Fiction from Tess Walsh
We came to Vermont to heal; that’s what the website had promised our parents. Written word therapy sounded just academic enough for us to hold onto our good girl titles. It wasn’t rehab; it was gentler than that. Our problems were gentler than that.
The driveway was gravel and the barn had a kitchen in it, just as rustic as the information packet. There were dandelions everywhere, persistently poking their baby fat faces between the links of a chain fence, dotting the fields with stubborn optimism. It was too cold for dandelions. They knew that and they fought it, the highlighted proof that pretty could also be tough. They drank up the sky, trying to be sunflowers because they were sick of being called weeds.
I was housed in a dorm with five other teenage girls who were silent and spooky in the same manner I was: scarred arms, empty eyes. Our days were spent sitting outside with a young, would-be hipster therapist named Jenna who drew henna patterns over our white lines and encouraged us to make lists, pour forth our feelings onto uniform notebooks, write down every word we knew. When she jogged inside to grab water or a sweatshirt, we would pull long-stemmed dandelions out of the ground. One girl chewed on the stems; another braided them into a limp chain.
At night, we were different. We were all more intimate with the dark; it looked more like us than those dandelions, than the positive mantras Jenna printed onto our skin. We sat in the narrow hallway of our dorm, the six of us, eating stale cookies we stole from the barn-kitchen and attempting to make conversation. Sometimes we made up stories and excelled at taking our imaginations to extremes. The girl with the pierced eyebrow admitted that she liked to write, just not about her feelings, and the rest of us were quick to agree. The blue-eyed girl said that was why she had agreed to come here, to heal this way.
Nothing was black and white except for the letters teased onto a page.
The brunette lived on a farm in New Hampshire and wore her hair in a ballerina bun. She had peculiar eyes; cat pupils, different colors, like she took Bradbury’s advice four steps further and stuffed her eyes with not only wonder, but broken glass. She blinked slow but talked fast, and she had a lot to say once the sun went down. She was the first to talk; mostly she talked about her boyfriend, a soccer player named Aaron who liked blueberry pancakes.
It was on the third night that we found out Aaron shot himself. She told us matter-of-factly and lapsed into silence. I gave her one of the tasteless cookies and she bit into it as if she hadn’t just scooped out half her soul and left it on the carpet for us to pick at. I wondered if too much truth could kill you like prescription medication. I wondered how many pills we collectively swallowed each morning. Our disorders made a long list on Jenna’s clipboard, lined up like buttons on a coat.
The girl with stick legs and snowy eyes braided her hair with needle fingers and drank flat Dr. Pepper. She had a red velvet voice; throaty, full, too big for her bones, and draped herself in her father’s oversized flannels. We pretended to understand when she told us she was once admitted to the hospital for sleep deprivation.
Too anxious, she said. She stayed awake for 97 hours and she said she felt her brain start to unravel, each fleshy string separating with every sip of coffee. She had pills by the time she came to Vermont, fat purple ones she called tranquilizers. They gave her bad dreams. She never said, but sometimes we heard her crying while she slept.
The blonde from Connecticut who wore a cross around her neck usually sat by the window. Once she lifted up her shirt to show us surgical scars, carefully touching the woven skin like she was fingering rosary beads. It was only after she woke up that she started to pray, she said, because even Catholics get bitter. I almost told her that I understood, that my mother whispered me to sleep with the words hallowed be thy name and I pretended I was the sacred one because to pray meant to hope and even at nine years old I couldn’t afford to do that. The words got stuck in my throat like wet tissue paper. I swallowed a few times, and the blonde turned to look out the window again.
The oldest girl was the one with the ring in her eyebrow. When she pushed back her hair, I could see more metal lining the shell of her ear and I was reminded of spaceships and green aliens. She wore the same vest every day, decorated with patches advertising bands I’d never heard of, bands that played angry music. She was angry, too, at a lot of things: the government, public schools, binary gender stereotypes. She claimed that anger was one of the only things that could change the world. I told her, joking, that she would make an excellent lawyer, but she shook her head as she sucked on a cough drop. She didn’t want to be a part of the system; she called herself an anarchist.
The youngest girl had hazel eyes, big and heavy-lidded; bovine eyes, long lashes. She was too pretty and too soft for someone from the city who grew up with one foot in the gutter and two hands on the future. She was a foster kid when she was younger, with two ratty toys and a few sweaters to her juvenile name. She didn’t know what meatloaf was until she was thirteen, because foster parents liked to feed her whatever could be microwaved in sixty seconds or less. She said welfare cheese was better than Land O’Lakes and the reason she was so optimistic was because she has no other choice; when you hit bottom at six years old, you can only go up. The trick was being patient, because the wheels of fate are creaky and slow.
And there was me, in the middle, picking crumbs off the Cheeto-colored carpet and trying to think of my story, because I felt like a puzzle carved out of loose change. I never fit. I was incongruous. My story was incongruous, stitched together clumsily with shoelaces and dental floss. I could not convey myself in a few sentences. I always talked too much.
I’m not interesting, I told them abruptly. Not tragic. I come from a nice home in a nice town. I go to a nice school. The word college makes me want to vomit. My mother bakes muffins and pies, my dad coaches Little League. They’re good people, honest people. They grew up in the city and never learned how to pronounce R; they were raised on discount soups and the idea that suburbs were Edenic.
I’m always telling stories.
I lied a lot when I was little, and never lost the habit. There are worse sins, but the point of Catholic school is to teach you not to sin at all. I was never a Messiah, but I had the complex from so many years of bad blood and little siblings.
I’ve never been hospitalized. Never even broken a bone. I’m not an activist, just melting popsicles and a few contradictions. A hypocrite. Too emotional.
The girl with the dead boyfriend looked up with her cat eyes. Aren’t we all? she said
We were only there a week and went home with stained hands and increased vocabularies, with strict instructions to journal as often as we brushed our teeth. We had each filled a notebook by the time we were declared “healed” and sent away from maternal mountains and Jenna’s tearful embraces. By our last night, we were reading poetry out loud to each other and it made the night richer. We transcended our realities and our stories. We became alphabet vampires, imagination junkies, sinking our teeth into paper to sap all the blood out of horror we had already lived.
We emptied ourselves. We became dandelions.
Tess Walsh is currently pursuing degrees in English and Education at Lesley University in Massachusetts. More of her work can be found at tessannjoan.tumblr.com.
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