The problem with real life is that you don't get to choose the ending.
In a story, you can play with it, add and delete letters so everything turns out okay. The evil sorcerer will be defeated, the murderer will be caught, and the protagonist will come of age. They will stare back at themselves through the looking glass, shaking their head slightly. Not believing the person on the other side was really them.
Even in tragedy, the author decides. Tragedies linger on the tongue like dark chocolate. You can savor them, flick through the smooth paper one more time as Juliet wakes up to find Romeo poisoned. You can feel the air rush past your face as Inspector Javier plunges to his death.
Then, after hours curled in an armchair, you can read the last paragraph and close the covers. You can rise and stretch, go make a cup of tea. The book lies abandoned, flopped on the end of the ottoman, as you think about what you'll make for dinner.
Authors can make their endings as smooth as rabbit fur or as jagged as chipped ice. They can give two characters a happy relationship, a house on the water, and eternal freedom from jury duty simply by pressing the right keys. Or they can take it all away with a click of the backspace. The author is God.
But only inside the covers.
This story, like many others, begins with a pair of sparkly shoes—blue to match my dress. They added two inches of height and pinched in the heels. I had a couple of puffy white blisters by the end of the night.
My plan was to do hair with Cara at four, get dressed by five, and take pictures with Mom and Dad at six. Mom wanted to see those shoes. When I was little, she'd take me shoe shopping and let me get anything I wanted. I went wild. I bought Mary Jane's with big frilly bows and sneakers with skates on them, even though I didn't skate and had horrible balance. The shoes did not make me magically athletic. When I fell and skinned my knee, I banished them to dark reaches of my closet. Never to be worn again.
"How's it look?" Cara twirled around her room as I perched on the end of the bed.
"Good?" I shrugged. Everything I knew about prom I'd learned from books. In books, prom was as shiny as a disco ball and as elusive as the lights surrounding it. Literary prom was forever in danger of dissolving into a flood of runny mascara. It needed a knight in a rent-a-tux to save the day. Sometimes the first knight was defective, and they had to get a second one. I didn't have a knight, only Cara. That was okay though. What if the knight stepped on my foot dancing? It must be hard to move in all that shining armor.
My phone rang—a loud harsh buzz. I looked at the number, and my heart skipped. Stories began that way, with the protagonist's heart skipping. What if this was a story I didn't want to be in?
"Don't answer it." Cara flapped her hand. Like she knew it wouldn't be good news.
I looked at the screen. "I have to. It's Dad."
"I'm here." I turned away from Cara. "What's up?"
Dad paused. "How are you?"
"I'm okay." I clenched the phone. "You?"
"I'm okay." Another pause. "The thing is…"
"The thing is what?"
"Mom won't get out today."
"What!" I yelped and then forced myself to breathe slowly. Panic never helps. It was one of Dad's favorite sayings. He even owned a Keep Calm and Carry On mug.
"She won't get out today." He sighed.
"What do you mean she won't get out?" I kept my voice even. Mom had to get out. It was senior prom. Mom had missed middle school graduation, the fall play, and all of my parent teacher nights. A slow leaden feeling crept towards my gut.
Now she would miss this too.
"Why not?" I bit my lip.
"She had a relapse."
I looked out the window at the dreary sky. When I was little, Mom would close her curtains, burrow under the covers, and not come out for hours. I'd knock on her door until Dad came and told me to go away. He always said she was "resting." Why she needed to rest at one o'clock in the afternoon, I never understood. It wasn't until middle school that I learned that what she had had a name.
Names are important in books. In the Inheritance Cycle, knowing someone's true name lets you control them. In reality, it doesn't work like that. I knew what Mom had was called bipolar disorder and I still couldn't understand it, much less defeat it. Heroines in books have it easy. All they need to do is stab the problem with their sword, and it goes away.
"Are you still there?" Dad's voice came from a long way off.
"I know you're disappointed."
Disappointed—that was one word for it. What I really wanted to do was slam my fist into Cara's wall so hard it came out the other side. But my arms felt so sluggish I could barely lift them.
"She'll be there at your graduation."
"Will she?" I swallowed.
Dad sighed again. "I hope so."
