I Am a Forest, and a Night of Dark Trees by Jarred McGinnis
Fritz told me once, ‘Be the sea so that you may receive their polluted streams but not become impure.’
At Elysians, a secure psychiatric unit for adolescents, our days began by lining up for a tiny paper cup. Mine held 600mg of lithium; pink pills with a metallic taste that gave the edges of my thoughts a down-feather softness. As we waited for the councillors to give us our prescriptions and check under our tongues, I bitched along with my fellow inpatients. I grumbled and complained, but the truth of it was being an inpatient was the summer camp kids like me never get. I happily did as I was told and played all their therapy games. When the unit was decorated with curses, screams or thrown chairs, my hands would shake with memory, the sum total of the inheritance from my father, but the bruises were no longer mine. Except once.
Lillee was permanently locked in the time-out room and could never be left alone. Veteran inpatients traded Lillee stories like baseball cards, and after I was there for a week I got my own, a rookie all-star one.
I was padding past the time-out room when its door exploded open. Lillee slammed her square body into mine and sent me bouncing off the wall. Counsellor Andy was on the floor. He’d torn her hospital gown trying to stop her and the dark loaf of her right breast hung out. She wheeled around and stared murder at Counsellor Andy then opened her mouth like a sword swallower and stabbed at the back of her throat with a toothbrush. She stabbed. She stabbed again. A fountain of vomit and blood erupted. Counsellor Andy tackled her and wrestled with her slippery limbs as Lillee thumped her fists against his chest and cheek.
The first time I met Fritz was later that day, a skeleton with a fading blue mohawk hung over one eye. He was sitting cross-legged and whispering at the seam of Lillee’s door. The freshly mopped spot of her suicide attempt was marked by a “Caution: Slippery When Wet” sign.
‘Do we have group?’ he asked.
I nodded, and we walked to the day room, sitting across from each other as everyone took turns doing daily personal inventories: how we felt, what we wanted to accomplish in our therapy sessions and our positive words for the day.
My word was ‘enthuse’.
While a bulimic named Carol spoke, an acid casualty, Redneck Ian, took out his glass eye and stuck it in his mouth. Fritz and I were the only ones to notice, and we traded smiles. Ian parted his lips, and the eye moved toward Carol as she told us how she hated it when people said, ‘but you’re so beautiful’. The glass pupil surveyed the rest of the group. I tittered and its gaze snapped to me.
‘Shh. Carol is sharing now. You had your turn,’ Counsellor Kate admonished. Fritz giggled, and the eye watched him.
‘Oh my God!’ Carol screamed.
‘Ian!’ Counsellor Kate yelled.
The eye spun in its mouth-socket then disappeared and he gulped. The midschooler named Tracey, who always cried in her AA meetings, squealed.
‘Ma’am, I swallowed my eye,’ Ian said.
Counsellor Kate stood up, panicked.
‘Just kidding,’ he said and spit it into his hand.
‘Ian! You are going to apologize to Carol for this interruption,’ Counsellor Kate said.
‘Ma’am, I was just giving it a wash. My eye gets right dirty. It’s all the porn.’ All of us laughed except Counsellor Kate who led Ian away, lecturing him about the sacredness of the group circle.
‘I don’t think this should interrupt our therapy session, do you?’ Fritz said. ‘My positive word for today is “Papadopoulos”.’ He pointed at me – ‘Enthuse,’ – and then at himself: ‘Papadopoulos.’
In the real world, you don’t know what you are and you sure aren’t going to figure out anyone else. When you are inpatient, it’s easy to get to know another person. The doctors and nurses and other inpatients define you. You trade diagnoses with handshakes. Prescription lists are your business cards. The disease they give you becomes your identity: Bulimic Carol, Alcoholic Tracey, Bipolar Me. In the real world, you never have the comfort of all your ‘because of’s spelled out for you.
Fritz was inpatient because of drugs, because he fell in love with an older man named Jerry who did drugs. But, Fritz didn’t believe in their definitions and their ‘because of’s; he had a different explanation for what we were.
‘To give birth to a dancing star, you must have chaos.’
I never asked Fritz what he meant, because it sounded true enough. True enough was what I needed.
Fritz was a couple years older than me and he knew about the things I wanted to know: Church of the SubGenius, G.G. Allin and the Murder Junkies, the anarchist cookbook. Everything important to a fifteen-year-old who longed to be anything other than the weird kid at the back of the class. His room was across from mine and we spent our evenings sitting in our doorways, chewing his nicotine gum and talking until lights out.
‘What was all that yelling about today? I heard you. Don’t take it out on your grandma,’ he said. Fritz’s minty nicotine talks did more for me than the pink pills or Counsellor Andy’s nine-to-five concern.
‘I know,’ I said.
‘You bottle up everything, play hard like nothing hurts you, pretend your crazy-shit parents didn’t fuck you up. You take on all this guilt until you explode. She’s trying to help you, your grandma. How many times have you been in time-out this week?’
