The white lines on the pavement passed one by one until they blended into one single line and I couldn’t count them anymore. I moved to the trees then, and counted them until we made a turn and the sun was in my eyes. The glare was piercing. I’ve seen the sun before, but it has been a while since I had the choice to feel the warmth of it on my skin whenever I wanted.
Music blared from the speakers on the inner surface of the passenger doors. I turned my gaze to the man in the driver’s seat. He had on an old Yankee’s baseball cap and his brown moustache was badly trimmed. He looked middle-aged and I wondered whether he had a family waiting at home.
The cab made another turn and I turned my attention back to my window. There were no trees now, only cold big houses with huge concrete driveways instead of lawns. How different it all looked to me. It was difficult to believe anyone who lived here could be the same.
“Are we there yet?”
“Almost, kid.” He said, a little gruffly for my liking.
Then there were no words and I wondered if the driver was upset with me. Most people usually are. When people are upset with you, they look at you with this strange expression. I can’t really describe it… it’s a narrowing of the eyes with such intensity it is as if they are trying to see through you, trying to make you disappear by their sheer will. If there is one thing I learned, it’s that I should never look straight into those eyes. I had a feeling if I did, even just once, I would disappear, evaporate into the air and it would be as if I never existed.
“This is it.”
The cab pulled to a stop by the curb, and I stared at the huge black gate outside my window. These people lived behind walls and gates. Maybe I wouldn’t need to adjust to anything after all.
“So are ya just gonna stare all day or what?”
I looked at the cab driver. “Are you sure this is the right place?”
“Yeah, kid, I’m sure. 1837 Sunset Drive, right?” His mouth moved dramatically while he manoeuvred the gum he was chewing.
I looked out my window again, and bit my lip. The building beyond the tall gate was a blinding white, as if the builder was never satisfied with how white it was. “Get my luggage, please.” When he didn’t answer, I turned to look at him. His hand was held out. I shoved a fifty-dollar bill into the grubby hand. I’ve come a long way.
Mockery was heavy in his voice as he drawled, “yes, princess.” With a sigh he heaved himself out of his seat.
I opened the door and stepped out onto the sidewalk. A moment later the driver all but tossed my small trunk to the curb. “Anything else, princess?”
“Yeah, there’s no use chewing gum, your yellow teeth will never turn white if you don’t stop smoking.”
He shook his head and muttered to himself as he got back into his yellow car, soon he and his cab were down the street and out of sight as it made the corner.
The sun was high up in the cloudless sky. I loved days like this. At the hospital they let us outside on these days. We’d play rugby, or football, basically anything that involved a lot of people trying to hurt each other. I looked at the tall gate in front of me now and felt a wave of nostalgia.
I stepped up to the speaker box and hit the button.
“Who is it?” It bleeped.
“It’s me, Micky.”
The speaker didn’t bleep this time, instead, the gate creaked open. As soon as the crack was big enough for me to pass through, I squeezed past the gate and left it squeaking. I bounded up the concrete walk up to the house. Up close, the house was even grander, and—if possible—even whiter. It reminded me of another house that I saw in a newspaper photograph. Sam called it the White House, and when I asked him who the people in suits were in the photograph, he said they were just crazy people playing dress-up.
I came up to the doors just as they swung open and a strange-looking woman dressed in black and white striped suit stepped out. Her face was tight and her graying hair was stuffed roughly into a bun at the base of her neck. “Please, come in.” She gestured at someone behind her, and an old man immediately rushed out past me before I could say hello. I looked after him and realised I had abandoned my trunk on the side walk.
I reached out and began to tell them I could take care of it, but the grim woman grabbed my arm and tugged. I was brought into the house. I stopped breathing the moment I raised my head and saw what was before me. It looked nothing like I expected it would. Out of everything I saw, the one thing that attracted me the most was the twirling stairway. It had exquisite carvings that curved this way and that, and I would’ve gotten lost in their pattern if it wasn’t for the fact that another woman was descending from the top of the stairway.
“Welcome home, darling!”
I did not move. I was wary of this strange person with hair so yellow that it could only be artificial.
“You look so different!” She exclaimed as she reached the bottom of the stairs. She reached out with her arms to me and I instinctively took a step back. She frowned at me. “Goodness, Mickella! Don’t you recognize me?”