I hung up the phone and faced Cara. She didn't meet my eyes. How much had she heard? She knew my mom was bipolar, but not the details. Cara's mom had had breast cancer when she was ten, so she thought she understood.
But she didn't. Breast cancer sufferers got to be noble. They wore pink ribbons and walked marathons. They pumped their arms, striding, buoyant. Crazies didn't walk marathons.
"Sure?" Cara raised her brows.
I tried to smile."I'm good. Really."
"Alright." She shrugged.
I focused on the wall behind her.
She snapped her fingers. "Earth to Ellen."
"Yeah?" I huffed. I wished I were alone with a book.
Books create space. You open one, and you're somewhere else. Your mom isn't sleeping the day away in her bedroom. There is no bedroom. There isn't even a house. Instead, you're trekking across Middle Earth with the wind in your face and a pack of orcs on your tail. But the orcs won't catch you, because in a few pages you'll be in Lothlórien.
A place so perfect the leaves literally don't fall in winter.
And if you don't like Frodo leaving the shire—if the ending doesn't work for you—then all you have to do is pick up another book.
Cara gripped my shoulder. "Seriously, what's wrong?"
I dropped my shoulders. "It's Mom."
Mom had spent my childhood in the dark. She kept drawing the blinds and making our house into a mausoleum. In elementary school, I snuck around and put them up. I thought it would help if she could see the sky, wispy white clouds skimming passed. But we lived in the Northwest. The clouds were always thick and gray. What difference did it make?
"What about her?"
"Mom isn't getting out today. Happy?" I punched the bed spread. It felt soft and squishy. Not what I'd hoped for.
"Oh." She blushed.
I gritted my teeth. Did she know how lucky she was that bipolar disorder could still make her blush? She hadn't felt the words on the tip of her tongue at the dinner table only to have them slide off. She hadn't said them to herself in the dark, letting them roll around her mouth. Whispering them until they slid down her throat and into her stomach like so many stones. Bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder. She could afford to tiptoe around someone else's tragedy.
"Yeah." I looked down.
She blinked. "I'm sorry."
I'm sorry. I'd heard those words a lot. They were the words of an incantation.People said them when they didn't know what else to say. Dad said I'm sorry twice a day. Mom…she'd said I'm sorry before too.
Cara twisted her fingers. "Have you thought about…?"
"Thought about what?!" I raised my voice. It scraped the back of my throat.
I'd thought about a lot of things. Mom's shoulders sagging at the breakfast table. The time she tried to make me a birthday cake. It burned on the bottom, and the frosting fell off, but I'd pretended to like it anyway.
"Will you be quiet?!" Great, now I'd yelled at Cara.
Mom wasn't always lethargic. Sometimes, she'd glide around like she was filled with helium. Those days she'd take me out shopping, even if I had school. We snuck out so Dad wouldn't catch us. We went to restaurants, shoe stores, and Barnes and Noble. She bought me a $700 pair of Jimmy Choos once. I liked them at first, but soon they made me feel sick to my stomach. At the end of the day she'd always ask, "You had a good time, right?"
I'd always answer yes.
But on other days she'd look at the staircase, declare that it was too much, and collapse on the couch.Happily ever after never lasted for Mom.
The carriage became a pumpkin, the dress changed back into rags, and the prince would look at her withtired eyes. Dad told Mom not to take me out of school, but she never listened. They'd shout after she brought me home. I'd hide upstairs and listen to Wicked to drown it out.
"Ellen." Cara slumped. "I'm worried. That's all."
"Yeah, I get it."
She gavea small smile. "You go a million miles away sometimes. Did you know?"
"Don't disappear on me, okay?"
My stomach contracted. "I won't."
Mom had disappeared so much she was never there. Some days, I'd only see the swish of her bathrobe or her crumbs on the kitchen counter. Was that Mom's problem, that there wasn't enough of her?
I couldn't end up like her. She had a diagnosis—bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder, bipolar disorder, bipolar disorder. I didn't have it. Dad had taken me to three different psychiatrists to make sure. I hadn't inherited her curse. So far.
Cara bit her lip. "I had an idea."
"If she can't leave, why not take prom to her?"
"Visit her. Show off your shoes."
