We passed through a gate. Isn’t that how the stories go for the princess? Carried through a gate to a mysterious place. I remember that gate very well, even though I was very much in a drug-haze. It was a tall metal gate. My memory says I was sitting up in my seat in the car, but I remember feeling like I was lying down. Or had they laid me down? Things get unclear the longer it’s been, the farther away Marigold Grove seems. But I remember seeing the gate, from different angles. Like my head was sideways or I was seeing differently. I remember it being tall, with metal tridents. I remember that part for sure. Instead of spearheads atop the gate, each column of metal ended with the three-pronged points of a trident. So that there were more sharp prongs at the top than the poles that led to them. I remember metal buzzing sounds. Did I see a key card or buttons to press or an intercom? I don’t remember that much. But I remember the buzzing. I wasn’t sure at first if it was in my own head, but it went on and on. A long, frightening buzz. Like electricity. And then scratchy noises like on an old radio. So, yes, it must have been an intercom, then, mustn’t it have been? Except why had the scratchiness happened on both sides of the conversation? It’s just wrongbody nonsense, I suppose, so it all sounds like that in my memory. These non-people and their endless chattering static. Turning the radio between the stations and having it sound no different than what’s playing on the most audible station. So you recoil from it, like I did. I needed to be away from the buzzing. It’s safe inside you own head, most of the time. Unless you’re forced to share it. Then, things are a little different. And I knew they would want me to share at Marigold Grove. That’s the overture to get children to do what you want them to do, isn’t it? To encourage them to share? Doctors to share your intimacy, inside and out. Like hell. And we all know that light turns into dark and then turns into light again, when you’re in hell. And I was assuredly in hell — because the wrongworld Earth is a shadow-hell as much as any other place is but where I need to be going once my sweet baby comes. And are those particular truths profound? No. They’re just true. But here’s the thing — they’re also true for people, who can be hells in and of themselves. Hells in abundance, both inside and out. I know this is true. I’ve lived among it. I’ve felt the heat of hell touch every place on my body. And it’s because of that reality — the constant singing of hell against my skin — that I know it’s right that I reject what the wrongbodies have made of the Earth. But I couldn’t reject what was happening to me, even though I could reject the sensations of it. Rejection isn’t denial. Rejection isn’t ignoring what is. It’s saying ‘no’ and never letting that hellish heat touch the real you beneath the skin. And doctors want to peel you down to the parts that they want to change. They’ll call it ‘fixing’ you. Like they say it for dogs and cats. And that’s how I arrived at Marigold Grove — treated like a cat. Medicated so I couldn’t defend myself. Jabbed by a needle. No, by needles. That would happen a lot. Day and night happening meaninglessly to me in the bright lights. Wheeled into a domed anteroom or waiting room or whatever it’s meant to be. Was I there for minutes or hours or days? I don’t know. It’s still there, you know — Marigold Grove, I mean. Closed now. But still a standing nightmare for me. I’ve thought of going back there, to see for myself if some of the things I remember are true. There were things about it that still nag at my memory. At one time, we considered making Marigold Grove the rendezvous point, instead of Beery House. But there were — are — too many unknowns. Too many things I’ll never have time to find out, once Earth burns away. But I’ll share one, in particular, here. You remember how I told you about the way old photographs tell more truth than people admit. About the wilted look of the world in 1977. About how the air made everything look pale and sickly. Jaundiced faces and buildings that look like they’re made of old paper. Well — it was different in Marigold Grove. There were colors there. Colors in the — … well, it amuses me to think of the front room of Marigold Grove as a lobby. All this was supposed to be a vacation, after all, wasn’t it? I took to calling it that in the years that followed. My vacation. My time away. Like Marigold Grove was a hotel, and its lobby — I remember the lights being so bright. The fixtures — big rectangles of pale sickness behind metal cages so they couldn’t be easily touched; they ran all the way around just below where the domed ceiling started to curve. At the top of the dome was a big window, far far away, with no way to reach it. A nurse was standing near the door. She had a brief, kind of smirking conversation with the orderlies who’d brought me. I remember just looking around and trying to take in detail, even though everything seemed slow and more than that wrong because of the drugs they’d given me. The nurse must have noticed me looking up at the far-away window. She told me I’d love to see it in the early morning, because it was put there so the light would come down during the day to make the lobby brighter. Happier, she said. She was just some nameless nurse. The entire time I was there, I didn’t care to keep track of the nurses. I’d come to hate that window, for a reason I knew when the nameless nurse first told me what it was there for. Her explanation was an obvious lie. It was there to be far away, to make the outside look forever above and impossible to reach. Causing pain because you care, so you know it’s a hospital, I suppose. And then there was the mural. To the left of the door as you entered the lobby. A huge painting, all flowers. Orange and buttery gold and white — bursts of color, every flower like a little explosion. Marigolds, the nameless nurse told me when she saw me looking at the mural. For all there’d been of flowers with my playing Friendlietta, I still didn’t know much about real flowers. But she said the big ones were marigolds, just like the name of the hospital … as if I couldn’t figure that out. But the mural had a second kind of flower, too — delicate, little white or gold buds nestled in clusters, in among the marigolds. And they looked just like the flowers outside the building. I asked a nameless thing what the other flowers were called. The place wasn’t called Marigold Grove And Something Else, after all, and there were a lot of those other flowers in the mural. The nameless thing said she thought they were called ‘companion flowers,’ which meant nothing to me. I remember wanting to freeze time and look at the details of the mural. As if staring at an unknown flower long enough would tell me its name. But the nurse-things wouldn’t let me stand there. There