“You’re not my mother.” My mother did not have artificial hair, and she did not say ‘goodness’.
The woman was speechless at what I said and her mouth, painted red to make it look fuller than it actually was, hung open; it closed when a tall man came to stand by her side. This man I recognized. I knew his dark brown hair, his hazel eyes, and that nose. My nose. After all, how could I forget the man whose shoulders I rode on, and who once wrote me a fake excuse note just so he could take me to the circus.
His smile reached his eyes. “Welcome home, Micky. What do you think of the new digs?” He wanted to know.
I remembered what Sam told me to say if ever my opinion of something I disliked was questioned. “It’s different.”
I stared at him. “No, different.”
His smile faded as he studied me and his eyes narrowed. The beginnings of a frown in his brow. The expression left as soon as it came and he smiled at me again. “Well, come on, I’ll show you your new room.”
As I made my way up the stairs I looked back down at the woman with fake yellow hair. She managed to smile up at me. A crooked smile, as if her mouth wasn’t sure it was doing what she wanted it to. Her eye lids fluttered unevenly.
“Where’s mom?” I asked my father as he led me down a hallway brightly lit by the sun through the windows.
“Loreen’s your mother now.”
“That nice woman downstairs.”
“But she has fake hair.”
“That shouldn’t matter, Micky.” We reached a door, and he opened it for me and gestured me inside. I looked around. There was a large bed in a corner by large windows and a sizeable wooden dresser in another corner. There were things on the bed. Things made to look like the living, but none of which actually moved or breathed.
My father waved an arm around the room. “You see all this? Loreen spent weeks putting it all together. I hope you like it.”
I took in the surroundings. The four baby blue walls. The dark blue sheets. There was an expectant grin on my father’s face. “It’s different,” I said, and his smile faded.
“Get some rest, Mickella, you’re tired.” With that, he backed out of the room and shut the door.
I stood there in the center of the room, staring at the things that didn’t move. They stared back at me and a hundred tiny fingers ran trailing down my spine.
That night we dined in the Dining Room. The table was so long that I had to raise my voice to ask for the food. I was glad, though, to find that the chicken tasted no different here than it did back at the hospital.
To my relief, Loreen did not speak to me much over dinner. My father did most of the talking and often answered his own questions.
I was sent to bed immediately after dinner and I was bitter. Seventeen-year-olds didn’t have to go to bed at 8 p.m., even if they had a long trip. I had also planned to speak my father, so I snuck out of my room and padded my way down the hall way, now lit with an eerie orange light from the street lamps outside. I was worried that I wouldn’t find my father’s room in this large house until I heard his voice.
“They told me she was ready to come home,” he was telling someone.
“She doesn’t seem ready to me.” That was Loreen’s voice, much lower than before.
“Look, she’s been in that place for ten years now, and I don’t want her staying there longer than she has to.”
“But, Mitchell, she’s obviously not fine! Did you see the way she ate her dinner tonight? She talked to it!”
“Big deal. Kids have big imaginations. She’ll grow out of it.”
“Mickella isn’t a child—”
“I said, ‘She’ll grow out of it.’” The solemn note in my father’s voice chilled me and there was silence for a moment, then there was a yelp.
“Now you listen to me, and you listen good! That lunatic is not staying in this house. If she isn’t normal by the end of the week, either you send her back or I’ll send you both packing.”
A door closed and the voices became muffled. I stood frozen in the hallway, the conversation I just overheard still fresh in my mind. I snuck back into my room, climbed into bed, and pulled the covers over my head. The un-moving things are gone now. I shut them away in the wooden dresser. I can still see their accusing eyes looking up at me as I closed the drawer shut with them in it. Sleep came soon after, and I dreamt of eyes that smiled at me.
My father took me outside the next afternoon and I was surprised to find grass on the ground. I sat down on the lawn and combed my fingers through the green—it felt strange. It was not moist and soft, but rather dry and crisp. I tugged on it, and instead of a small messy dirt patch, up came a square piece of green.
“Don’t go doing that, Micky. You’re ruining the lawn.”
I stared at the square and tugged some more, just because my father said not to. “This isn’t a lawn; it’s plastic.”
“Loreen doesn’t like keeping a real lawn. It’s too much trouble.”
