From somewhere very far away, someone was calling my name. I could hear the frantic girl yelling at me, "Alice! Alice! You have to snap out of it!" Her voice mingled with the retreating vision that had swallowed me. I tried to pull out of the vision, but I couldn't completely leave the swirling sights and sounds that had rendered me helpless again. Slowly, the vision of the family in the wagon, the screams, and the swirling river faded from view and I became aware of where I was.
The voice was my sister's, and I was lying on my stomach against the dirt road. I knew this because of the mixed taste of blood and dirt in my mouth. Other frantic voices were now discernible in the area around us.
"Is she okay?" asked a woman whose voice was shrill with fear.
"Does she need a doctor? What is wrong with her?" This was a man's voice that sounded either angry or panicked, I couldn't yet tell which.
I rolled over and sat up. At least there was no pain this time. I looked up at the family in the wagon and was immediately shocked to see that they looked like they might have been from my vision. I stared at them in speechless recognition.
"Honey, are you hurt?" the woman asked me. I couldn't answer her; I just stared at their familiar faces.
"My sister has fits sometimes, like epilepsy or something," said Cynthia. I was grateful for Cynthia's quick and skillful lying. "She'll be okay, Ma'am. Don't worry, Sir; I'll get her home to our Momma." Suddenly she and the man were helping me to my feet. My knees burned with fresh scrapes, and my dress was ripped where I had torn right through the material. Momma would be furious.
Too quickly, the family loaded back up into their old wagon and headed to the river district by the port. I wanted to warn them and make them stop, but what could a thirteen-year-old do? They would never listen to me, and I wasn't sure what I saw in these visions -- not ever. It was like trying to make out a color in the deep fog. There was never enough to know for sure what was happening, only enough to send me into a trance, terrify my mother, and infuriate my father.
"Alice?" Cynthia asked hesitantly. "Alice, we need to get you home." Her eyes were still filled with the fear of my near accident -- the accident I didn't even remember.
Her voice completely brought me back to the present. I could feel the moist heat of the day pressing on my wet skin. Most of my arms and legs were now encrusted with the dirt from the road which stuck to the sticky sweat that was always a part of the summer days here. Thankfully, my long hair was in two pig tails, so it wasn't tangled and plastered to my skin as well. My knees, hands, and lower lip were bleeding.
"Sorry, Cynthia. I'm so sorry. This shouldn't have happened, I'm so sorry," I said. Now that I'd found my voice, the words poured out amid my hitched breaths. I was close to tears. How would I get past Momma looking like this?
"Don't worry about it Alice," she mumbled. It wasn't fair to her and I knew it. No ten-year-old should have to be so responsible for her older sister. I shouldn't have asked her to come, but after what I woke to, I was so glad she was here.
"How bad was it?" I asked in a whisper. I wasn't sure I wanted to know.
"You just stopped. Stopped right in the road with the wagon coming! I nearly didn't push you in time," she almost shouted in her frustration. She looked at me from under her heavy, dark bangs and sighed, "What was it this time?"
"The family," I said. Hopefully, they were fine. Hopefully, I was wrong again. I didn't say any more, and she didn't ask any more about it as we walked slowly to the back of our small home. I tried to remember what we were doing before the vision. Granny. We had gone to her grave in the nearby cemetery. It should have been such an easy trip on this hot August morning; I just needed to see her grave again and put flowers on it. We raced back home, laughing at the simple joy of running. Then the vision had hit me, and she must have pushed me out of the way from the wagon as I stood in what Momma called a stupor.
The memory of the trip brought back the dull feeling of loss that had weighed on my heart that morning. I missed Granny so very much. I was her namesake and her twin, or so the family said. We looked so much alike, it was almost spooky. Not many in the family guessed what else we shared, and that truth was truly frightening -- like a nightmare.
She had died in one of the asylums near here. Her visions had driven her mad before I was born, but it wasn't until two years ago that she was so bad that she had to be "put away" for her own good. The memories of my time with Granny were both comforting and terrifying. She was the only person I could truly confide in, but her madness, my future madness, scared me to death. I was now, at age thirteen, nearly as bad as she was by age forty.
"What are you thinking about?" Cynthia asked. Her eyes were wide and worried.
"Don't worry, Cynthia, I'm not going into another spell, at least I don't think so."
How I wished I could tell. I could be normal if I could predict when these things were going to hit. I could make friends and attend parties, and be with other girls without scaring them to death. I wanted to dance ballet again and feel my body spin and fly. As it was, I didn't think I could even be in school this year either. I wanted a normal life back so badly that it was a constant, painful ache.