were smirking conversations to be had by the nurses, my pulse and my blood pressure to be checked, while I sat there in the wheelchair, too weak to move. I grew thankful for the wheelchair, believe it or not. The nurses kept me so drugged, the wheelchair was a chariot in my mind, a symbol of freedom in the part of my brain keeping myself together, the part that comforted me. My legs didn’t work, but my mind did. And I craved stimulus. Of course, I couldn’t reach out and touch things; my arms were too heavy for me to move by myself. Everything about me felt heavy, in fact. My head felt like if I let it tip to one side it would keep going and bring me out of the chair and onto the floor. And then stamps were being pounded down onto paper and pens scribbled and I was lifted up out of the chair and taken and taken and taken to so many different rooms. Rooms for cleaning me and rooms for searching me and rooms for cleaning me again. Was it hoses or showers? I don’t remember. The water burned my skin from the heat and the pressure. More rooms for waiting. Being brought a plain peach-colored gown to wear during the day with H. LEEK written in thick black pen by hand over the breast of the gown and over the breast of the top. Peach pajamas to wear at night that were thicker than the gown and had little darker peach-colored squares all over them. It may have been one room, of course, but it felt like there were man, because they kept moving me in and moving me out and moving me deeper and deeper into Marigold Grove, picking me up and pushing me and then putting me down and doors would open and close and latch and lock, and the light kept looking different. So much light. Always light. That’s what Marigold Grove was — lights on lights. But there were few colors for it to accentuate: the peach uniforms, the beige and grey of wrongbody faces, the dirty-brown of the fake wood desks, the eggshell-cream walls. Light seemed to float around. It didn’t burn joyfully, the way sunlight does. It didn’t fill up the spaces in things the way healthy sunlight does. You could stand in the middle of that circular entryway and stretch out your arms and turn and turn and look right into the lights up above and what you see would become purple, but you wouldn’t feel the heat from the lights on the wall they way you would from sunlight. I remember another mystery now — how that light always left me wanting to dance in it. Just to spin around there, in the artificial light. No one told me to dance, or not to dance. But I felt that sensation of wanting to. I imagined that maybe they would gather us together in the lobby when there was sunlight. I remember wondering if they wanted us to fight over it. Push each other to see who can get into the sunbeams first, like competing flowers. I don’t remember ever seeing sunbeams at Marigold Grove, or being in them, if I ever did either. What I wouldn’t give for sunbeams now, but the world moves like molasses when you have walked outside of what’s obvious. Everywhere is winter for me now. But I’ve got my baby. My baby keeps me warm. In the light from Marigold Grove, you could see the pores and the hairs on your arms. You had to look at yourself, whether you wanted to or not. By design? Antiseptic lights and smells but also the smell of flowers coming in from the outside. So many flowers outside Marigold Grove, and I damn them all. And when the women of Marigold Grove would undress you and check you over, and they could see every scar you’d ever earned from cutting yourself. They didn’t know or care that those were marks of freedom. All they saw were wounds and something to be cured. They didn’t know or care that I had become certain that the Horses were drawn to my blood. They must have found me that night because I had poured so much of myself onto the ground. I hadn’t done it for them. But they came, nonetheless. The blood of a True Person must have shone to them like a beacon. They took away the things I might use to summon them. I needed the Horses’ guidance to protect me. I was sure that I needed them to guide me, to take me to Cameron, so we could finish things. I remember wondering every moment I was inside Marigold Grove where he could have been hiding. Or if they found him so dangerous they had locked him up in some secret room. Behind a wall? I kept my eyes as open as you can when you’re pumped full of drugs. But, as far as I remember, these doctors and nurses didn’t mention Cameron during that time. I kept wondering if they were keeping us apart to the point that they weren’t even letting me hear his name or see him. But I couldn’t ask, realize. I couldn’t ask them because they would use that. Everything they heard with their smiling skulls would go back on me. They’d use it. They were going to try to drain me of my words, the things in my heads that keep the truth up in the front parts of my brain. I refused to speak to them because of that. Don’t give weapons to your enemies, but also don’t give weapons to the insignificant things pretending to be people. A mouse can set off the trigger of a shotgun by walking across it just trying to find its cheese. I couldn’t risk making mistakes with these pretend things, so I did what I could to content myself while I was waiting for Cameron. I’d be sitting in their wheelchairs and lying on my back on gurneys, doing what they asked and asked and asked. More needles in my arms — legs — stomach. Masks covering up my face and then thick rubbery sweetness making me sleep and how hateful the sleep was. And their nameless faces and all the noises down the hallway. Barred windows open on some days, cars coming and going. One particular car, different from the rest. You could hear it pulling in and out of the front of the hospital and the sound was heavier than the other cars. The sound took up more space. Finally catching sight of it one day — I realized I hadn’t seen it when I’d arrived. Dark windows on the long, black car. Not a limousine, but the kind of a car that’s meant for an important person. Correcting myself, there, now. The car for an important, well, what they’d call a person or people. Non-people can’t define what a person is. They don’t get to decide who’s someone that would matter. The universe did that, and I’m sorry to all the babies that mine will consume yours. But that is the way of it. My place is in the light. Yours is the car and the the needles and the wheeling and the hum of them pretending to talk, pretending to mean something. The memories of Marigold Grove, all smashing around in in my head. Don’t mind me. I’m asleep now, soon to give birth. You’ll forgive me for losing track of my thoughts. Wait — I think I’ve said before that I know I’m asleep. I have to be, because I’m seeing my memories of these things so much deeper than I can when I’m awake. They say you can’t write or read in your dreams. That’s a lie. I do