"I know how I'll do it."
Elliot glanced up from the oversized cloth checkers board, eyeing the girl across the table. She was grinning furtively, her eyes darting back and forth, chewing on one of the large round pieces lightly. The plain white robe she wore blended against her ashen skin, the sleeves bearing faint stains.
"The way you'll do what? And keep your voice down, Shelby."
"The way I'll get outta here." Her eyes practically glowed as she put the chewed piece back on the board, shoving it onto one of the wrong tiles. Elliot glanced over to the side to make sure no one was listening, nudging the checker piece back to its proper spot with a finger. A tall woman dressed in blinding hot pink stood by the two ivory-clad orderlies.
"What do you mean, get out?" He paused. The woman was gone. "And how?"
She smiled and rearranged the some of the pieces so they resembled a mismatched flower with five petals. He didn't stop her. "Well, they give us utensils for eating, right?" Her fingers, nails clipped almost to the quick, pulled more checkers toward her until a garden of circles was scattered across the board. Her hair, a deep red that looked almost pink, fell around her face as she bent over the board to inspect her handiwork. "Well, see, they give us these, right?"
She started to lean over the table toward him. The two orderlies immediately leaned toward them, suspiciously staring at her. She waved at them cheerily, holding up both her hands to show that she held nothing dangerous. But there was something in her hand. And now she dangled it in front of his face, a small white-
"That's a spork."
Wagging a finger at him, she twirled it, the utensil slipping out of her fingers and clattering onto the table. "I know it's a spork, silly." She scooped it up and slipped it into her sleeve with a broad wink, nodding her head toward the orderlies innocently. They were hovering much closer now; their faces drawn thin as paper. And the woman in pink was there again, a toothy smile on her face as she peered around them.
Elliot buried his hands in his thick hair, staring at her. "And… explain to me how a spork will help you escape." His head was starting to throb, the pristine white walls pulsing with each beat of his heart, each time bending closer toward him.
"Very simple. I'll cut my wrists-only pretending!" she quickly interjected when she noticed the horrified look on his face. "I'll pretend to cut my wrists with the spork and smear ketchup all over my wrists – like blood, right? So I'll do that and pretend to be dead." With no further ado she proceeded to demonstrate, her head lolling backward, jaw slackening and eyes staring up at the ceiling. Her red hair fell away from her pale face, a cascade of color down the back of the chair. She held this disturbing pose for a few seconds then sat right back up, grinning at him dizzily. "See? And while they're getting everything to fix me, I'll jump off the bed and run out."
Elliot could feel his own mouth drop open and he covered it with a hand, staring at her in dismay. "Shel… I don't think that'll work. Plus, they know what real blood looks like. I don't think ketchup will cut it. They never leave you alone anyway. You don't… you don't have to go."
"Psh, they gotta be somewhere else at least once. Maybe you could distract them. Tell them you're seeing people again."
"It… It still won't work, though."
"Of course it'll work! You'll see." Abrupt anger flared in her face and she stretched her arms as far as they would go, sweeping the checker pieces off the table. The pieces rattled across the floor, dotting the white tile like blooming flowers. There was a sudden thudding noise as Shelby braced her feet and lurched up against the table, drawing the back legs of the chair off the floor. Her pale eyes looked nearly black as she glowered at him, teeth grit. For a moment their eyes met and he felt his stomach lurch, fear ripping into his lungs. Was this what her parents had seen?
The orderlies were already running across the room, grabbing Shelby and shoving her back to the floor. They bent over her, scolding in sharp voices that bit at the air. Her expression had cleared, eyes wide as she nodded genially with their orders, the list of yes sir no sir never again sir I promise sir yes I like playing games sir wouldn't you like to see me die sir but that last had been his imagination and he looked away. The woman in pink had disappeared again so he looked back.
Even as they lectured her she glanced over at Elliot, a mischievous grin curling her lips as she settled back in her chair, the tip of her tongue sticking out at him. She never stopped smiling as they hustled her to the hallway. Right before she was ushered out, she glanced backward and called, "There is no spork." It was lame but he laughed anyway. It wasn't until later as he scooped up the pieces and put them back in the box with the board that he really didn't know why he was laughing.
It was a few weeks before he saw her again. He had stolen the board and kept it under his bed, waiting for her. Playing didn't make sense until she turned the game into a garden, until the board was no longer rules but a rhyme. He had tried, once, to take it out and push the pieces back and forth, but they kept landing on the wrong squares.
When he saw her she was standing in the hallway, staring down at her hand, her thumb stroking over something cradled in her palm. Her hair had been clipped to a wispy pixie cut, a wavy nest of red around her face. He recognized the choppy cutting style of the asylum barber. It didn't suit her very well but the smile that threatened to split her face when she spotted him made it easy to overlook. Her robe was more mussed this time, hanging off one thin shoulder, feet bare. "Hey! Elliot!" She waved frantically at him as she tore down the hall in his direction, stopping a foot away. That same spork was in one hand, looking a little battered and bent. Her knuckles were bruised and the circles under her eyes were so dark she looked like she was wearing smudged eyeliner. "I found you just in time. I need your help, okay?"
He froze for a moment, trying to figure out what she might want before he actually agreed to anything, although he suspected he would give in anyway. "What is it?" He noticed that the handle of the spork bore little bite marks up and down its side. A few faint lines were scratched on her wrists as well. "Shelby, what..?"
And then he realized he didn't see the orderlies that always escorted her no matter where she was. She kept glancing around the hallway. A loudspeaker at the ceiling crackled to life, its tinny voice clogged with polite concern. Please report to the north wing for retrieval of patient. Please report.
"Don't worry. It'll work."
