My eyes flicked around the room, like looking at stuff would make the time go faster. I heard someone smashing the piano keys in the activities room. Hippie Jesus guy and that patchwork-jacket lady shouting.
I went to the bookshelf but they were all yellowed pages and curled corners. I picked up a magazine, then thought about who might have touched it and put it back. I washed my hands — fourteenth time today. The Spanish woman who didn’t talk was doing a puzzle. I looked at the other one. Too much of it was the same colours. Why would you do that?
The old professor was playing chess with himself on the couches. I watched him for what I thought was ages, but when I looked at the clock it was only half a minute. Maybe it was broken, or was made to go extra slowly, keep everyone calm or something.
I was itching to run. The ward was on a hill. I wanted to go flying out that door and run all the way down then back up again, and then three times more. I walked towards the door, the one to outside, the one that couldn’t be opened from the inside without a keycard. I looked back and saw one of the nurses watching me. I sat down so she wouldn’t be nervous and started doing puzzles in a newspaper. I got a fright when I heard my name, and the nurse was staring at me, telling me not to chew the pen.
I hadn’t even realised it was in my mouth. Noooo! I moved on to the second page of puzzles, but then I pressed too hard and poked a hole in the couch.
2:07 pm. I was expecting it to be dark outside, dinner to have come through, for it to be an acceptable time for me to crawl into bed. My mind was buzzing like the hive of a thousand bees, but I couldn’t catch onto any one thought, wasn’t sure what I was feeling. I pulled back the sleeve of my sweater and ran my finger lightly over the bandage that covered my wrist. There was a noise behind me and I jumped, banging my wrist against my leg. Pain shot through my arm. I looked again, and blood was starting to soak through the bandage. Shit. I pulled my sleeve back down.
I looked up as the door buzzed. Hardly anyone got visitors here. I definitely didn’t. A tall boy in a maroon sweatshirt walked in, his head down, followed by someone I assumed was his mother and a doctor, the tall, grey-haired one. The mother smiled at me, a nice smile, not the “I’m-being-nice-but-I-feel-uncomfortable-around-you” smile that I knew because I sometimes gave it to everyone else in here.
I grabbed the newspaper again so it wouldn’t look like I was staring. The boy, his mum, and the doctor sat on the last set of couches. The boy had his back to me and his head down. The doctor gave his mother some forms. I didn’t get any forms. Maybe because I didn’t have a mother that came in with me. The boy said something just once but his voice was low and mumbling and I couldn’t hear what he said. Then the doctor stood up and said he’d show the boy his room.
He was staying! Everyone else I had worked out, was between fourteen and forty-one years older than me. I realised I shouldn’t be happy he was staying, mostly because that meant something had happened to him, but finally, someone to talk to…
The mum said bye. She thanked the doctor and walked out. She waved at me. Crap, why was I always looking? Then she and the doctor left. I waited for the boy to come out, but he rolled his blinds shut and closed his door. Then nothing.
I didn’t see the boy all morning. I was spreading peanut butter on my toast and was eating it extra slowly, listening to Home Shopping on the telly, watching the door, waiting for him to come in. Then I noticed hippie Jesus lick his knife before he stuck it back into the jar of peanut butter and pushed my plate away. He caught me staring but just stared right back, so I left. I was about to dump my plate in the bin when he stopped me.
“Aren’t you going to eat that?” he asked.
I shook my head. I think my mouth dried up from not talking to anyone.
“Can I have it?”
He didn’t really wait for an answer. He grabbed my toast from my plate and added it to his own pile. I think he had five already.
The new boy wasn’t anywhere I could see. I tried to look in his room when I walked past, but his blinds were still shut. I went back to my room and took ten minutes to brush my teeth.
The rest of the day passed achingly slow. I did all the crosswords I could find, washed my hands twenty-six times, spent five hours on the stupid ocean puzzle, and still the boy made no appearance. I’d kind of given up on him, was starting to think maybe he was just an overnighter, or maybe not even that, maybe he’d come in, been seen by a doctor, and then left again. Maybe his mum had picked him up early.
I walked into dinner that night, trying to remember what I’d ticked on the little blue card. I found the tray with my name on it. Someone had already taken my dessert.
I noticed him straightaway. He was sitting on his own, his plate untouched. I was torn between sitting next to him and not wanting to scare him. I sat next to him but one row behind, on my own table, safely away from people spitting or swiping food off your plate. The TV was on, but we couldn’t even hear it because hippie Jesus kept shouting at it, commenting on every second thing the presenter said. The nurse asked him to quiet down. He asked her to turn the TV up.
