedule.
Alec takes a sideways step away from me and bows his head slightly. —Nice meeting you, Sabrina— he says, slipping his hand free. —I’ll see you again soon.—
Leaving the room, he half turns and waves at me.
I wave back, but he’s already looking away.
In a few minutes a nurse will come to take me to my meeting with Dr. Richards. Until then, I pull my knees up to my chest, hold them close, and feel different than I’ve ever felt before because Alec really believes me when I say that I’m not crazy.
Copyright © 2012 by Brian James