“Loreen doesn’t like anything real,” I retorted.
The glass door to the house slid open and Loreen came out with a tray of lemonade. Forgetting the promise I made to Sam to be nice, I stood, viciously kicked the square piece of green until it was flipped over before I marched back into the house.
Two days later, after my father thought I had settled in, he brought me to the zoo. Loreen had been invited to come along but she apologized and said she work to do. I didn’t ask what she did for a living because I didn’t care.
I liked the zoo. All the animals fascinated me. From the exotic birds to the majestic lions—they all captivated me with their seemingly boundless energy. What especially caught my attention was a funny-looking monkey who was busy holding his head and screaming. I asked my father if we could buy the monkey and he said no. I wondered if he meant he couldn’t or he wouldn’t.
A group of boys had started to make faces at the monkey and tried to poke him with sticks. I asked my father why they were doing that, and he said it was because they were kids and kids found weird things funny.
“But he’s not weird,” I told him.
“No, he’s not. His behaviour is weird. People don’t scream like that.”
“But he’s a monkey.”
My father looked down at me. His mouth opened, then closed again, and then he took my arm. “Forget it, Mickey. Let’s go home now.” He pulled me away from the monkey enclosure. I looked back as we walked away. Those kids were still jeering. They started to throw small pebbles into the enclosure. The monkey began to jump from branch to branch in his cage, hissing and screaming at the kids all the while.
The kids laughed.
“Stop it!” I wrenched my arm from my father’s grip and ran back towards the cage. “Stop it!” I screeched and pushed one of the kids to the ground. I picked up pebbles from the ground and started pelting him with them. He pulled his arms up to protect himself and yelled words that didn’t make sense.
I felt my father’s hands on my shoulders and he dragged me backwards. “Micky! What in the world are you doing?”
The boy on the ground was still holding his arms over his head, shaking violently now. A crowd was gathering. My father pushed me toward a stranger and told her to watch me, and then he went to the shaking boy on the ground.
I watched him speak quietly to the boy, and in my mind I saw the boy on the ground before me, shaking and screaming. My father said people didn’t scream like that.
We got home four hours later. Security had showed up and the boy’s parents had been called. After a long talk and five hundred dollars from my father’s wallet, the boy’s family decided not to take legal action against us.
During the car ride home my father would not speak to me. He kept his eyes glued to the road and I knew it was useless to attempt a conversation. As we pulled up before the large gate, my father cleared his throat. “Not a word of this to your mother.”
“She’s not here.”
His hands gripped the steering wheel so tightly that I could see the blood leaving his knuckles where they jutted out. “Loreen, don’t tell Loreen.”
The gate screeched open, and my father pulled into the driveway. My mouth was dry. The monotone of his voice wasn’t right.
“You don’t want to get sent back now.”
I looked at him then and I saw his face for the first time. I’ve looked at it before, but I never really saw it. It was lined with age, the skin around his mouth—now grim—was white with strain and his eyes were hard. I studied his eyes, the intricate orange map work, covering the murky gray underneath. I searched for the father I knew behind them. He wasn’t there, and I knew he’d followed my mother to that far off place beyond the unknown, a place I spent half my life looking for but could never find. I decided to stop trying.
I dreamt of the smiling eyes again that night, but this time the dream was more vivid. The beautiful eyes were a brilliant blue—the colour of the Pacific at dawn. I knew I was home.
The next morning found me sitting on the steps leading to the front door, my trunk by my side. I rested my chin on the base of my hands and my elbows on my up-drawn knees. My father sat beside me and babbled on about why I couldn’t stay. I stopped listening a while ago after he told me how Loreen found out about the money he had to pay.
He stopped talking abruptly and I glanced sideways at him. He looked so sad, this stranger; I almost felt sorry for him.
“Your mother loved you,” he said.
A yellow car pulled up to the curb outside the gate. “Did she love you?” I asked.
I stood with my trunk in hand and left my father on the steps without a goodbye. I didn’t look back.
Sam was there when the cab dropped me off outside the Institution. He saw the look on my face and took my trunk from me. The cab drove off and we stood there outside in the small space between the hospital and the rest of the world, on the brink of sanity—or was it insanity?
“How was your dad?”
I looked into Sam’s dark ocean blue eyes. “Different.”