My ‘because of’s went like this. I lived with my grandma because of my parents. Mom in prison. Dad dead. All my ‘because of’s I got from them. That’s what I was told. I was faultless, they said, and maybe they were right. Visits from Child Welfare officers were because I’d seen beer-bellied cops break our coffee table by throwing my mom onto it. Child Welfare then categorized me ‘at risk’, because I was in the car when dad died by wrapping our silver 88 around a bridge abutment. I didn’t die, because the car had a small hole in the backseat floor. I used to get down there to drop super bouncy balls through it and watch them mortar out from underneath, raining rubber terror on the cars behind. Previous times, it had been worth weathering dad’s slaps and punches guided by the rear view mirror. When we hit the bridge, I bounced super ball style between the seats. Dad flew an impossible distance through the front window.
In the months after the funeral, I sat beside sweet, half-blind Grandma. We watched soaps and ate bologna mustard sandwiches that she had cut into triangles. It was peaceful and calm and safe, but my brain craved the chaos I was used to. At night, after Grandma went to bed, I went out to make my own chaos. My dancing star was a stolen hydraulic excavator and church vandalism.
Fritz and I were playing Slap Hand in the hallway. His hands, long and eloquent, rested lightly on top of mine. Counsellor Andy came up to us and seemed pissed off.
‘Fritz, Lillee is asking for you.’
‘Can I go in or did you strap her down?’
Counsellor Andy gave him a look like he should know the answer to that and continued down the hall.
Fritz took my hand and led me to Lillee’s door. We sat cross-legged before it. Fritz leaned close to the seam. ‘Lillee?’
A moan, achingly slow, an infectious sadness with it, came from under the heavy door. A sniffle. She was crying.
‘You are forest, Lillee, and a night of dark trees. Those who are not afraid of you, they will find roses under your cypresses.’
‘Fritz?’ Lillee’s voice asked.
‘I’m right here. Go to sleep. I’m watching over you.’
I opened my mouth. Fritz put his finger to his lips.
‘What happens to her when you leave?’ I whispered. Fritz had seven days left. ‘I’ll be out a week after you. We should hang out.’
Fritz nodded, but he shushed me again.
The next day we were at the day-room window, waving manically at the pedestrians below; if they waved back, we licked the window and pretended to masturbate. It didn’t take long for Counsellor Kate to stop our game, but, instead of calling us both into her office as usual, she told Fritz to follow her. We didn’t see each other for the rest of the day. After dinner, I sat in my doorway waiting until lights out, but he never came out of his room.
I cornered him the next morning.
‘I need to talk to you. Meet me in the day room.’
‘I’m late for my appointment with Doctor What’s-his-face. You should talk to Kate.’
In a world that consisted of locked rooms, two hallways, a nurse’s station, a day room and a yard with a high fence, it was difficult to avoid a person. Fritz managed to avoid me very well until his discharge day. When he tried to say good-bye, I told him to fuck off.
After he left, I moped around for a few days, which earned me an increase in dosage.
‘Hey, hey, boy,’ Lillee’s voice called from the time-out room.
Two crescents of eye-white appeared in the slit window.
‘Hey, hey, boy. Fritz love you.’
‘Lillee, please get away from the window,’ a voice said from within the room. The crescents disappeared.
‘Fuck you, fuck you, motherfucker,’ Lillee said.
Fritz called me months after my discharge. My days still started with pink pills and tasting copper, but I had grown accustomed to the real world of Grandma kindness and bologna mustard sandwiches cut into triangles. I had enrolled in an alternative high school where they let you smoke and had classes like ‘non-violent coping skills’.
‘What’s up?’ he asked.
‘Nothing,’ I snapped, not sure if I was angry or hurt.
‘I’m sorry I was such an asshole, but they made it a condition of my discharge that I didn’t talk to you. They were worried about “the nature of our relationship”.’ He said the last part in a mock-clinical tone. ‘Do you want to hang out?’
‘Don’t you live in Georgetown?’ I asked.
‘No. I’m sharing an apartment with this guy Jerry.’
‘Jerry?’ In the real world, it was easy to forget all the secrets you’d laid out like garage-sale bric-a-brac for every inpatient to pick over.
I rode my bike to the address he gave me. The apartment complex was tangled up in pine trees like a broken kite. Fallen red needles crunched under my tires and released their waxy scent.
In front of Fritz’s apartment, a dusty black kitten complained. I rubbed its head and felt the soft fur and the tiny skull beneath. The cat disappeared inside and a skinny man dressed in nursing scrubs opened the door. His frizzy hair made him look like a red-headed Q-tip wearing glasses.
‘Yes?’ the Q-tip said, looking at me with curiosity.
‘Is Fritz home?’
Q-tip rolled his eyes and said, ‘In back. Careful, he’s on the rag today.’
I stood before the hall and wondered which of the two doors was Fritz’s room. The Q-tip stood behind me and held my shoulders. I tensed under his touch and fought the urge to jerk away.
He steered me by the shoulders and said, ‘This one. The one on the right’s the guest room. Tell him I’m late shift tonight.’ The Q-tip patted my back, then disappeared. Fritz opened his door.