The pain spilled out into heated words. "I hate my life! I wish I were never even born!" I screamed at Cynthia, the world, and God all at once.
"Don't say that! Don't you ever say that Mary Alice!" Cynthia yelled back. I had scared her. Again.
"I do though, Cynthia, I honestly do. You're the only one who accepts me. Momma looks at me all strange now, too. Ever since the doctor said I had mental issues, she looks at me like I'm not hers anymore." I should have stopped there, but the words flowed from me in an unstoppable rush. My tears were heavy and my breath came in ragged gasps as I spoke the terrifying truth of my life. "Daddy hates me, he truly does, and don't you say otherwise. He may have stopped hitting me, but he still hates me. I have no one left, Cynthia. I can't go outside the house at all. Just look at me! We were only gone for twenty minutes and just look at me! I can't go to school. I can't go to ballet class. None of my friends will even talk to me. I so want a friend to talk to, to dress up and do each others hair with and tell secrets to. I want to be happy again. I want to be like I was before...before...before this started to get messed up." I hit my head with my hand hard enough for it to hurt.
"Mary Alice Brandon! What happened to you?" My mother's angry voice stopped me cold. She had been hanging the clothes out to dry in the thick heat, and she looked over my appearance with reproach. I knew what I must look like, and I would pay for it.
"She just fell down on the road, Momma. She didn't do nothin' wrong."
Momma didn't believe Cynthia's lie; she had seen this too many times in the last four years. At first, she had been terrified because it was her mother that lay in the cemetery. She had prayed and cried that the curse that took her mother's mind wouldn't fall on me. As the years passed, however, she was forced to accept that I was just like Granny, but worse, so much worse. Now, Momma was distant from me. The one person who could comfort me in her arms, the one I needed so much now it nearly tore me in two, just stood there angry, with her arms crossed and eyes hateful. I was alone.
"Alice, you get to your room and clean up. Take a cake of soap and clean yourself and that dress, and then wait for us in your room. Don't do anythin' else, just stay there. You are done, done, do you hear me! No more outings."
"But Momma, please. I am so tired of the house. Please, just let me sit on the porch today. It is so bright outside, and I want to stay out."
"You go up and get cleaned up. Your Daddy and I need to talk," she said, her voice listless and dull. She seemed tired and beaten and looked a hundred years old. The guilt for what I was doing to her and my family hit me hard as I ran into the house.
I was sitting and drawing again on my bed when I heard Daddy come home. At first, I drew what I saw in my visions, but that had made Momma and Daddy so upset that now all I drew was the life I missed. My room was filled with pictures of friends in colorful dresses, parties that I no longer went to, and places I could no longer go see. It made me feel better to have something to remember what my life was like before the visions had come.
I heard the heavy thud of my father on the stairs. I knew what would happen without needing a vision to tell me. Daddy's steps were far too slow and I knew he was angry before he came to my door and flung it open. Daddy hated Granny and her odd fits. No one hated things that weren't normal more than my Daddy, and so now he hated me. It wasn't always this way, and the memories of hugging him and getting his scratchy kisses after he came home from work always made me happy. He hadn't so much as touched me except to beat me with a switch for nearly two years now. I would have gladly taken a switch to the apathetic loathing that had replaced his worried fury.
He glared at me as he entered, grabbed my drawing, ripped the paper in two, and threw it to the ground.
"What was it this time? Cynthia wouldn't tell me," he growled out between clenched teeth.
"Just a family in a wagon, that's all," I lied.
"Well, that nearly got you killed, didn't it. Your sister could have been hurt bad this time. Why did you leave the house at all?"
"I just wanted to see the grave again and put flowers on it, because I miss her," I said, my voice a whisper. It was best not to say Granny's actual name.
"Don't you see what's happening here, Alice? It's like with her, only worse. You nearly died two blocks from the house. We can't go anywhere now. We can't leave you alone. God knows, we can't let people see you. What would they think? Your Momma is always crying, your sister is always worried, and I can't live like this." He put his hands over his face and rubbed his temples. He, too, looked old and very tired.
"I'm sorry Daddy. I want to be good, I really do. I'll try harder," I whispered, but we both knew there wasn't anything I could do about the fits.
"I know honey, but trying harder won't stop these things. I saw that with your Granny," he said, talking to himself now. He looked out the window, his mind far away. "You used to be such a joy to everyone around you. You were so perfect. You never walked anywhere, you danced. Everywhere you went, you simply bubbled with joy. Even your braids always seemed to dance with you when you walked." He smiled, but then he turned to me and his eyes were terribly hard and full of the loathing that I had come to expect. "You have to leave now. I can't watch you go through this like I watched your Granny. I just can't."