it all the time. Like I’m reading the signs on the doors of the rooms, the meaningless numbers and letters to identify patients. The layout of the Children’s Ward was in the shape of a T. The top of the T was made up of two wings. Sorted by gender, of course. A-Wing was for the girls. B-Wing was for the boys, which I figured obviously had to be where Cameron was. Between the two wings was the door that led out to the hall where the doctor’s offices and examination rooms were for the Children’s Ward — and beyond that was endless locked metal doors that didn’t even have windows. At the opposite end of the T intersection between the two wings, though, directly opposite from the exit out of the Children’s Ward, were two closed metal doors with crossbars on each, like you sometimes see at schools. The kind you push down and then push the door open in front of you. Those crossbar doors made me think of what was behind there being like a big walk-in refrigerator. I remember that I felt icy-cold even thinking of the refrigerator, like my skin remembered the times when I used to walk naked in the basement of my old house during the early days of The Rituals. I think I didn’t question it at first, but I think I must have asked what was there, because at some point I was told that past the crossbar doors was the place where we six patients in the Children’s Ward of Marigold Grove were going to be expected to socialize together — but that I wasn’t allowed to go in there just then. So here was a place where we supposedly could all get to know each other. But I wasn’t allowed. Not that I would’ve wanted to socialize. In fact, I felt contempt for that idea. As if these nobody wrongbodies could do anything to make being there feel normal. As if normalcy could come from small talk and canned lemonade. Or jigsaw puzzles, or table tennis. Like we could somehow forget that we were being poked and pilled by the same people expecting us to chat with each other. As if we could be made to forget that we were being imprisoned and monitored. I remember worrying that I might forget who I was — again. I remember periodically being seized with panic in the brief moments when the haziness of my stupor would wear off a little and I would wonder if I would start thinking of myself as a wrongbody and forget I was one of the True People. I knew I couldn’t let that happen. I didn’t think it was even possible, but I remember that I resolved to remind myself of how important I was at least once a day. I resolved to do it in different ways in my head, so that if one part of my brain shut off another would still be there. I’d heard stories of people whose minds forget everything about who they are and remember instead only every song they’d ever heard. I decided to use that as a weapon, to craft for myself different memories of the True World and the True People. A song. A poem. A story. The real memories of the days on The Cobalt Hand — what I can remember, anyway. I recited, in my head, the songs and stories from TK Wanderlad:
‘If you should find the Forest Key, don’t keep it for yourself, and just give it to me.’
‘Not by land, not by air, and not by ocean green, you won’t find the key until you’re mind’s serene.’
‘Three minor keys to make it whole,’
‘Three minds as one, at your control.’
The lessons of Bellbrun: I recited them in my mind:
Anathema. Believability. Child. Devil. Exhibit. Framing. Generosity. Horses. Interruption. Jackal. Kindness. Legends. Mapmakers. Neonate. Orphan. Practitioners. Quilt. Reunion. Snakeskin. Venom. Web. Xystus. Y. Zygote. And The Lost Letter.
The Inverted Y. I pictured the Y in different shapes. I pictured the special sticks the Hiltrauds always carry. The ones that can push away the tapestry of blood. I thought about how mysteries sometimes solve themselves. I thought about how I still didn’t know what it all meant to me, or what lesson I should take away from that, or how to fight them. I half-expected a Hiltraud to be hiding behind a curtain somewhere at Marigold Grove. I pictured the Hiltrauds burning up, or serving me, or devouring themselves, like the visions the horses gave me when they promised me power. I worked all of those strings of thought them into each other, back and forth between my fingers — making different connections inside of myself — not to solve some mystery, but so that these memories could never be burned away by an accidental overdose of whatever they put inside my blood. My blood. My precious, sacred blood. I was certain that my blood could, freed of this place’s trickery, lead me to Cameron like an arrow. But that didn’t happen. Marigold Grove kept my blood-sight from me. Every day, I woke up hoping that I would be able to see the stitched paths of gold. But they remained invisible to my sight. And the days went on, and on. And, despite my best efforts, my thoughts drifted on me. I couldn’t concentrate on them. I think they experimented with different drugs around that point, because there was a period of time where the best I could do was to try to differentiate the days by giving myself a new reminder of my own significance every day. I remember that I often wondered if that was the way my life would be from that point on. Forever waking up every morning and reminding myself that I mattered, until I disappeared or I stopped being able to remember that I mattered. I wondered if that was the way my story was going to end, assuming I could die — which True People cannot. That’s how bad it had gotten by that point, though. Not in terms of doubt, but in terms that I wasn’t even able to hold on to rudimentary facts. I was never on the cusp of giving up, you have to know. But the routine was so powerful and my limbs and my brain were so weak that I saw no possibility for anything to happen that might change the routine. Life became about breathing, for me, and remembering. And then, on one day out of I don’t know how many, I remember the stupor abating a little. And then a little more over the next few days. I noticed fewer flashes of pain from the needles. Were they giving me less drugs, I wondered, or was I just having fewer moments of lucidity to feel them? I have to suppose they lowered my dosage after a time, because it’s around then when I start to remember specific days, outside the things I did to remind myself of my importance. And it was shortly after I began to remember again that I recall a nurse approaching me to tell me that my situation might finally change soon.
“Good news! You’re finally getting out of here!” the nurse said.
I remember trying to speak and barely managing a smile. I believed her.
“You’re going to just love visiting with the others. Friendships, once made, can last a lifetime. My grandmother told me that.”
I realized that she didn’t mean freedom. She meant a different prison.
“But not just yet. Soon. But you should always know you’re not alone.”
