I.

Fresh Beginnings Health Treatment Center – January

Harwell, Indiana

She was never allowed to look at the number when they weighed her every other day.

Whenever she stepped onto the scale in the main doctor's office, she had to face backwards as the nurse balanced the weights, sliding them on the bar, saying nothing as she wrote down the number on the chart. She had tried to look over her shoulder the first few times but she found it to be futile. They would never tell her what she weighed, telling her that it didn't matter. The only thing that mattered was her health and that she was on the road to getting better. She would ask them nonetheless. They would say that weight was just a number. But if that was true, why was she even in there? If weight was just a number, what did it matter what hers was?

Even after spending six months within the clinic, Max Henley still did not understand half of the things the doctors and nurses said or did.

After being weighed, the nurse would escort her back either to the common room or to her room. Max usually preferred going to her room. The common room always made her feel uncomfortable. With all of the other patients congregating in that room, Max always felt as if she was a fish in a glass bowl, constantly being watched. At least in her room, there was privacy. The surroundings of the small room may have been grim but she found them to be better than the common room.

There was one television, a small twelve-inch color that only got three stations, four if the rabbit ear antennas were adjusted just right, and whatever they watched was closely monitored. None of the patients were allowed to watch something that was deemed inappropriate or too influential by the staff. Entertainment shows such as Access Hollywood or Entertainment Tonight were banned since seeing the overly-thin movie stars would give the patients further ideas as to how they should look. With so many restrictions, programs on the television were limited.

Since the television was practically pointless to watch, there were board games that could be played and a poor excuse for a library – just a few worn and torn copies of some of John Steinbeck's novels and a large college of Harlequin romance paperbacks. The furniture was old, worn and slightly falling apart and there wasn't enough for everyone to sit and relax. It wasn't as if the clinic wasn't a good one because it was. Max knew that. Her parents had done all they could to get her the best treatment they could afford – but the clinic focused all of its money on its patients and staff and not in its common rooms.

The walk from the doctor's office to her room was silent. The nurse walked next to her as they made their ways down the long hollow hallways, patients' rooms on each side, the doors painted white with a small window. Max ran her finger along the wall as she walked, knowing that she would never be able to look at the color of mint green without thinking of the painted halls.

The clinic was quiet. It was a half-hour before lunch time. Most were in therapy sessions or having appointments with the doctors or staying in their rooms, preparing themselves for the meal to come. It was always this quiet before a meal time.

Max couldn't believe that it had already been six months. Her first week there had felt like an eternity and she had been certain that she wouldn't survive. But now, six months later, she was about to eat her last meal there. She had reached her target weight – a number the doctors had never told her.

When she had arrived, her dad escorting her and carrying her one suitcase, the first thing they had done, after filling out a book worth of paperwork, was weigh her. She knew that she was under ninety-five pounds and though she wasn't a tall person, her height being just around 5'3, she was still underweight. It had been a cause for extreme concern, especially since she didn't see a problem with not eating or skipping meals or running five miles a day while her calorie intake was barely 900.

It had been a scary time for the Henley family and putting Max in a health clinic was the only answer they could think of.

Everyone upon entering the Fresh Beginnings Health Treatment Center and being weighed for the first time was given a target weight based on their height. Max knew that her healthy body weight was somewhere, anywhere, between about 110-140 pounds, give or take a few. But expecting a person with an eating disorder to gain anywhere between twenty and fifty pounds was like expecting a free trip to the moon. If a person who was considered underweight was to gain a large amount in a short period of time, there were health effects that could come with that, problems with the heart and the kidneys amongst others. Max knew she had steadily been gaining weight but as to what she actually weighed now, or what her target weight had been, she had no idea. She wondered if they would tell her all of that when she was released.

"Alright, Max. Lunch is in thirty minutes," Nell, the nurse who had just weighed her and escorted her back, informed her though Max was well aware of the schedule.

"Thank you," Max said softly and then giving the nurse a small smile, she went into her room, closing the door behind her.

She sighed softly. All of her belongings were already packed and she was ready to go. The room was small, painted completely in white with a small window overlooking the front end of the clinic. Max now went to that window and looked out, crossing her arms over her chest, hugging herself. One thing about being underweight was that she was always cold. Always. In the summer, with the Indiana humidity, she was wearing long sleeve tee-shirts and shivering. It was January now and Max was wearing three layers, her body subconsciously trembling as she looked at the bare trees outside.

She was going to be free. In less than five hours, after six months, she would be free. She would no longer have countless therapy sessions with her group and the staff psychologist. She wouldn't have doctor appointments or weigh-ins. No more eating meals in the cafeteria and being constantly watched by the staff to see just how much food she had consumed. She would be free. She could go anywhere and do anything she wanted to whenever she wanted.