I hunched my shoulders. This wasn't Mom's first visit to the psych ward. She'd gone when I was in fifth grade. I'd asked to visit her then, and Dad had said no.
But I wasn't in fifth grade anymore. I could change that ending.
I knew things now. I could tell how Mom felt by sniffing the air—literally. If it smelled like Fabreze, then it was a giggly day. If it smelled like old sweat, then it was a sad day.
My eighth grade graduation had been a sad day. Mom stayed at home while I stood on the stage and bit my lip, so I wouldn't cry.
That evening, I came to her room to ask her to go out for dinner withDad and me. Dad had told me not to, but I went anyway. I hadn't learned that lesson yet.
The air had felt stale and heavy. "Mom?"
"Guh." She groaned. She'd acknowledged me. That was a good sign, right?
"Mom." I spoke louder.
"What is it?"
"Do you want to come with Dad and me? We're going to La Ginestra."
"Not tonight." She shoved her face into the pillow.
I crossed to the bed. "Please."
"I'm sorry, hon." She closed her eyes.
I made a fist. "I said please."
I clenched my jaw all the way downstairs. If I'd opened my mouth, I would have screamed. I imagined slamming the door, the satisfying rattle and bang. But I didn't, I closed it with a snick and tiptoed away. Heroines never tiptoed. They strode forward, eyes locked on their happy endings.
Cara touched my shoulder. "Ellen?"
I exhaled. "Dad won't let me."
"Then don't ask."
"What do you mean?"
"Drive to the hospital and call him from the lobby." She leaned forward. "You've wanted her to see these shoes since we bought them."
If I went, I could show her what she was missing. She'd see me sparkle,and she'd be proud—proud enough to leave the hospital. I could be like Sam, rescuing Frodo from Mordor. My eyes watered. I'd need more than a sword and an elf song.
"Okay." Gulp. "Let's do it.""
It took an hour to get there. Cara's GPS sent us the long way. She hadn't had her license a year. She wasn't supposed to drive, at least not with me in the car. I gripped the door handle the whole way. What if we'd gotten stopped?
I held my breath until we reached the lobby. It looked like an office, with wide windows and open space. A receptionist sat at a round desk, typing on a computer. I ducked my head, then took out my phone and dialed Dad's number. "Hey,Dad."
"Hey kiddo, what's up?" He sounded tired. I pictured him rubbing the creases in his forehead. What if he decided Mom was too weak to see me?
I blew air through my nose. "Dad."
"What if we visited Mom in the hospital?" I shifted. Cara flashed me a thumbs up.
"I don't think that's a good idea."
"Well…I'm in the lobby now, so…" I ran my tongue around my teeth.
"You're in the lobby now?!"
"Cara and me. I wanted Mom to see my shoes."
"Jesus." His voice rose. "Stay there. I'm coming down."
It only took five minutes for Dad to get to the lobby, but it felt like hours. I tensed my stomach muscles, curling in on myself. The seconds ticked passed, one for each of his footsteps as he strode across the room towards us. He and I had the same brown hair, but his was turning grayer every year. Prickly stubble covered his cheek. He still clutched his coffee mug in his calloused dirty fingers. He took a swig and made a face.
"Nothing. Cold coffee." He shook his head. "What were you thinking?"
"I told you. I want Mom to see my shoes."
Dad ran a hand over his chin. "Mom's fragile right now."
I almost rolled my eyes. When had Mom ever not been fragile? "Can you ask the doctor if it's okay?"
"She's…" Dad looked at me, then at Cara, and started again. "She's in a bad place."
"I only want to show her my shoes. It won't take long."
"She can't deal with more stress, Ellen." Yeah, her stress.
"Please, Dad. It's prom night and I want…" I want a mother.
He sighed. "Fine, I'll ask her doctor. But don't be too upset if it doesn't work out."
I snorted. How much more upset could I get?
Dad walked away from us to call the doctor and spoke in a whisper. I leaned towards him, but I couldn't hear what they were saying, and I couldn't move closer without being obvious. Finally, he closed his phone and came back. I could feel the words being pulled out of him, slow and heavy as anchors. "You can see her."
"Great." I swallowed..