I knew I wasn’t alone. I knew there were beings protecting me across time and space. Eager for my return. But those beings had to obey the rules of the wrongworld we all lived in, such that those rules were. And that had to be part of the power of Marigold Grove, I reasoned then. That somehow, the place in a spot specifically designed to be keep me from the people that truly mattered. A thought occurred to me in that moment: had all this been a plan? Had the sky been a herald of my eventual imprisonment? Had the diminishment of the world into unprincipled, faded ugliness been a signal that I should have seen? That the horses had, for whatever reason, not been able to warn me about? Was this place made just to keep me prisoner? But, then, the drugs changed again and things got much worse. I remember throwing up a lot. Then, I remember feeling cold, and my heartbeat going slowly. Then feeling hot, and my heartbeat going fast. Then things went back to how they’d been when I was just in a stupor, and I remember feeling grateful for that. I wondered if the heat and the cold had been to make me grateful for the stupor, and so I decided to be resentful. And my thoughts punched out from deep inside my head and my feelings all fell over each other and they kept me and held me and suffocated me, and then there was a long period when I was in my room and not seeing anyone for what I think was a very long time, until one eventual day when I became aware that I was being wheeled out of my room like freight, too quickly, too eagerly, with fast footsteps behind me, and me without the strength to even look back over my shoulder to see who it was. Pushed and pushed with no explanation, no greeting, just moved without my having the slightest say. Wheeled down corridors, until I say a sign I would come to hate more than any of the others in Marigold Grove; a sign made of the same fake wood as most of the cheap desks the Marigold Grove nurses and doctors passed off as officious. There was one word on the sign, written in what looked like wood-burnt letters. It read simply:
I don’t know how many days I was at Marigold Grove before I was finally let into that room. The Commons. Despite my contempt for the idea of socializing with the other patients — who would surely all be wrongbodies, themselves — I’d hoped to get in there right away, as a step toward finding Cameron. But it felt like it ended up being a long, long time before they let me in, and I wasn’t about to tell any of the nameless nurses or doctors how much I wanted to see him, like I said. I remember the nameless taking turns talking to me about my having to prove myself somehow, in some way, but I honestly don’t remember exactly what I’d been expected to do. Something about your typical good behavior, I think, but also something else. Finding my place, or some other kind of nonsense. Finding a path? I don’t remember that, even in this clarity. I expect it was probably just me having to prove I wouldn’t try to gouge things out of the other patience, or the nameless. Which I had no interest in. It was my blood I was concerned about. While alone in my room, waiting, behaving, I tried to see past the walls. I failed. I tried to listen for the Horses. Or for Cameron. Nothing. You might as why I didn’t just scratch at myself or something to get at the blood; I knew it had to be a ritual — specific, directed. Deep and persistent. I wouldn’t have had time with just my fingernails to do The Rituals right. I knew also that trying would keep me from seeing Cameron. I tried a few times to visualize cutting myself in the proper way, wondering if that might help get me in contact with Cameron or the Horses or help me get my special sight back. But it didn’t work. So, I lived in my brain — the only safe place, even with all their needles shoving into me — and I let them freight me around and I waited. And the waiting seemed to take forever, until one of them told me:
“It’s a special day!”
You will find in this wrongworld that a lot of people will use the word special a lot, without knowing what it means. And oh, how I hate them for that, as much as I hate them for so many other things. ‘Special’ means being able to see the history of the blood that’s been let there on the ground. ‘Special’ means being from the True World, and therefore better and far more alight than everyone around you. They call it enlightenment for a reason. It is of light. Like the True World is of light. Special means not letting yourself stay dead. Special means learning a true faith of the world without having to find it in a book. There are so many kinds of real ‘special’ in the world, but if you’re never going to be special you’ll make special out of a holiday cartoon on network television or a sauce for your hamburger. Don’t overuse the world special. Let me mean something important when you use it. Let it matter. Let it be something you hold at the back of your tongue and only use when what’s happening is truly unique in the sameness in a way that matters to you deep in the bone or in the blood. Wrongbodies use words without them mattering. They use words to get by, to pass the time for that day. For religions and meaningless truisms. My faith says you don’t call something special unless it really, truly is, and if you ever truly find something that’s that special you’ll discover that you won’t want to even call it special. You won’t want to bring it to the attention of everyone else. You’ll want to keep it only for yourself. If you found a tree that was truly special, in a big forest, and someone asked you about the trees in that forest, you wouldn’t tell the person about the special tree because you’d want to keep it sacred for yourself. Others might notice such a tree, and call it the Really Big Willow. But you wouldn’t want to give it any special name — you’d want to keep it a secret. You’d want the power in it for yourself — not diluted among many. You’d give it your own name, but you wouldn’t tell anyone. Not even those close to you. Because then it’s out in the world, and it’s no longer yours. And it’s no longer special. But, there I was, after solving riddles I don’t remember and doing whatever the dance they demanded be done, living inside my brain as they dragged me this way and that. Looking at walls and falling into them to see infinite molecules and particles and all those other sciences. But those details beyond the mundane and the immediate appeared only in my mind’s eye, never with my real eyes. My real eyes were blind at Marigold Grove. I didn’t know why, even after all the time I’d spent from that arrival until the first day in the Commons. My eyes were still broken, then. But the mind’s eye is where memories come to life. And I can see that hideous sign for the Commons burning into my memory. It spoke to me — loudly — of how Marigold Grove saw us, that the place where we would meet — all of us commons. Dismissing us. As if anyone with my sight could be called common, regardless of whether the sight had left me. But that didn’t stop the nameless nurse from pushing me in my wheelchair into the very middle of the Commons with her endless smile as pale as the artificial light. She brought me to a stop right next to a worn couch of pale pea-green with paler white vertical stripes. Nobody else was there yet. I had a momentary horror-filled vision of being forced to sit on that couch and talk to the nothing nurse for all of eternity. That maybe I had died earlier, and this was an afterlife prison made by wrongbodies to keep one of the True People from returning to the True World.