And in that split second he realized exactly what she meant to do and he let out a startled cry, stepping toward her. It was only a spork. What could that possibly do? But as she drew the spork's tiny prongs across her wrist, he immediately knew something had gone wrong. Maybe she had sharpened it with her teeth. Maybe the plastic was stronger than she had guessed. Maybe she had accidentally dug it in too hard. Maybe her skin, her too-pale skin that had begun to look like tissue paper, had been weakened somehow from less food and sleep. But as she held the spork up triumphantly for him to see, the smile on her face waned as her eyes fell on the smear of blood across the small prongs. She glanced down at the fat drops of blood welling up from a lipless mouth scrawled on her wrist, drops that far-too-quickly merged into a stream, then a river.
Elliot reached for her as she tried to take a step and staggered, enfolding her in his arms and sinking to the floor. Blood dripped on his own white shirt, spreading like ragged blossoms on the fabric. Her skinny legs buckled underneath her and sprawled out in front of her, over his knees. Her face was bemused as her eyes sought his, limbs trembling.
"It should be impossible to slit your wrists with a spork…" she said, her voice faint and weak. Then, "You're crushing my fingers." Her fingers pressed against the wound weakly, his own hand squashing hers against the cut in his fervor to keep more blood from leaking onto the floor and himself, to keep more of those flowers from growing. Elliot started babbling to her and trying to reassure her, but he didn't even know what he was saying. By his leg were high-heeled shoes, perfectly ordinary shoes except that they were bright pink. He didn't dare look up
The thudding footsteps of the orderlies announced their arrival, Elliot refusing to move until they wrenched her from his arms and yanked him his feet, one of them roughly searching him for cuts. He didn't even realize he was screaming until he was shoved against the wall and told to shut up. He didn't; it took two quick slaps across the face to force his silence. And even then the faintest of moans kept leaking from his lips, never ceasing as he was guided back to his room and shoved inside, the lock clicking.
And not until he pulled the checkerboard out from underneath his bed and scattered the pieces all over his floor like a garden did the screaming in his mind stop as well.
She lived, of course. It was impossible to die by slitting your wrist with a spork. It took a lot of ceaseless begging and promises to let him visit her for a few minutes while she was recovering. The walls of the hospital wing were white like the rest of it, an obscenely pure white when contrasted to the things the walls contained. The door was held open and they watched suspiciously as he entered, closing it partially and leaving it unlocked. She lay on the bed with her head tilted backward and her eyes flitting back and forth, lips moving slightly as if sharing secrets with the ceiling. Her face was impassive, calm, even though her arms and legs had been strapped to the bed. It was obvious they thought it had been a genuine suicide attempt.
He knelt on the floor beside her and patted her hand awkwardly, hoping that she would look at him. And, she did after a moment, blinking at him slowly with pale eyes as her chest moved slightly under the white covers. "I don't think it was ketchup."
The simple statement startled him and he laughed, ducking his head and smiling at the floor before lifting his head again and nodding solemnly. "I don't think it was ketchup, no."
She tried to sit up but the straps kept her nearly immobile. She glared at him, but the flinty, nearly rabid expression he had seen during the last checkers game was absent. "Hey, are you making fun of me?"
"Maybe just a little tiny bit." He squeezed his forefinger and thumb together, squinting at her teasingly. "Don't worry about it, okay?" He glanced behind him when he heard a rap on the window. The woman in pink loomed there, staring in with beady eyes at the girl on the bed. He shuddered almost violently and turned away, staring fixedly at the sheets. When he looked back at Shelby, she was watching him shrewdly.
"You're seeing people, aren't you."
His mouth opened to deny it, but he closed it again with a click and shook his head. "Just one…" His voice trailed off and he swallowed hard. For a while the only sound was the occasional hum of the radiator nearby. He imagined he could hear the inner workings of the digital clock on the wall moving. Click. Click. Click. Whrrrr. Click. Shelby didn't answer for so long the sounds, real or not, began to pound insistently in his mind. She was quiet for so long he began to get up, thinking she was asleep. But when he looked down at her face, her eyes were open, watching the ceiling. When she heard him move, she looked over at him. "Why did you say that?"
He stopped, confused. "Say what?" She grunted and wriggled under the straps, tilting her head to one side. Her pale eyes narrowed for a moment as she took a deep breath. "Earlier. With the spork. You were saying a lot of stuff I don't really remember. But I do remember you saying that you wouldn't let me go anywhere."
Elliot shifted uncomfortably, his eyes going to the floor. "That? I just didn't want you to die. Y'know, going somewhere, afterlife?" He smiled at her reassuringly. "That's all." Shelby considered his statement, bottom lip sticking out as she tilted her head backward. "That's all, huh?" She huffed, pouting as she slumped against the bed, eyes closing. "Okay," she said in an abruptly placid tone, eyelids sliding shut as she nestled against the covers. Clearly they had her very medicated.
He waited until she was slack, lips slightly parted as her chest rose gently in sleep. He reached out and let a curl of her red hair fall over his finger, examining the contrast between her skin and that brilliant strand. Elliot bent over and let it fall back onto her pillow, watching her face carefully. He felt a sudden swell of sorrow and fear, but not for her life. The problem was, he almost didn't want her to fully recover and pick up the pieces of her mind. You're all that's real to me these days.
You can't leave me. You can't escape and leave me alone with them.
Elliot started to back away when the orderly knocked on the door, the sudden noise making him jump. The man made an impatient gesture to the young patient, pointing to the hallway outside as he opened the door. As Elliot slipped out, he threw the girl in the bed one last glance. Her eyes were open, pupils dilating against the absence of light as she watched him go. Her hair was draped across the pillow and around her wan face. It was a deep, vibrant red that, as the light from the hallway hit it, was almost pink.