"Are you're sure you're up to this?" He searched my face.
"I'm fine, Dad." I interrupted him. "Always am."
"Can you wait before…?" He scratched his cheek. "I want to make sure Mom's ready."
He gave me a quick hug and trudged towards the elevators, his back stiff and straight as a board. Now I could only wait—again. Heroines had to wait. They had to slog through the mushy middle, through mosquito filled marshes and dark twisted woods, before they reached the end of the story.
Twenty minutes later, Dad called and told us we could come up. The lobby was okay, but the rest of the hospital smelled like disinfectant, old people, and evenshit. I gagged. The mustardy-beige walls and linoleum floors made me want to run back to the parking lot.
But I kept going.
My shoes clicked as I stepped across the tiles and I had to lift my dress to keep it from dragging. People watched as we passed. I felt their stares on the back of my neck and gripped my skirt tighter. Some of them looked obviously sick. Some looked like everyone else. I flinched.
Cara put her hand on my back. "Deep breath."
I inhaled and then stopped. It made the shit smell worse.
Books described asylums as dank grim places with peeling cement walls. The author usually put in metal beds with patients in straitjackets—ghosts who hadn't stopped breathing. Treatments included lobotomies and electroshock therapy. Their uniformity made them like mazes, one wrong turn and you could spend the rest of your life rambling in circles through the darkcorridors. Asylums always had dark corridors.
The psych ward looked nothing like that. Fluorescent lights glared against the linoleum and made me squint. They had some ugly plastic furniture pressed against the walls, bright yellow with sharp angles. I passed an art therapy room. It looked like a second grade classroom.
I shivered. Even modern, you could still get lost.
Dad stopped me outside Mom's door. "Are you sure about this?"
No, I thought. But when is the heroineever sure? She has shaky knees right up until she casts a magic spell or slays the villain. My knees were certainly shaking. That part the books got right. I let out a slow breath. "I'm sure."
"Okay." Dad nodded.
I looked at Cara. What would she think if she saw Mom in bed—that strange stare on her face? Mom never looked at people. She always looked through them. She could be in one of those ridiculous hospital gowns with no back, like Cara's mother had worn when she'd had breast cancer. What if Cara thought Mom didn't have the right to wear one because she wasn't really sick? I turned towards Cara and pressed my lips together. "Can you wait outside?"
She stepped back. "If that's what you want."
I wrapped my arms around myself. "It's what I want."
The door opened soundlessly.I was the knight entering the dragon's cave. Only I wore a prom dress instead of armor.
And there was no dragon, only Mom.
My breath caught. She'd gotten dressed up for me. A cashmere sweater hung over her shoulders. Underneath, she had a yellow blouse. Concealer dusted her cheeks and lipstick coated her mouth. She looked like she was going to the office or a restaurant.
Her hands told a different story. They writhed in her lap, chapped red fingers squeezing each other over and over. She'd bitten her nails.Her mouth trembled as she beckoned me closer. "Hi, sweetie."
I took a small step forward. "Hi, Mom."
"Hi." She looked at her sheets.
"See my dress?"
"It's very pretty."
"Want me to spin for you?" I blushed.
I spun. Silky fabric swished against my goose-pimpled legs. My skirt left glitter on the linoleum. Would things change now? Had I disturbed the universe? I glanced at Mom. She wasn't even looking. I froze. "Why aren't you looking?"
She lifted her head. "I was looking."
"No, you weren't." I spoke louder.
"Yes, I was. I said it was pretty."
I scrubbed the corner of my eye. It wasn't supposed to go this way. I hadn't even showed her my shoes. It was a stupid dress for God sakes. Why was I wasting time arguing? If I kept talking, the universe would crash down around us.
I opened my mouth. "You don't look. You never look!"
I'm sorry wouldn't help. I'm sorry never helped. If the knight said, "Sorry, I'm busy. Have fun with the dragon," the story would be over before it started. Sorry was only a word—an old tired word.
I threw my hands up. "Why do you keep saying that?"
"What else can I say?"
I straightened my spine. What could she say? "You could tell me I look fabulous. You could gush over my makeup." You could say you love me.
She tried to smile. Her cheeks quivered. "You're gorgeous. You always have been."