“We thought it would be a good idea for you to get a look around in here before anyone else arrives,” the nameless nurse told me. “Get yourself familiar, like the others are. Get yourself comfortable.’
I remember nodding a little and then lowering my head. I remember my drool dripping on my good right hand, wet and warm.
“That’s good!” the nurse said, her lips pursing together into a tight, wrinkly ‘o’ of chapped flesh on the word ‘good.’
I wondered if she meant the drooling. There was something about how the nameless nurse talked — how they all did — that seemed to be most pleased when we were the most incapable of response. I lifted my eyes to look at her again. Sometimes, with particular wrongbodies, I find I want to feel the burning anger they cause in me. That’s how it was with Penny Greenlee. I hated her so much that seeing her almost felt good, because it set fire to my insides. With the nameless nurse, it was a similar hatred. Those lines above her upper lip, beneath her nose — so unforgivable that she would be allowed to live in a place that prided itself on making people better. I remember that I started at that lined, wrinkled span of wiggling skin, and I realized that If Marigold Grove were genuinely interested in making me better, they would not put such a thing posing as person in front of me. I wish the wrongbodies had the honesty to confess their disdain at such sights. Surely, it had to weigh on them. Or were they truly so oblivious that they could not see that the nurse was a thing among things, yes, but a thing I would expect to be condemned by the other things. A flawed thing destroyed by the less-flawed things around her. Torn apart and used for raw materials to make new, better things. Imagine if it were so. Then, the wrongbodies’ so-called evolution could happen again and again in seconds, until they were at least fit to feel my touch, even if it was meant to hurt them. They might evolve enough to be thankful for my touch. But, as none shall survive, I shouldn’t waste time thinking about it. And I mention this because, while the nurse and I were familiarizing themselves with the Common, I heard another one of the nothing nurses speak. My nothing nurse pulled my chair back and wheeled me around toward the door we’d come through, as if to give me a better look at some grand entrance about to occur.
“There we are,” the other nameless nurse said, meaninglessly. She was wheeling in another girl in a wheelchair. But the other girl’s chair was very much different than the one I was sitting in. The other girl’s chair had slender silver wheels around the main wheels of the chair. And there were handles on those silver circles. The new nothing nurses seemed to speak silently to mine, a communique of shared vacant smiles and crinkled eye-corners.
This other girl — the first person around my age I’d seen in however long — I found myself glad to see her. But I also found her strange. She was a pudgy girl, with round cheeks and not much of a chin, and normally fat wrongbodies anger me. But her brown eyes were bright-seeming, even with the drugs we were both on. The same ones? But — I was sure that no matter how much these nurses tried to keep her locked inside herself, you’d still be able to see her. So much so that, if I’d had my power, I would’ve thought that the brightness in her eyes meant something. And her black skin had a glow to it sometimes, especially around her cheeks and between her eyebrows. But it was not like a sheen from sweat; this was a was luminosity, a significance. Her hair was in loose curls down to her shoulders. And her hair … something else I noticed about it — how most if it was a sandy brown, but some of those curls were almost golden; yet, her hair didn’t looked dyed, at all. I remember being struck, too, not just because of these differences, but because I was actually noticing them. She was dressed in the same kind of peach-colored gown I was wearing, but hers looked newer and nicer. Her name was on her gown the same way mine was on mine, hand-written in black marker — by the same hand, I figured. According to the pen-marks, the other girl’s name was L.EINSLER. She looked very much drugged, just like me. She had a duffel in her lap, like one of those square book bags with a cloth strap and nothing to keep it shut if you needed to protect the contents. The cheap kind that bookstores ask you to buy now, that have pictures of local sights on them. L. Einsler’s duffel was dark blue and had no pictures on it. What looked like a hardcover book with a light-purple cover was poking up out of the top of the duffle. The spine was facing away from me so I couldn’t tell what it was. I could just make out the color. Which was familiar.
“Hilda?” my nothing nurse said, gesturing toward the other girl.
“Uh … ” It was all I was willing to give her. All I could give her? I try not to think of my limitations. But they existed then. They were there. The chemicals prevented me from being true to myself. And the mysterious force keeping my blood-sight away. The blood-sight was more important than talking to wrongbodies, regardless, but I need to remind you here that I was genuinely frightened, despite the drugs’ numbing effects. I was afraid that when the gate was pulled open and the doorway and the path to the True World became available, I would be unable to find it without being able to see the blood-path. The worry was there, even in my most mentally-blank moments. And I wouldn’t give them knowledge of my fear. Not that I’d wanted to give them anything, either way. My silence was forced upon me in that moment, but I know it would have been my choice as well not to answer. My silence simply would have been more defiant than it was.
“This is Lucy Einsler,” said the other nothing nurse to me. Then, “Lucy? This is Hilda Leek.”
Lucy said nothing, either. She just stared at my nothing nurse. She didn’t even look at me. She just looked down.
The two nothing nurses then positioned us so we were sitting next to each other, murmuring their nonsense. I remember how they moved me so the right wheel of my chair and the left of hers were about three feet apart. Like best friends at the asylum would sit, I suppose. Then, the nurses locked both our chairs, and we were left there to sit, right near the green couch. After tugging and pushing at both our chairs, the nurses then both walked away together back toward the exit on the other end of the room. Their shoes clacked loudly on the tile floor. I remember a hideous picture in my head of what their feet must look like from working all day in those shoes. You know, it’s something I’ve talked about a little, but not a lot — but I’ve always seen things like that in my head. Where other people don’t notice these ugly realities, I notice them. It think it’s from me being a True Person. Have you listened to the rustle of clothing on faded grey bodies? Have you ever had to watch as they talked so quietly to each other and you know in your heart you should have only contempt for them? But you’re in a position — and they’re in a position — where they decide your future in every single moment and you have to cater and dance for them, even when you can’t move? I couldn’t even hear their voices, let alone make out their words. Not that their words were real words.