‘Was that him leaving?’
‘Was that Jerry?’ I asked. Awkwardness settled between us. He gave me a hug; I hugged him back. He was warm; I was cold. He smelled of cigarettes.
‘Look at you, little punk rocker.’ He pulled at the forelock of my mohawk.
‘Why’d you diss me inside?’
‘I told you. They made it a condition of my discharge. I was worried about – I didn’t … I don’t know.’
‘Forget it. What’s that?’ I pointed to a bowl of goop that looked like royal-blue oatmeal.
‘Homemade hair dye. I was just about to do my own. You want try it?’
‘Grandma is still getting used to this.’ I rubbed the shaved sides of my head.
‘How is your grandma?’
‘She’s good. Still old, but good.’
‘How about an earring?’ Fritz picked up a gold tack from beside the bowl of hair dye. ‘It’s a piercing stud. It’s supposed to go into a gun, but we can just jab it in.’
We sat next to each other on the couch in the living room, watching cartoons and drinking beer. My ear was hot and I kept touching the earring. We giggled at each other in our shower caps with the blue glop steaming beneath. The kitten hopped into my lap and mewed until I petted it.
‘Lillee turns eighteen today,’ Fritz said.
I raised my beer. ‘Happy Birthday to Lillee.’
‘That means they can send her to State hospital. She’s better off dead.’
The front door unlocked.
‘Honey, I’m home,’ Jerry sung. He raised a six-pack of beer. ‘Hello again,’ he said to me.
Jerry sat on the floor between us. He cracked a beer and offered one to me. I held up my unfinished bottle to say no thanks. Fritz slammed his and took the can. We watched more cartoons and drank more beers. Fritz drank fast and had most of the six-pack. Was he angry at me or Jerry?
Jerry took out a cigar box from underneath the couch. From it he took rolling papers, weed and a little black rubber ball wrapped in cellophane.
‘Jerry, no,’ Fritz said.
We smoked, Fritz too, and the world washed through me in calming waves. I sunk deep into the sofa. I scared myself thinking how much I preferred feeling like this.
Somehow I was in Fritz’s huge bed. I heard him in the hallway hiss, ‘Stay out of our room.’ He closed the door and lay down on the floor.
‘Good night Fritz,’ I mumbled.
In the middle of a dream I heard the door open. I felt warmth on my foot and a tug at my blanket. I woke up but stayed motionless, afraid to open my eyes and see Jerry over me. Something moved along my leg, touched my knee, then my thigh. I held my breath. I felt its weight on the inside of my thighs, pushing them apart. I bolted up and threw the blanket off. The kitten shot into the air, hissing, and fled the room.
‘Why’s the door open?’ Fritz asked angrily.
‘I don’t know. Cat?’
‘You scared the shit out of me.’ Fritz shut the door and locked it. ‘Go to sleep.’
The next day I was examining my new earring in the mirror, trying to decide if it was off-centre or not. Grandma had talked to me a dozen times that morning but never noticed it, the new hair colour or that I had spent the night away from home. I cut through the forest behind her house to the gas station with the payphone and called Fritz.
‘Can I come over?’ I asked.
‘I don’t think that’s a good idea.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I think you should forget about me. It was cool meeting you. We had a great time inside, but the real world is – you know – different.’
‘Real world? Are you ditching me again?’
‘No. It’s not that. I just don’t want you–’
I slammed the phone down. I ran through the forest back to Grandma’s house until my breath came in painful heaves. As I stepped onto the porch, I ran my hands across the shaved sides of my head and felt the earring. The fake gold irritated my skin.
I pulled it out and chucked it into the bushes and stepped into the house.
Grandma was on the couch.
‘No thank you,’ I said, taking my place beside her.
‘Janice just told Mark she’s pregnant and it’s not his,’ she said, pointing out the characters with the little hook of her grandma finger.
I heard a slow, heavy drip. I listened to its calming sound. I thought of faucets, of melting icicles, of trickling streams flowing into pure seas.
‘What’s happened to you? You’re hurt.’ Her voice full of worry.
From the corner of my eye, I saw a candle-wax stain of red on my shoulder. I touched my ear, and my hand came away bloody.
‘Silly boy,’ she said and groaned herself up off the couch. She shuffled to the bathroom medicine cabinet trailing words: ‘It’s okay. Don’t cry. We’ll get you fixed up. Ain’t nothing that won’t heal.’
Jarred McGinnis was the creative director for Moby-Dick Unabridged, a four-day immersive multimedia reading of Herman Melville’s masterpiece at the Southbank Centre, involving hundreds of participants.
His short fiction has been commissioned for BBC Radio 4 and appeared in respected journals in the UK, Canada, USA and Ireland. Most recently he has had stories shortlisted for the Galley Beggar Story Prize, Royal Academy Pin Drop Short Story Award and the Wasafiri New Writing Award. He is an Associate Writer for Spread the Word, a Mentor for the Word Factory and Writer-in-Residence for First Story.
More at jarredmcginnis.com
Illustration by Justin K H Chen