After dinner everyone slowly filtered out, most of them going to the activities room. The boy left, too. I followed him, but he went to his room and shut the door. I watched hippie Jesus challenge people to games of ping-pong — somehow he was everywhere at once. Then the nurses said there was a movie on, and when everyone went to the activities room for the bigger TV, I wandered back to the tearoom where I knew it’d be quieter.
He was there again, staring at the TV. I took my same spot behind him. He was cute, like, really cute. His hair was kind of dark blond, and thick with a fringe that went over his eyes. He wore clunky black glasses and his maroon sweatshirt.
We didn’t talk during the movie, and when it was over, he got up and walked to the door.
“Night,” he said over his shoulder, so quietly I wondered if I’d even heard him or just imagined it. And that was the first day.
The second day, he wasn’t at breakfast. But when I walked out of the tearoom, he was doing a puzzle. I washed my hands and sat next to him, staring at the pieces, scared he was going to get up and leave. Thirty-six seconds later he pushed some in a pile towards me.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Danielle.” My voice sounded so weak.
We put a few more pieces on the board.
“What’s yours?” I asked.
“Adam.” He flicked my hand away so he could put a piece on my side.
Cool? That was possibly worse than ‘oh.’
I watched him for a few moments. “Was that your mum yesterday?”
He was quiet for a second. “Yeah.”
“She seems nice.”
“Yeah,” he said again. “She is.”
I stared at the board and started to feel little waves of jealousy start to simmer inside me. Why did he get the good mum, the nice one? Why did everyone else, except me?
“What are you in here for?” he asked.
I cracked a smile. It felt weird on my face. “Aren’t you, like, not supposed to ask that? Like prison?”
“You were in prison?”
“So why?” he asked.
I looked away. I felt restless. Don’t ruin this, I wanted to shout. If I tell you, you won’t talk to me. I wanted to run away. But his legs were around the bottom of my chair.
“You okay?” he asked.
“I can’t get any pieces. None of them fit together.”
He looked up as someone walked past us. He waited until they had gone, then looked at the puzzle.
“I tried to hang myself,” he said.
I felt sick in my stomach as I looked up at him.
“You okay?” I asked.
“I didn’t tie the rope properly,” he explained.
“Well,” I said, “that’s good.”
He shrugged, which made me sad. We kept doing the puzzle, whispering about the other inpatients. The only drama came when the doctors came to give the patchwork lady her meds and she refused. We heard her shouting from her bedroom. Adam stared at the door. We heard the doctor tell her she could swallow her pills or they could knock her out and inject her. Something was thrown against the wall. Then her door opened. They must have given her something because her eyes were glazed and her head was lolling. They marched her off through another door. Hippie Jesus appeared, demanding to know where they were taking her. To 9C, they told him.
“What’s 9C?” Adam asked.
“Like this, but all the doors are locked and there’s guards everywhere,” I told him. “Someone went there when I first came.”
Hippie Jesus stomped back into the activities room, shouting about rights. Adam threw down a puzzle piece.
“I hate this place,” he said.
His mum came in sometime before dinner with a girl with the same colour hair as Adam. She looked around like she was actually interested. They dragged chairs over and said hi to me, too. I got up to leave, but his mum told me not to be silly and sit down. His sister was quiet and kept doing the puzzle, getting more pieces in ten minutes than Adam and I had in two days. She asked him how he was, how was the food. He replied in one word answers or a jerk of the head.
I got startled when his mum asked me how I was doing. “Fine,” I said, copying Adam. She asked me if I had enough to do.
“Well, at least you two have each other for company now.”
Adam looked up at me from under his fringe. “Yeah.”
I didn’t even realise when they left. My mind was buzzing, my ears were buzzing, my eyes were buzzing. We got dinner together and then watched another movie. I didn’t even care that the nurse watched us. Finally the days didn’t drag. In fact they ended too quickly. We played ping pong one night. It started off slow, both of us careful. Then he whacked one at me so hard it hit the ceiling, the floor, then the wall behind me. A nurse looked in our direction. Our passes became more violent, our laughs louder, until a nurse finally called out for us to go to bed.
“Night,” he said.
“Night,” I said, and I walked to my room grinning for the first time in ages.
Four days later, Adam said he was going home.
“Are you ready to?” I asked. “Are you okay to?”
He said he was. I didn’t believe him, but I watched his mum sign the forms and he walked out the door. He didn’t look back.
Danielle is 21 and lives in New Zealand. She loves cooking, cats, and climbing trees, and she once convinced her primary class she was Cinderella. If you ever lose her in the mall, you can find her by the books.