When the nurses reached the other end of the room, they leaned back on the wall to the side of the door, facing me and Lucy. They would’ve looked like young people loitering, except for the decay in the air around them, the dust I knew was pouring off their bodies a tiny dot per second. They chatted with each other, these two things that liked to be called nurses. Their pinched mouths moving, smiling at each other with solidarity and coffee-teeth as their old faces stretched in and out and up and down; broad gestures with the hands, pantomime. They didn’t, either of them, seem to be looking at me or Lucy. I thought they must have been, given what they were there for, but perhaps I was too heavily-sedated to see it.
Then one of the nurses did look over us two, as we sat in our wheelchairs. “I’m sure you two will get along just so well,” one of the nurses said. The emphasis added moisture to her lips. “Yes, I’ve got a good feeling about you two.”
Then it was silent, for a long time. And then Lucy Einsler started laughing. It was muted laughter, at first — dulled by the drugs. But she was laughing. Nodding her head, then shaking it, and then her laughter intensified.
I remember seeing the nurses both frown, as if in unison.
And then, I started laughing too.
The nurses stared, hard, at both of us. Their flesh-mouths tightened and unclenched, but they didn’t otherwise move.
Their torqued-up faces made me laugh harder.
And that made Lucy laugh harder. “Good feeling!” she said.
I doubled over, slowly tipping forward. “Good feeling about us!”
Lucy laughed harder.
“Stop being OLD!” I cried out as loudly as I could, struggling to push the words past my laughter. Of course, I was telling the nurse that I wished she’d die. And it felt so good. And it did feel loud, like people would be able to hear me, for a change. I usually only felt that with The Rituals, or when I make contact with the horses. And I remember that I had a moment of worry when I realized that. Because Marigold Grove was the kind of place that said it was there to help, but it was really a place that robbed you of things to keep its own lights bright. So I was afraid that the feelings I had were going to be taken from me. I remember feeling suddenly protective of them — and of Lucy Einsler, who, despite being a wrongbody, made me laugh. And that was something.
And, no, the nurses hadn’t like our laughter. And then they really hadn’t liked my remark about them being old. I watched their faces fall, pocked cheeks going slack. But the nurses stood where they were, watching, making the entire situation awkward and more difficult, of course, but taking no action to separate Lucy and me from each other. I realize now, of course, that they had to be there to watch. Marigold Grove was not a place where children could be left alone. Nowhere is, really. But especially not a place where the children are all supposedly so wounded. And, as the nurses stood their ground and watched in their pursed silence, I remember that I eventually stopped seeing them.
I focused on Lucy. After our laughter had subsided, there was another silence I eventually broke: “Hi. You have a book,” I said. I remember my voice differently, from moment to moment, as I think of these memories. I don’t know whether I was speaking slowly, or quickly, or sometimes one or the other. What I told my muscles and brain to do may not have been what actually happened. I wonder now if I remember mostly my intent, or my actual actions.
“Book?” Lucy blinked. “Oh, yeah!” Then she reached over to her duffel bag and took out the book and held it up, with the cover facing me. It was a hardcover, as I’d thought before, and I recognized the cloth-like look to it, with its puffed-up and raised velvety surface with a stitched-looking pattern across it.
“Victoria Spoils!” I said. “Oh, man — I love those books.” The gold words on the velvety purple cover looked stitched-on, too. I don’t know how they do that with printing. I still don’t know if it’s real — actually stitched — or some trick. I figure it’s probably a trick.
“New one,” Lucy said.
“There’s a new one?” I said. I didn’t know they were still making them as of then. But, sure enough, even though I recognized the name cover and the font, the title was new to me: VICTORIA SPOILS GRAND BALL! All of the books in that series have titles like that — shortened, like newspaper articles. VICTORIA SPOILS HISTORIC ANNIVERSARY! VICTORIA SPOILS ROYAL UNVEILING! But I knew I’d never seen one about a grand ball. “Is it good?”
“Yeah,” Lucy replied. “It’s funny, and it’s really, wickedly, wildly wrong.”
