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DAY ONE: MONDAY
There’s a girl with an IV in the bed next to me. She’s pale and has dark circles under her eyes, like she didn’t get any sleep last night. She probably didn’t. That’s why she’s sleeping now, at four in the afternoon.
I can’t remember the last time I took a nap. Last year, maybe, when I had the flu and Mom made sure I was tucked into bed and wrapped in blankets. That’s when Mom told me I was an awful napper as a baby. “You didn’t sleep at night and you didn’t nap during the day.” She stifled a yawn as she said it, like when someone in school yawns and I do, too. I guess Mom’s memory was contagious. “You fussed and cried until I had to take you out of your crib and strap you to my chest to get anything done.” I like imagining myself in one of those baby-carrier things, as safe and cozy as a baby kangaroo.
I definitely don’t feel safe and cozy right now.
IV Girl’s eyelids just fluttered. I thought she was going to wake up. I’m not sure I want her to wake up. Well, I do eventually. I don’t want her to die. But she can sleep a bit longer. I need to get used to this place first.
(I don’t think I’ll ever get used to this place.)
I wonder why this girl’s on an IV. She could be dehydrated. That happened to my friend Emerson once when she didn’t drink enough water at a track meet. But Emerson was fine after she chugged a bottle of grape Gatorade (the grossest kind). IV Girl must be really sick. Way sicker than me.
I don’t know if that makes me relieved or disappointed.
I hope she’s nice. I hope she likes me.
This hospital is cold. IV Girl has three blankets over her. I want to steal one to put over my legs, but that would not be a good first impression. Everyone would call me the Blanket Thief. They’d hide their stuff when I walked by. They’d hate me.
Not that I should care about first impressions. I shouldn’t care about IV Girl liking me, either. I’m not going to be here long enough to make friends. I’m never going to see anyone here after today. Maybe after tomorrow, if it takes that long to convince them I don’t belong in the hospital.
The phone’s ringing in the hallway. It’s rung about seventy times since I got here, which was only a half hour ago. I hear footsteps outside, too, shuffling ones and stomping ones. The creak of a cart. Someone yelling. I won’t look, though. I’ll stare out the window and write in my journal, even though all I want to do is hide my head under this limp pillow and cry until I fall asleep, too.
I can’t let myself cry. That’s what Mom wants me to do. She wants me to collapse in exhaustion and admit I need help. She wants me to admit I’m sad and hungry and tired. To let other people feed me like I’m a baby and they’re waiting with a spoonful of mushed peas.
Mushed peas are gross. Food is gross.
Mom thinks that once I’m locked behind these doors, everything’s going to be all right. Like they can give me a magic pill, or a course of antibiotics with the side effect of “recovery.” Things will go back to normal and I’ll be the old Riley again.
I don’t know who “the old Riley” is anymore, though. And there are no antibiotics that will get rid of my thoughts, which are way too powerful to be silenced. They tell me I’m not good enough. They tell me to be skinnier and prettier. To run more and eat less.
They tell me that everything about me is wrong.
Those thoughts are part of me now. These people here, the doctors and the nurses and the counselors and the nutritionists—they can’t take them away. I don’t want them to take them away.
I’d be fat then.
I don’t want to be fat.
Then I’d be nothing at all.
I bet it’s loud here at night. I bet there’s screaming and crying and people running up and down the hallway having nervous breakdowns. Mean nurses who yell at you for breathing too loudly. Strangers from other floors wandering into the rooms. I’ll find out tonight, I guess.
I keep hoping Mom’s going to realize she made a big mistake and—SCREECH!—veer her car onto the exit ramp of the highway, turn around, and bring me home.
Mom wouldn’t do that, though. Mom’s a good driver. She doesn’t ever screech. She barely goes the speed limit. Plus, I bet she has a meeting this afternoon with some hotshot artist who wants to display in her gallery. Or a collection of sculptures she needs to dust. Screeching around would take up valuable time.
I don’t get Mom’s valuable time anymore. She doesn’t think I deserve it.
I’m not selfish, though. When Mom called me selfish, I felt sick. My stomach felt like it did that time I was playing kickball and Julia whaled the ball into my gut. I gasped for air and almost puked up my Cheerios. Julia ran around the bases and did that annoying victory dance where she wiggles her butt.
(Butts are the height of eleven-year-old humor. Actually, butts are the height of guy-in-my-seventh-grade-class humor, too.)
I’m not doing this for attention, though. I don’t want attention like this. I would have been fine if no one had noticed what I was doing. I would have been so fine. I would have been perfect if Mom hadn’t noticed me. After all, she usually doesn’t.
Then she did. And she and Dad sent me here.
IV Girl is making little moaning noises, like she’s hovering on the edge of a nightmare. She looks really sick; her skin is pale and her cheekbones look like the topographical map Mr. Baldwin has on the table in the back of his classroom. Two cheek mountains, sharper and steeper than Mount Everest.