And that terrified her.

Max chewed on her lower lip, tucking some loose strands of her blonde hair behind her ears and she moved to sit down on the edge of the bed. The first few nights, the mattress had felt so hard to her. Now, she laid down on her side, curling into a ball, hugging her knees to her chest. She was going to miss this bed. She couldn't believe it but she was.

She closed her eyes, taking a few deep breaths.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

She didn't know why she was so afraid. She should have been happy, ecstatic in fact. There were dozens of others in the clinic who would have killed to be released. She was getting out that afternoon. She should have been smiling. She should have been making plans. Truth be told though, Max hadn't thought about anything that she would do once she was out of there. She hadn't even told her parents that she was being released. Since she was twenty-two years old, her parents had no control over her when it came to medical problems.

She had gone into the clinic on her own free will and she had stayed as long as she had because she knew, in the back of her mind, that her eating problem was slowly killing them. But for some reason, she didn't want to tell them when she was getting out. She knew that eventually, she would obviously have to tell them. Her parents, Alan and Gloria, were her best friends. The three were extremely close and told one another everything. But Max was keeping this from them. She didn't want them to know – not yet. First, she had to get out of there and figure some stuff out. Like what the hell she was going to do or where was going to go in less than five hours.

Max took another deep breath. This had been her home for half of a year and she had gotten used to everything there. She was scared of leaving it. What if she left and everything repeated itself? What if she relapsed and stopped eating again? There were so many uncertainties to leaving the clinic that afternoon but she couldn't request to stay longer. The clinic wasn't exactly a cheap place to stay and the staff was already expecting a new patient to be admitted the next day, a patient who would be moving into Max's room. They needed the space and Max had already been planning to check herself out for almost a month now. She had to go.

Getting up from the bed, Max took the gray wool hooded sweater from the back of her desk chair and slipped it on over the layers she was already wearing: blue jeans with a tee-shirt underneath two long sleeved ones. Maybe if she kept moving south, she would no longer be so cold all of the time. She tightened the sweater around her and went to go look at her reflection in the small medicine cabinet mirror hanging on the wall next to the door.

Max found herself doing this often. Sometimes, she would stare at her reflection for so long, it no longer made sense. She would stare at herself for so long, she came to not even being able to recognize herself. Her thick blonde wavy locks had grown long, tumbling down to almost the small of her back and as she stared into the mirror, she scooped the locks up into a ponytail. Her large brown eyes, once so vibrant, now seemed nothing more than two sunken holes in her pale thin face. Max attempted a bright wide smile but it faded before it could even fully form.

With a shaky breath, she covered her face with her hands and shook her head slightly.

The doctors had told her that she was so much better now than when she had first entered the clinic. But why didn't she feel better? She felt so numb, almost dead inside. She didn't feel any different now than she had at the beginning of it all. Wasn't she supposed to feel different? Wasn't she supposed to feel an immense difference in both her mind and being? That was what Max had been expecting from all of this. And she was now feeling disappointed. The clinic wasn't only supposed to help her with her eating and weight but she had thought that they were also going to help her with her mindset.

But right then, she stared at her reflection in the mirror and still did not know the girl staring back at her.

Lunchtime was quiet as it usually was. Most, when they ate, needed full concentration and couldn't be bothered with mindless idle meal chatter. Max sat at one of the round tables with three other girls and none of them spoke to one another. Despite having been there for so long, she had not made any friends. There was no point in doing so. She stared down at her plate – chicken strips, potatoes, corn and a brownie for dessert. She wasn't hungry but she knew she had to eat if she was to be excused from the cafeteria.

The sound of silverware scraping against plates filled her ears as she mechanically chewed on her food and thought.

She didn't have a car and she didn't know anyone in the area that could come give her a ride. She didn't even know where she was going to direct the car to. Perhaps there was a rental place nearby. She knew that she was only twenty-two and to rent a car, one had to be twenty-five, but a lot of places, as long as there was a valid drivers license and a major credit card, there would be a small charge for being an underage driver but she could still be able to rent a car nonetheless. When she had entered the clinic, they had gone through her things and had taken possession of things they had deemed inappropriate. There was a storage room with every patient's box of belongings, which they received back at point of release. Max tried to remember what they had taken from her. They had her purse which had her license, credit cards, proof of insurance and cell phone amongst other things. She would need that when she rented a car.

It was time to go. Max stood in her room, looking out the window one last time. This was it. There was no stopping time. It was her time to go back out there – into the world, the world which at the current moment absolutely terrified her. She pulled the handle out of her black wheeled suitcase and gripped it tightly. She could do this. She had just survived six months in a health clinic. Surely she could survive the outside world again. She had to. As much as she didn't want to leave, she also never wanted to come back to here.