We both laughed again, at that. And I understood exactly what Lucy meant by ‘really wickedly wrong.’ It’s a quote from the books. The Victoria Spoils books all begin in the exact the same way: with a newspaper article that gets everything wrong about what happens in the book, and with the narrator explaining after the article that the things that were said in the newspaper about Victoria G. Spoils weren’t just wrong, but were ‘really, wickedly, wildly wrong.’ Because the newspapers mischaracterize all the details of whatever happens to portray Victoria like she’s a villain. Thinking of it now, it’s strange. That’s what’s happening to me. I’m at the end of my journey, and I’m writing about what has come before, and the beginning — the parts written by the purple woman — have gotten everything so wrong. Just like they did in those books. Is that what’s drawn me to these particular memories in this moment? I don’t know. But the coincidence of the word ‘wrong’ in the Victoria Spoils books has me thinking, even though it’s a different kind of wrong than being a wrongbody. I sense that some of you reading this may think of my fondness for Lucy as an inconsistency, or as hypocritical. Because Lucy is a wrongbody. If you must question it, then think of this as a situation where she amused me and I was in need of amusement. But if you are even a little capable of critical thinking, you’ll understand I was lonely and frightened and felt like I had lost everything. The True People want companionship as much as wrongbodies do, although for very different reasons. And my Cameron was missing to me, then. And I was willing to take a good feeling no matter how it came to me. Good feelings are better than numbness, even if they come from something unimportant. Lucy Einsler became significant to me. I made her important in my life. I needed Lucy’s voice, her laughter. I needed someone to look at me – to really look at me. I didn’t want them to look at me the way the nurses did, or like Reggie or Deacon did, nor even MOTHER or FATHER did. Someone who put fueled me in a way that only significant people can, once I decide they are significant — because only a significant person can make me laugh in such a way that I’m not mocking them. And Lucy Einsler doesn’t deserve to be mocked. Yes, when the worldworld of Earth burns, she will burn with it. So she is to be pitied, perhaps, for being a wrongbody and for her fate. But you shouldn’t mock the pitiable. And you shouldn’t laugh at them. Laugh at those who deserve no pity. Let their suffering bring that laughter to you. And let yourself laugh with someone significant when you deserve it, and if they deserve it. I deserved to feel good, and Lucy deserved my company. So we shared that time, talking about the Victoria Spoils books and then on to other things, as best we could manage through the medications — pleasant little things to talk about, for Lucy. I wondered why she was even here. She seemed fine, talking about places she had been with her family and what she liked to do on Saturdays with them — picnics, day trips. I didn’t know the Einslers any more than I knew Lucy before that day — because, believe it or not, even in a place like Drodden not everyone knows each other. The other Einslers she told me about aren’t important, because only Lucy was significant to me. But I feigned absorption of the details of her various relatives — and I reciprocated, within reason. I mean, I certainly wasn’t about to tell her anything about Cameron, or TK Wanderlad or Bellbrun. I let Lucy think she was leading the conversation. I peppered in trivial details about my pretend, wrongbody family. I made sure to use my parents’ actual wrongbody names. I said ‘Darren Leek’ and ‘Sophia Leek’ and felt the poison on my tongue for speaking MOTHER and FATHER’s names aloud. I wanted to spit the poison out onto the floor of the Commons, but I didn’t. And I remember that it was exactly when I was staring down at the floor, imagining myself vomiting up slimy venom, that I heard one of the nurses speak up again.
“Well, it’s not one of the other children, but it looks like you do have a couple of visitors, after all!” she said. She said it in such a way that I am convinced, to this day, that she had never planned to have any of the other children there. As a man entered the Commons, followed by a woman, I pictured them putting on this pantomime for however many other people there were in the Children’s Ward of Marigold Grove. Both of the newcomers were wearing white doctor’s coats, like they’d walked right out of television. The man had mottled skin — patches of pale-pink and grey. The woman’s skin was dark brown, but it had a little grey to it too, like oak bark. The man was wearing a pair of very wide glasses, a lot like the kind you wear at the dentist’s office. His hair was grey, and her hair was a rich brown. You couldn’t see the man’s mouth because there was so much grey hair surrounding it, the color of his beard a little lighter than the pepper tangle on his head. Her brown-black hair was tied back severely behind her head into a single ponytail. They both looked old, but the woman looked a little younger than the man. They had old hands and old eyes and they walked toward Lucy and me with old walks.
“I’m Doctor Wilbur Pace,” said the man.
“And I’m Doctor Laura Pace,” said the woman.
Both their voices are reedy and deep, like cellos tuned to find different depths in the same low notes.
Lucy and I just sat there, looking up at them from our chairs. Had that also been planned?
“We’re so glad to meet you both,” said Laura.
I noticed there was a little tremble in Laura’s voice, like it was an effort for her to speak out loud. It was something I understood, from when I’d had that feeling when I was very young. The difference was that I’d gotten over it, whereas this woman clearly had not.
“We’re the co-chief doctors in charge of the Children’s Ward, here at Marigold Grove.” He said it like he had to remind us where we were. “And we’re both here to help you.”
Neither Lucy nor I said anything.
“Of course, it’s really a misnomer, calling this place the Children’s Ward,” Wilbur said. “None of the patients here are really children. You’re all young people, well on the way to adulthood, and I understand that.”
“And we’re all eager to help you,” Laura added. “Everyone at Marigold Grove.” Again, it sounded as if Laura felt like we really, really needed to be told the name of the hospital. It was as if she thought we didn’t realize the importance of the place. She put so much emphasis on it — like pride, in the hospital’s name, itself.
“Yes,” said Wilbur, nodding as if grateful for Laura’s contribution. “We are.”
They both sat down on the couch by Lucy and me, and I noticed that it was at that moment that the nurses moved away from the door where they’d been standing and went out into the hall, out of my view.
“And we want to know how you want us to help,” Laura said.
“So — Lucy Einsler, and Hilda Leek. I see you’ve met.”
Lucy and I said nothing.
“Are you both doing all right? Are you comfortable? Lucy, is there anything we can get you?” Wilbur asked.
Lucy shoulders suddenly clenched, and then she lowered her head, eyes closing “Not now,” she said. Her hands clenched in her lap.
“Lucy-?” I wanted to ask her what was wrong, but for some reason I felt like that would be a mistake. Like saying her name was the only safe thing to do in that moment.
“Not now,” Lucy repeated to me, but in a completely different way than she’d said to Wilbur. She’s said it to him as a refusal. With me, she was thankful.
“What do you mean, Lucy?” asked Wilbur, as if Lucy had been talking to him the second time.
Laura raised a hand in front of Wilbur as if to stop him and then looked at Lucy, shaking her head. “All right, Lucy. Not now. Maybe later, OK?”
Lucy silently nodded. Then, her fingers unclenched and her shoulders relaxed. I remember how much Lucy’s reaction puzzled me then.