I wonder how much she weighs. I wonder how much I weigh. Mom didn’t let me get on the scale this morning. She hid it last week, but I found it right away, on the top shelf of the linen closet. Mom’s never been good at hiding things. She still hides my Christmas presents under a blanket in the basement. (Have some imagination, lady.)
Mom was my shadow from the second I woke up this morning, though. I bet she thought I was going to run away. I wish I had run away.
“I’m okay, Mom.” She had one hand on my shoulder, her fingernails as sharp as an eagle’s talons. I was the mouse, wriggling to get free. “I’m fine. I don’t need to go to the hospital. You can go to work today. I’ll eat, I promise.”
(I wasn’t going to eat.)
“You’re not going to eat,” Mom said. “You had your chance, and I already took the day off. You need help, Riley.” Dad nodded sternly, backing Mom up. That’s all he’s been doing lately, nodding and pressing his lips together like he’s a reality TV judge making a “very important decision.” He’s barely said a word to me since they figured everything out. Just “excuse me” when he walks by me on the way to the bathroom or “bring your umbrella” when it looks like it’s going to rain.
You know, quality father-daughter stuff.
Julia poked her head out of her room, then tiptoed out on her skinny legs. She already had her backpack on and her hair was in a tight French braid. As usual, not a strand was out of place and the sides were slicked back with hair spray and bobby pins. Once, we counted the bobby pins after one of her gymnastic meets. She’d used thirty-five! Dad joked that he should buy stock in hair products. Mom grumped that maybe then she wouldn’t have to work so much to pay gymnastics tuition.
They’d never make Julia stop gymnastics, though. Even if Mom and Dad have to get three extra jobs each. Even if Dad has to pick up trash on the side of the road and Mom has to empty porta potties (which is probably the grossest job in the history of the universe). Julia’s too good. She has too much “potential.”
Potential. I hate that word. Potential is what Julia has when she’s swinging through the air like she’s close enough to grasp a star from the sky. Potential is what Emerson and my nemesis, Talia, have when they’re sprinting down the straightaway during track meets, their arms pumping as they gain that last bit of speed.
Potential is what everyone has. Everyone but me. I’m the boring one. The one whose life is about to be ruined forever.
I bet Julia feels sorry for me. That’s why she couldn’t look me in the eye. Mom says Julia’s scared, even though I keep telling my family that there’s nothing to be scared about.
That I’m just doing the same things the other kids at school do.
That I’m not too skinny.
That I can stop whenever I want to. (I just don’t want to yet.)
“Good luck, Riley.” Julia’s voice trembled when she said good-bye this morning. She looked as nervous as I felt, so I forced myself to smile. Mom and Dad didn’t tell Julia I was going away until last night. They sprang it on her during dinner, like a lion leaping out of a clump of grass. Except instead of being attacked with claws and sharp teeth, Julia got attacked with the news that her older sister was going to the hospital.
She cried for five minutes straight. Mom looked at me like I was supposed to make Julia feel better, like the crying was my fault, too. Everything is my fault now. Meanwhile Dad just sat there eating his mashed potatoes. Of course neither of them admitted that waiting until the last minute to tell Julia may have been a bad idea. Nope, not Mom and Dad. They’re probably preparing their Parents of the Year speeches already. They can hang their blue ribbons next to Julia’s overflowing collection in the spare bedroom.
This has to be a quick stay. I’m not that sick. I eat. I just don’t eat as much as Mom and Dad want me to. This is so unfair. I definitely don’t look as bad as IV Girl.
She’s awake. She just looked at me. Blinked twice, then rolled over.
Does IV Girl hate me already? Is she like Talia and all her friends, who act like X-ray machines searching me for anything—everything—defective?
I bet she snores, too.
Mom didn’t come back. It’s been an hour since I last wrote and she still hasn’t come back. I didn’t think she really would, but I was “pretend” hoping, like when I asked Santa for a unicorn for Christmas. I knew he wouldn’t really get me a unicorn, but I asked anyway, just in case. I still held my breath going down the stairs on Christmas morning.
I wasn’t that disappointed, but I was a little bit disappointed.
A unicorn would have been the coolest present.
Getting out of here would be even better.
IV Girl’s name is Ali. She’s twelve, like me, and she’s from Missouri. She flew three hours to get here. Apparently this is a “really good program.”
“Translation: it will make us really fat,” Ali whispered, even though there were no nurses or counselors around. Jean, the nurse who’d done my orientation, had gone to “get something.” She still isn’t back. I guess “somethings” are hard to find. I’m okay with that, though. Jean makes me nervous, like if I breathe the wrong way, she’ll lock me in solitary confinement.
This whole place feels like solitary confinement. Like we’re lab animals shut up in a box and part of some big experiment.
Let’s see what happens to Subject Riley when we stuff her full of calories! Then a sadistic doctor will rub his hands together and let out an evil laugh. BWAHAHAHA!