I kicked my heel against the floor. "Great. You're a parrot. What shall I have you say next? ‘You're going to have such a good time sweetie.' I'm not having a good time!"
She pressed her lips together. "I'm—."
The words seethed. I couldn't decide which to let out first. "The fuck Mom!"
The room was soundproof. Otherwise Dad would have burst in already—told me to cram the words back in my mouth. But they wouldn't fit. They'd expanded like mushroom clouds.
Why was Mom saying sweetie? If I had a normal mother, she would yell back and ground me for a month. She wouldn't stare at the wall over my shoulder. "Don't sweetie me. You don't know me."
"I know you're angry."
"Really? How could you have guessed?" I rolled my eyes.
She spoke so softly I almost didn't hear. "I'm thankful."
"It's better than sad." She looked at her hands again, andthen forced them to stop moving.
I sighed. "I am sad, Mom. I'm sad all over."
Mom gasped, eyes widening. "Like—"
I slumped. "No, not like you."
She breathed out and looked at the ceiling.I wanted to stomp, scream, and roll around on the floor like a three-year-old. But there wasn't anything to scream at. Mom was cringing in her hospital bed, and you couldn't scream at "bipolar disorder." You couldn't take D.N.A. and rip it apart strand by strand. I gnawed my lip. "What makes you happy?"
"What makes me happy?"
"Yeah." Because I've been trying for seventeen years, and I still haven't done it.
"I don't know."
"You don't?" I blinked and stepped forward.
Her eyelids fluttered. "I wish I did, hon."
Me, too.I shrugged. "Oh."
She sank back against the pillow. "I want…"
I rested my hand on her arm, light as a fallen leaf. I could feel her shoulder blade poking through the hospital gown. I squeezed gently like I was holding an eggshell. Her skin warmed the palm of my hand. I don't know how long we stayed that way. It could have been a half a minute or a half an hour.
Dad opened the door and leaned into the room, knuckles white as he gripped the jamb. "Ready for pictures?"
I jumped. Why was his voice so loud? "Um, yeah okay."
"Yes, George." Mom smoothed her bedcovers.
I paused. "Could Mom and I take one first? Only us?"
"Um&hellip"Dad looked at Mom. I tightened my jaw. Dad always snuck glances at her, making sure she was still there.
Mom blinked. "Of course, hon."
Dad took out his phone and I leaned in. My hair brushed Mom's sagging neck. Our cheeks pressed together, hers wrinkled and softlike the skin of an old fruit. Later, she would have a red mark on her face from my blush. Neither of us looked good. The pimple on my chin showed and you could see the lines across her forehead. I don't know how she got those—she never went in the sun. I closed my eyes and tried to breatheher scent, but all I could smell was bleach.
That's what I remember about that day—the smell of bleach and the fuzz on the side of my mother's cheek. Light slashed across the picture where the sun came through the window and warmed the back of my ear. Whenever I smell disinfectant, I'm reminded of stale sheets and a patch of brightness.
Some beginnings announce themselves—the first day of school, a wedding day, New Years. Others come slowly like afternoon shadows creeping up the porch. At times, you're in the middle of the path before you even realize you're walking. You stop and catch your breath, look behind you, but you can't see where the road started.
Mom didn't get better after I visited. She missed my graduation and my college's parent orientation. When I call home, it's Dad who answers. Mom's still wrapped in her cocoon of blankets and old sweat—perhaps she finds it comforting. Nothing can hurt you if you have a good blanket.
I look at the picture often. The memory sits perched in my hands like a tiny bird —the day I wore a prom dress to the psych ward. Later, maybe, I'll show it to people. It will be a story. The words will become worn from all the times I shaped my tongue around them. Their sharp edges will round and go fuzzy with age. It will be cushioned by the drip of time. The photo will smudge; cracks will appear in the corners. The fluorescent lights will glare less, and Mom's wrinkles will fade.
Telling it will make it softer, lighter. It will become a weight I can carry, a pinch in the toe of a sparkly shoe—nothing more. Until the day I leave it flopped on the end of the ottoman, as I rise to make a steaming cup of tea. After I have written the last paragraph and closed the covers.