"Alright, dear. It's time."

Max turned away from the window and saw that Doctor Spencer, her head physician, was standing in the doorway, smiling warmly at her. She had gotten close to the older gray-haired gentleman during her stay and she was going to miss him.

"Okay," she said softly, nodding her head.

Dr. Spencer stepped into the room and put his hands on her still somewhat bony shoulders. "Everyone is scared when they first get out. But you are going to be just fine. Just keep practicing the habits we have taught you with your eating and hopefully, I will never see you again. Do you have your food journal?"

Max nodded her head, feeling the small leather-bound journal in her coat pocket.

"Good. Now…" he held up a pair of scissors and taking a step back, he lifted her left arm, exposing the yellow plastic hospital bracelet, which had her name, hospital number, height and starting weight.

She gently pulled her wrist back. "I would like to keep wearing it," she said, pushing her sleeve back down, covering it. "It will be a reminder of where I don't want to be again."

Dr. Spencer smiled, nodding his head. "There are just a few more papers that have to be signed and we will get you on your way. Are your parents coming?" He asked as they stepped out into the hallway, the doctor pausing to close and lock her door behind them. It was no longer her door though. It now belonged to the clinic again.

Max shook her head. "They don't know that I'm being released. I never told them." She glanced at the doctor and seeing him open his mouth to speak, she continued. "I didn't have to tell them."

"No, I suppose you didn't but… it would have been better for you to go back to your support team immediately upon leaving." They walked down the hallways towards the front desk, situated in front of the entrance sliding doors. "Where will you go?"

She didn't answer immediately and instead, took the clipboard he handed her from off the front desk and began signing her last of the clinic's paperwork. "That depends."

She watched as the receptionist bent down behind the desk and appeared once more with a white cardboard box with Maxine Henley scrawled on the side. Her belongings. Opening the lid, she saw her purse and some fashion magazines. She took the purse and left the magazines, pushing the box away from her. Opening the black messenger bag, she saw her cell phone, a pack of gum, her wallet, her license and two credit cards. The bag was otherwise empty.

"On what?" Dr. Spencer asked curiously.

"On whether or not there is a car rental place in town and also…" Max paused, turning her head and looking out the front glass doors. A strong gust of wind was blowing, howling through the air. Dead leaves that had never been collected in the fall blew down the strip of black asphalt road that was paved past the clinic. "Where does that road go?"

"Well… if you go right, it will lead you into town and then eventually, to the highway leading to Chicago," Dr. Spencer said. "But if you go left… that doesn't really go anywhere. The middle of nowhere as they say. Eventually, it will get you to Indianapolis."

Max nodded her head. Perfect. She now knew where she was going. She would go get a car, hopefully, and then, as it would seem, she was going left.

"How far away is town?" She asked, buttoning up the black corduroy pea coat she wore.

Dr. Spencer sighed. "Max, let me call your parents and have them pick you up. Or at least, let one of the staff give you a ride."

She immediately refused. "How far is town?" She asked.

"Not far at all. About two miles," the doctor answered somewhat reluctantly.

Max stared out the doors, breathing in and out.

In.

Out.

Breathe in.

Exhale out.

It was time to go. The world was waiting for her once again and it was time she go meet it.

Straightening her back and pulling her shoulders back, she looked like the picture of confidence though her heart was pounding in her chest so loudly, it felt as if it was trying to escape through her ribcage. She turned towards Dr. Spencer, who was still looking at her worriedly. She mustered a faint smile and hugged him, her thin arms wrapping around his hefty shoulders. He patted her back, hugging her in return. The clinic wasn't what some would think with constantly hugging and crying and getting in touch with their feelings. The clinic was to help the patients help themselves and that did not involve physical contact. It had been months since someone had last hugged her.

She almost began crying.

Pulling away from him, she didn't look at the doctor again. She couldn't because then she would definitely start crying. With a firm hold on the handle of her suitcase, Max went to the doors, the automatic glass doors sliding open for her. Last time she had stepped through them was when she was being admitted.

She stepped outside, feeling the doors whoosh closed quietly behind her. The wind whipped at her hair. It wasn't as cold as she thought it was. It was still cold and she shivered but she had been expecting nearly arctic temperatures. The sky was gray and overcast but judging from the temperature, it was probably too warm to snow. It was going to rain soon.

Max stood there in front of the doors to the clinic for a few moments. She looked up and down the completely empty road – thick woods on either side. She would go right first and get a car and then she would go left. Left was the best way to go. She would drive down that road, heading into the middle of nowhere, and she wouldn't stop until she hit something that interested her.