At least we have windows in our room. Big, long ones that fill up the whole wall. I can see the sky and the sun and a bird flitting between two trees. It’s nice outside, even though it feels like the world should be crying with me. That the tulips in the garden below should be black and gray instead of red and orange.
The comforter on this bed is as thin as a sheet, and the sheets feel like they have sand sprinkled all over them. I bet I’ll get a rash. Or bedbugs. I already feel itchy.
Ali’s been here for a week already. She has anorexia, like me.
I have anorexia. That’s weird to write. I’ve never thought about it like that before, but that’s what Mom says I have. That’s what Dad would say I have if he actually talked to me about what’s going on. That’s what the admission people say I have. Anorexia nervosa: they wrote it in red pen on the top of my file.
I don’t feel like I have a disease. I’m not barfing or fainting. Well, I almost fainted that one time at school, but that was just once. One fainting spell does not make me sick. Especially since I feel ridiculously huge. I didn’t run today. All I’ve been doing is sitting. In the car. In the waiting room. In this room. I want to move, but I can’t. They won’t let me.
“We can’t exercise and we eat basically all day long.” Ali tapped the bag on her IV stand. It swung like a pendulum. “I have to be hooked up to this thing all the time, too. More nutrients. More fluids.” She pretended to gag. “They’re inflating me like a balloon. It’s the worst.” She smiled. It was a tiny smile, but it was definitely a smile.
Maybe Ali doesn’t hate me. Maybe she’s just a grump when she wakes up. Josie’s like that at sleepovers. She grumbles and moans if she gets up before eight a.m. She’s crabby in homeroom, too.
Ali’s smile is crooked, like Emerson’s, except Emerson’s mouth turns up on the left side and Ali’s does on the right.
Emerson smiled when we said good-bye yesterday, but I could tell it was forced. She joked about how jealous she was that I’d get to eat so much yummy food. How I probably planned this so I could skip track practice.
I don’t want to skip track practice. I don’t want to eat, either. I told Emerson that. “Mom’s making a big deal out of things.” I rolled my eyes. “You know how she is, always overreacting.” Mom does overreact. Whenever she gets a sniffle, she pops zinc cough drops and drinks fortified orange juice like it’s her job.
Which it’s not. As far as I know, gallery owners don’t run on orange juice. They run on Fitbits and buzzing iPhones and Pilates classes. Oh, and meetings. Lots and lots of meetings.
I keep tapping my foot and jiggling my leg. It’s the closest thing to running I can get. Track practice ends around now. The other girls are probably changing out of their sweaty clothes, chugging water, and breaking into their post-workout snack stashes. I’d be on the track still, running extra laps, yelling an excuse to Emerson when she invited me over after practice.
Then I’d run some more. To get better. To lose more weight.
Emerson said she’d call me tonight. Or e-mail me tomorrow.
Josie hasn’t said anything to me since last week.
Ali talks a lot. Everyone here does. Jean blabbed on and on about the rules while she helped me unpack.
No outside food.
No visitors outside of weekends and evening hours unless they’re approved.
Eat according to your meal plan.
I’m glad Jean didn’t make me sign an agreement, because there’s no way I can agree to those rules. I’ll eat, but I’ll only eat so I can get out of here faster. And I won’t be honest. They don’t need to know about my feelings.
I’ll smile and nod until my head falls off.
That will be my disguise.
I have to go eat dinner now.
I don’t want to eat dinner now.
I ate dinner.
An entire “my plate is full and I’ll get in trouble if I don’t eat it” meal.
I ate everything.
My stomach hurts so much. It looks like there’s a baby in there.
We had a group after. That’s what we do here. We eat and have groups and meet with therapists and nutritionists. We listen and tell the truth and share secrets and talk about how we feel. We gain weight.
My chest is seizing up. I want to go for a run. I need to go for a run. My times are dropping with every second I sit on my butt. I’m already the slowest one on the team; I can’t afford to get worse. I have to be in shape to qualify for regionals next month. I have to have to have to.
I’m trying to jiggle my leg so the counselor doesn’t notice. That’s some movement, at least.
The counselor noticed. She raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips, like that old lady who works at the pharmacy does every time she sees me. I bet she still thinks I’m a little kid who’ll throw a tantrum if Mom doesn’t give me the chocolate bar I asked for.
Hah! There’s no way I’d ever ask for a chocolate bar.
I stopped jiggling. At least I didn’t get in trouble. Maybe I got a free pass because it’s my first day here. I still want to move, though. Why am I the only one freaking out? No one else looks like they’re in pain. Why does my stomach hurt so much? Is there something wrong with me?
I can’t write any more tonight. I can’t think about this. Except I have snack soon. More food. Then I’ll go to bed. So I can do this all over again tomorrow.
Copyright © 2019 by Jen Petro-Roy