Without another word, he went to the wall where I kept all my pictures and began ripping them down. This hurt more than words ever could.
"No, Daddy, don't please. They aren't about visions, just friends and clothes and such. Please Daddy no!"
"I don't want anything left. Nothing of what you are. You are leaving now, and I don't want anything left of you."
I felt the slap of his words hit my heart harder than any switch had ever hit me. "What...but...where...why...," the words choked off into sobs as I saw in his face where I was going. It was the worst vision of all. The darkness of the vision filled my head as I began to shake. Darkness, chains, screaming and doors -- lots of doors -- this was my most feared and most vivid vision, and now it was coming true.
Momma showed up with eyes swollen and red from crying.
"Alice, honey, it's for the best. Granny was happy there. They can help you. Honey don't cry, we will come get you when you're well," she said between hitched breaths.
No, they wouldn't. I could see that in my father's face. He had spoken the truth when he said that he didn't want me or even any memory of me around. I knew that I would never be able to return home.
I was sobbing so hard now that I couldn't move or see. I just grabbed my stomach and began to rock back and forth, trying to give myself the comfort that they would never offer.
Momma and Daddy quickly packed my few clothes, and Momma grabbed my teddy bear. I saw them finish and turn to me. My stomach twisted in panic, and all I could think of was Cynthia. I ran to her room and tried to find her. Empty. I ran down the stairs and dashed through each room of the house. Where is she? Cynthia, I need you! Where are you? The words burned my head as I screamed them repeatedly to myself.
Daddy's strong hand caught my thin arm. "We sent her to Aunt Jenny's house for the night. She doesn't need to be here for this." Suddenly his eyes were less hateful, and almost, but not quite, kind. "I'm sorry Alice. I'm so very sorry, but you can't be here anymore. You could have died today, and she could have been hurt, too. She needs her own life. This is tearing us all up, and it has to stop. This is the best thing to do for you and us."
He hadn't touched me in so long that his hand seemed strange against my skin. I tried to hug him. I tried to move close and grab hold of his waist like I had so many times before my mind went mad, but he pushed me away with his strong hands and led me to the carriage. My mother was already there, looking tiny and beaten in the seat. She had always been small like me, but now she was almost invisible, hunched over and shaking with her tears. Daddy set me in my regular spot in the back of the carriage, and I lay there lost in the pain of their betrayal. They didn't want me. The terrible vision that haunted me so often would come true because they didn't want me anymore. And it was all my fault.
"I love you, please, I love you so much. Please don't take me there, please, please, please. I'll be good now. I promise. Please," I pleaded through my tears. My mother's body shook harder, but neither one moved or said another word. I just kept saying it, until my dry throat hurt and I could no longer make any sounds. I didn't move for the whole hour and a half trip to the large gated building at the edge of town. I was so numb that I didn't even notice that the carriage had stopped and Daddy was talking to the man at the gate. I didn't look at anyone or anything when strange, strong hands lifted me from the seat and brought me into a dimly lit room.
"...yes, I agree with your doctor, but..."
"Probably schizophrenia, but it may not be as bad as that..."
"Yes, we can do that, but we feel it is best for the family to visit as often as they can..."
"...went through this...can't be stopped...kill us all..."
"...of course. We will do all that we can ....beg you to reconsider....but she still needs you..."
"...don't want her at all...tearing our family apart...just look at her mother..."
"She is so young; it's such a pity..."
The voices came and went and I couldn't even tell which belonged to my parents and which belonged to the white coats that surrounded me. It wasn't until I was led to a small room with one electrical light hanging in the ceiling and a small, dark window in the wall that I realized my parents were gone. They hadn't even tried to say goodbye.
It was worse now. The visions came so often in this cold place. They were no more certain than they had ever been, but they came more frequently now that I was watched, though I tried even harder to hide them. The people here didn't keep me locked up like I thought they would. I was at least given a little freedom and was allowed to go to the cafeteria, walk around the common room, and sit outside, but that was all. No matter where I went, they watched me constantly. Most of them held looks of pity on their faces. I hated them. I hated their watching eyes. They just looked at me, refusing to talk to me much at all, and I felt like an animal in a zoo.
"Would you like to play a game, Mary Alice?" asked a kind nurse I had not seen before. I nearly jumped right out of the chair. I had been here three weeks, and this was the first person to ask me to do something with her. I was in the common room just sitting and looking out the window since there wasn't anything else to do.
"Alice...just Alice," I corrected her when I got over the shock.
"Well, Alice, I'm Nancy, and I love to play games. Would you like to play one with me?"