Wilbur and Laura Pace looked at each other, the way people look at each other when they don’t need to talk to each other to get things across. Then, Wilbur looked over toward me and asked very quietly “Hilda, is there anything I can get you? Anything you need?”
And, because of just exactly who this man and this woman were, I decided to take a risk. I felt like I was wasting time here, if these were really the people that ran this place. And only one thing I needed — to be with Cameron. But I knew better than to be so specific as to just demand Cameron’s location from them. So I put out my most pleading tone: “I feel like I don’t know anyone here,” I said. “I’ve just met Lucy, who’s very nice. But I wish we both could make some other friends.” On the last part, I gave them my best voice – the voice Friendlietta Flowergirl would use to persuade the flowers to grow, and the rain to fall. Then, for good measure, I add “It’s lonely, even with the other adults around.” I exhaled a little sigh, mostly through my nose.
Wilbur kept his focus on me, and away from Lucy. His voice got quieter: “I know the other patients are just as anxious to meet you,” he said. “And one in particular.” You could tell Wilbur Pace was grinning because the bushiest corners of his beard ticked upward. “But you’ll make a lot of friends among the others.”
I felt certain the other patient had to be Cameron, and I wondered if he was teasing me. I’d resolved, as I’ve told you, not to tell the doctors about how much I needed to see Cameron. But it was killing me, playing this game with Doctor Wilbur Pace. Nevertheless, I felt sure I had to keep the charade going as long as it seemed so dangerous to tell these people what I actually needed, what I really wanted. I tried to formulate a response that would be general enough to hide what I wanted to know.
“Look, Hilda — I know you know Cameron, Hilda. And I’ve gotten his assurance he’s all right with me telling you that he’s a patient here. And I know how much you’d like to see him, but there are things that have to be explained, and things that have to be worked out, and treatment. And lots more.”
My heart and brain and guts all felt like they were boiling at once. And I wanted to burn him with them. But the heat inside me also burned away the barriers that were keeping me from saying Cameron’s name. “But where is Cameron?” I asked. I remember feeling like my body was shaking on the inside, but I can’t say it made it to my outside. “Tell me where he is.” It wasn’t as much of a command as I’d wanted it to be. I remember sounding far more desperate than demanding. I decided to work with that. “Please?” More Friendlietta-voice.
“Now, Hilda, let’s all stay calm, Hilda. For Lucy’s sake, all right?” Laura gently admonished with her trembling voice.
Lucy didn’t look bothered by what I was saying at all. At this point, she was listening intently. Too, I remember that I didn’t like the way the doctors invoked her just to calm me down.
I cast a thankful look over toward Lucy.
Lucy quickly flashed a wink at me.
I didn’t acknowledge that I noticed; I was far too focused on the doctors. “All right. Will you please tell me where Cameron is?” I asked, trying to keep my own voice level.
“Of course,” Wilbur said. “He’s staying at the Off-Site practice facility.” Anticipating my question, he answered it before I asked: “It’s sort of a halfway point to re-integration into the rigors of everyday life,” he said. “So you can get used to things being more like you were used to before you came here.”
“What do I have to do?” I asked. I was ready.
“It’s not like that,” Laura said, sounding like she thought I’d be reassured somehow by this.
I wasn’t. “What’s it like?” I kept my voice quiet, calm, as best I could.
“It’s like I just told you,” Wilbur said. “The off-site facility is for practice and re-integration. But it’s not a reward; think of it as a challenge. It’s a more difficult process out there than it is here — more to do, but more to earn – in terms of personal growth.” He leaned in closer to me, and his voice got even quieter. “And we need you at your tip-top before we can even begin to think of bringing you out there.”
“It’s also rather rigorous,” Laura said. “And there are things to be done here first.”
“Like what?” Lucy asked.
Wilbur seemed surprised. He nodded graciously to Laura, and then stood back up. “I have a little confession to make, first,” Wilbur said. “We’ve teamed you two together on purpose.”
I looked over toward Lucy at that.
She made a wide-eyed, blinking face — but it was sarcastic, like she was pretending to be shocked.
I giggled; I couldn’t help myself.
Lucy laughed back.
We laughed together. I like unspoken communication.
Wilbur and Laura pace just stared at us.
Then, Wilbur cleared his throat. “People who have a hard time in life can be hurt in ways that are less obvious than a broken bone or a scraped knee,” he said. His posture stooped a little, and he spread his hands out in front of him. “The world can be scary.” He lifted himself back up. “And, when we get a broken bone, we put it in a cast. When we scrape our knee, we put a bandage on it.”
I noticed Lucy’s tongue was poking around at the side of her cheek and her eyelids lowered a little as she sat and listened to Doctor Wilbur Pace talk.
Wilbur didn’t seem to notice. “But when the injury is inside. Well — it’s not as easy. Especially not when the hurt’s happened up here.” He tapped his middle two fingers against the side of his head, above his wide ear. “But we know how to help with that. Here, at Marigold Grove, those hurts can be made visible, and treated.”
“And healed,” Laura added.
“I want to be healed,” I said. It was a lie. I’d been healing myself for years now. I didn’t need the help of a pair of fools. But I knew that I’d gain more with them by professing my desire to co-operate.
“Good. But you’ll be helped along by a miracle from the Earth.”
“A miracle?” I asked.
“Yes,” Laura said. Her face became all-smile. “A natural, homeopathic remedy for all sorts of ills – both mental and physical. Maybe you saw the picture of the flowers in the lobby?”
“Well, they’re not all marigolds,” Laura said. “There’s a special plant in the picture, too. A very special plant – a companion plant, is what it’s sometimes known as. It’s called yarrow. Do you know it?”