In my mind there are black-and-white photos. They float around, landing softly here and there, resting on top of other memories, dreamscapes and nightmares. Sometimes they bloom color, like the one I’m focusing on now. It unfolds, like a flower opening for the sun, the petals wet and dark. Slowly it bleeds brilliant pigments. Dark sky. Clear rain. Yellow headlights. A boy with curly hair and a crooked grin. Jason in the rain. My favorite memory of him.
“When was your last period?” the nurse asks me. “Alice?” The nurse’s voice is like snapping fingers, calling me to attention. The image fades. White paper crinkles as I shift uncomfortably on the exam table. I try to count the hours, the suns and moons, and remember how much time has passed since the fire. It’s been weeks, I think. Tsunamis have decimated cities in less time than that. I rub a hand over my chest where breathing is still difficult. The nurse’s white ID badge reads NURSE DUMMEL, OREGON STATE MENTAL HEALTH HOSPITAL. I recognize her face from before, from my last stay here. The face of a bulldog. Round cheeks set over a row of bottom teeth that stick out just a smidge too far. Nurse Dummel clears her throat.
“Uh, I don’t know . . .” I say. “I’m not sure. Maybe two weeks ago?” I swallow. Even though it’s been a while since the fire, my tongue still tastes of ash. Maybe it always will.
Nurse Dummel types something into a computer. “And how are the burns?”
The burns that travel over each shoulder blade and down past my right wrist tingle. Miraculously, the fire didn’t touch my left hand. The skin there is still soft and smooth. “Better,” I say.
Although I don’t remember the fire, I do have some fuzzy recollections of my intensive care stay. The bitter uncertainty of those days and the bright, bright pain that just wouldn’t go away.
“That all?” the nurse asks. “No pain, numbness, or swelling?”
“No. It’s just itchy now.”
Outside, wind howls and shakes the thin walls of the building. A shudder rolls through me. Oregon State Mental Health Hospital is located on a thin strip of densely forested island. The hospital advertises itself as a peaceful haven where troubled souls recover, but there’s nothing tranquil about this place. Even the name of the island, Savage Isle, was born from blood. In the late 1800s, a hundred Native Americans were forcibly relocated here, only to be killed later in a massacre. Old newspapers say there was so much blood that winter, it looked as if red snow had fallen from the sky.
“That’s good. You’re lucky you can feel anything at all. Some second-degree burns cause loss of sensation.” Lucky. Am I lucky? That’s not how I would characterize the situation.
“You’ll need to stay on antibiotics for the next couple of weeks and keep up with your physical therapy.” I almost laugh. When I left the ICU, a doctor gave me a pamphlet on hand exercises, explaining that they would help me regain full mobility. That was the only physical therapy I received. I flex my hand now. The movement causes a subtle ache, but other than that, everything appears to work just fine.
A white wristband prints out next to the computer. “Left wrist please,” Nurse Dummel says, gesturing for me to hold out my arm. I comply, and she snaps on the tight plastic. There are four colors of wristbands at Savage Isle. I have worn them all before. All except for red. Nobody wants a red wristband. Upon admittance, everyone is given the standard white, and after a period of about twenty-four to forty-eight hours on semi-restricted status, they’re usually granted a yellow wristband that comes with very few restrictions. After yellow comes green. Green means go. Stay up late, visit home, drink caffeine, get out of Savage Isle.
“All right, kiddo,” Nurse Dummel sighs, handing me a pair of ratty scrubs. “Stand up, take everything off, and put these on.”
I wait a heartbeat to see if she’s going to leave and give me some privacy, but she just stands there, watching me with a hawk’s stare. I change quick and quiet and I think of Jason. When we kissed, his lips tasted like fresh spring water and hot tamales. I didn’t have the courage to ask about him in the hospital. I feared his fate. Sometimes not knowing is better than knowing. Still, somewhere inside me the truth clanks like a ball and chain . . . It’s not possible he made it out of the fire alive. I ignore it. Denial is kinder, more gentle. Uninvited thoughts of Cellie pop into my mind, but I push them away. I refuse to waste worry on my twin. Worry is lost on her.
When I finish putting on the scrubs, I throw my hoodie back on, hoping the nurse will let me keep it. I don’t like being cold. She doesn’t notice, or pretends not to, and gestures toward my shoes. “All right, shoelaces have to come off. This your bag?” She points to the corner of the room where a lavender duffel sits on the floor. It’s worn and dirty, the color almost bleached to gray.
I pull my sneakers off and de-thread the laces. The nurse shakes her head a little as she slips on a pair of latex gloves. She picks up my bag and places it on the exam table. In a detached and efficient manner she sorts through my things. A couple of pairs of pants, some shirts, an iPod, toothbrush, toothpaste, some floss, and origami paper, all my worldly possessions.
She holds the origami paper up and raises her eyebrows. I mirror her look, resisting the urge to stick out my tongue like a petulant child and snatch the sheets from her fingers. They were a gift, a gentle reminder to Cellie and me that we weren’t always alone. I don’t want Nurse Dummel’s greasy fingerprints all over them. When she sets them aside, I’m relieved. “You’re good to go,” she says. “You can pack up everything except these.” Nurse Dummel confiscates my toothbrush, floss, clothes, and headphones and dumps them into a plastic bag. I quickly tally the number of items left in my possession—an iPod that’s useless without the headphones, some toothpaste, just as useless without the brush, and my origami paper. Nurse Dummel opens the door and gestures for me to follow her. I gather my three remaining possessions and place them in the lavender duffel bag, careful not to accidentally crease any of the origami paper.
Outside the exam room a big guy with a mullet stands guard. He follows us as we walk down a hallway that quickly turns into another. A sterile maze. We pass a sign that says ADMITTANCE WARD C, then another that says PATIENTS ONLY BEYOND THIS POINT. He swipes a badge over a black box and the doors swing open. I shift my duffel bag uneasily. There’s a familiar rush of anxiety as we come to a second set of doors. Once again the guy with the mullet swipes a card over a black box and the doors seem to magically swing open. As soon as I step over the threshold, they swing shut behind me with a soft clink.
The place looks the same as when I left it, like something ate the 1970s and then threw up all the furniture here. We’re in the common area, the