"Yes," I said and nearly smiled back. I hadn't smiled in a very long time, and it felt very strange on my face, almost like the muscles had forgotten how to do it. The common room suddenly felt much lighter.
"What games do you like?" she asked, still very friendly.
"Dominoes. I like Chicken Foot. Do you know it?"
"Of course, sweetie."
As we played, she talked about her life. I was so grateful that she didn't ask me any questions.
I was a freak, and a crazy freak at that. I was one of the youngest ones here, and everyone looked at me like I had the plague. I didn't want to prove how much of a freak I really was by talking about the visions.
We played several rounds, and I found myself enjoying the game with this nurse. She was an older woman, pretty but not beautiful. Her hair was only starting to gray, but the laugh lines by her eyes were deep. To my young eyes, she looked old, but maybe that was just because I was young. Her stories made my giggle and I felt like a huge weight had lifted from my chest. I felt like I could somehow live.
"You look better, Alice," she said when our game finished.
"Thank you ma'am, I feel better," I sighed, and it wasn't even a lie. I usually lied in this place, because the truth would get me locked up in the lower levels where the screams came from. I knew without seeing them that the lower levels were the nightmare visions.
"I will be back to tomorrow, and I hope we can play again. I don't usually have this much fun on my shift. You have a lovely spirit to you, but you somehow seem too old for thirteen."
"I feel older, a lot older. I had fun. Thank you so much," I said as I tried to let the emotion in my voice tell her how thankful I was.
The next day was just as fun. We played poker, and I won. By the end of the game I felt more normal than I had in almost a year.
We played games like that for almost two weeks. It didn't help the visions stay away, but it comforted me to have someone treat me like a normal young girl rather than a patient.
The end of the second week, though, was strange. I could feel something in my mind warning me, but just like the visions, it was foggy and unclear. I hoped that Nancy's company would cheer me up because I didn't want to have a fit in her presence. I didn't want her to see me like that.
"Hi honey, ready for our game?" she cheerfully asked me.
She'd taught me Canasta, the endless game, she called it, and we played for nearly two hours. She still didn't ask me about my family or visions like the other white coat adults here. I was so grateful to her for that.
Just before dinner time, the vision hit me. I tensed up as the horror of it caught me off guard. It was of Nancy and some men. She was walking, but I couldn't see where, and they were ready to jump on her. They had on uniforms, and were very big. They were going to hurt her. Then I saw her blood flowing down the street with the rain. When I came back to myself, Nancy was holding me in her arms and calling for help.
"Don't go Nancy! Don't go!" I yelled at her as I grabbed her white dress and pulled her to me.
"Let go Alice, honey it's all right. Just let go."
"No! They're going to kill you! They are going to kill you! Don't go!" My voice was reaching the pitch of hysteria, and I knew it, but I couldn't stop screaming. Suddenly, my hands pulled too hard, and the buttons on the front of her white dress gave way. Her dress pulled apart, and I grabbed her by the hair, still screaming at her.
Dozens of hands were on me all at once. They pulled me off of her and held me down. I was kicking and thrashing against them. She had to understand. She couldn't be killed. I needed to save her.
Something sharp pushed into my arm and cold, painful pressure began to spread up my arm and directly into my head and eyes. The room tilted and twisted, and I blacked out.
When I opened my eyes, the people were gone, but the sun was out. The sun was directly above me, but there was also a room that was weaving about me in a sickening way. I thought maybe I was on a boat in the room. My stomach twisted painfully and I retched at the motion of the boat. I blinked several times, and the swaying stopped. The sun shrank into an electric light bulb directly over me. I tried to rub my eyes to help me focus, but my hands would only move a few inches. I went all cold inside as I looked down to see that my wrists and ankles had leather bands wrapped around them. They had chained me.
"No!" I screamed. "Don't do this to me! I didn't do anything! Help me! Momma, help me!" Terror froze those three words into me. "Momma, help me!" I screamed it over and over until my lungs and throat burned and my voice was gone.
After a while, I simply lay there and cried silent tears of rage and shame. My mother would never come again. I had done this to myself, or at least my madness had done it. I was insane, that I was sure of, and I grieved for the life I would never have.
The door opened, and I saw that the hall had no windows. With a shock I realized I was probably below ground, I was one of the screamers now. The man who came in had on a white coat and did not even look at me as he raised the silver thing and sank it into my arm. At first, I thought it was a knife and wondered if he would kill me, but I was too tired and scared to yell, besides my voice was gone. Then the cold pressure spread again. "Such a pity," I heard him say as the darkness took me. The darkness never left.