Chapter 6: Voices of reason?
Copyright © 2015 by Brian Bixby
In case I should have one of those accidents so popular on TV that leaves me with all my general knowledge but eliminates all personal memories, there are certain rules I wish to record here so I do not have to rediscover them by trial-and-error.
Rule #1: If you want to violate a parental dictate and not suffer punishment, violate it in a way that involves something your parents would normally want you to do.
Thursday night, Mom grounded me for four weeks. I wasn’t going to let that stand. So Friday noon, I left home and went to the library. Joy Barker, who I met on my previous visit, was on duty, so I asked her to point me to some good and challenging nonfiction. She picked out three books for me, and I sat down to read until 2. Then I headed home, arriving before Freddie and Donna got back from school. So no one knew I had gone . . . until I told them.
I waited until I could get my mother alone after dinner, and told her what I’d done, saying I did it so I could “improve my mind” while out of school. My mother eventually had to absolve me this time, while reiterating that I was grounded. Right.
I’m in the library again Monday afternoon, with a historical biography, which I’m supposed to be reading, according to what I’ve told my mother. Ha ha, I’ve already read it through. My mother has no idea how quickly I can read.
So, instead, I’m reading a really trashy novel about a teenage girl who’s seduced both by the father and oldest son in the family whose kids she babysits. The book’s clearly headed toward a scene in which she either gets involved in a kinky three-way or has the living tar beat out of her by an angry lover. I stop and stare out the window, wondering just why I’m reading this. I mean, it’s trash. Little Miss Stephanie Holt is way too perfect, apart from her bad judgment in opening her thighs. The father is a handsome creep, who probably boinks all the babysitters as a matter of course, no matter what he tells Stephanie. And the son is way too innocent for his age and handsome looks. What’s the appeal? Do I want to be this girl? Am I vicariously enjoying some girl prettier and luckier than me making horrible mistakes?
I think it’s because she’s doing something about sex, even if she gets it wrong, that’s the appeal. I don’t understand my own sexuality. Yeah, there’s sex ed. Great, I know what an ovary and a penis are. But sex ed. doesn’t explain my mother and her husbands and boyfriends, not why they get together and split up. It doesn’t explain the social cliques back in Boston, which are a lot easier to understand now that I’m not there and have probably lost whatever standing I had due to the fiasco with Eric. And it sure as hell doesn’t explain why I’m all interested in the topic, but can’t even really think and feel about it. So I’ve got this book in front of me instead. It’s a best seller. So a lot of women must think that it’s really charming to fall in love with an older handsome man, even if he is a creep and it’s really a mistake. Or maybe the real lesson is to hire ugly babysitters. I don’t know.
I look up and freeze. Out of the corner of my eye I can see Miranda Milan is in the library, talking to Joy Barker, who’s on duty today. And they’re both looking at me. I want to hide, but I’m frozen in place. Miranda suddenly laughs out loud, gives Joy a hug, and leaves, and I can breathe normally again.
Later, as I’m leaving, I stop by the circulation desk to check out a book. Joy’s behind it, naturally, and I casually ask her, “Was that Mir . . . Miranda Milan I saw in here a while ago?”
Joy looks up at me. She’s got a guilty expression on her face. “Um . . . yeah, she was.” And then she recovers and tries to give me her usual smile, but the result is unconvincing. “I understand you met her and Miranda was in one of her bad moods. I’m sorry about that, Jane. Miranda’s a good person, really, but sometimes she can be rude.”
Rude is not the only term I’d use to describe Miranda’s behavior to me, or whatever it was she did to me. And I suspect Joy knows that, even if she doesn’t know the details.
And then Joy gives a barely convincing laugh. “She saw you here and asked me why you weren’t in school. I told her you were suspended after pepper spraying a boy who attacked you. She thought that pretty funny, your using the pepper spray, that is. I think she might be a bit better disposed to you the next time you see her.”
I smile back, take my books, and leave. You may be right, Joy. And the next time I see Miranda, in the year 2525, I’ll be in a hurry to find out. Miranda Milan, child of terror, my interest in you was quite an error.
I’m getting ready for dinner, with my stomach churning, wondering if having my grounding lifted was such a great idea, after all. I’m to dine with the Van Schachts, at Cindy’s mother’s invitation. It’s happening tonight, because Cindy’s suspension ended yesterday. (Mine still has four school days to go.) My mother is hovering over me, trying to make sure I look my best. I think she’d have dressed me entirely if I’d let her. She actually offered to take me to buy high heels!
I look at myself in the mirror. My first visit to the hairdresser for a perm, and I think it makes me look like a poodle. All that’s missing is a cute little pink ribbon in my hair. (Over my dead body!) I’m wearing a new dress, bought for the occasion, dark-colored so if I spill food on it, it won’t show. (My mother does not have great confidence in my dexterity. Sadly, she’s right.) And I’m wearing a thin golden necklace, the one thing my mother and I agree on, me because I think I’d look silly with a lot of jewelry, her because she thinks rich people don’t flash their wealth. Overall, I look like a teenager tricked out to be a grown-up, but my mother is satisfied.
The Van Schachts live at the eastern end of Lake Netherfield, where the newer houses have been put up for wealthy people. The Van Schachts are loaded. According to my mother, Mrs. Van Schacht is old money from Philadelphia, while her husband is some sort of financial speculator. And this, I remind myself, is why my grounding has been lifted entirely, because my mother wants to be respectable and hobnob with rich people. I’m grateful, but sheesh!
The house does not disappoint. The place we live in is the biggest home we’ve ever had, but it’s dwarfed by the Van Schachts’ place. I have to wonder whether they keep servants, or at least a mad old aunt who lives in an otherwise deserted wing of the house. We get out of the car and go up to the front door.
Mrs. Van Schacht opens the door. Brunette, fortyish, pleasant oval face, and that has got to be a designer dress. I almost feel sorry for my mom, she’s wearing her best and still looks cheap by comparison. But she shows no signs of worry, and the two women greet each other like old friends, even though they’ve only met once before, when Mrs. Van Schacht was deciding whether we were suitable people for her daughter to associate with. I wonder how we qualified.
I step in and get lifted off my feet by Cindy, she’s that happy to see me. And then we immediately go into dinner.
The cutlery isn’t silverware, but there is at least one servant, as it turns out. No, make that two, there’s a cook as well. And I’m seeing food on my plate that I never see except when Uncle Jeff takes us out to dinner. Yep, the Van Schachts are definitely well-off.
Mr. Van Schacht has heard of my Uncle Jeff, apparently because he helped finance one of Uncle Jeff’s high tech projects. He casually asks me a few questions about Uncle Jeff. Mrs. Van Schacht tells a pair of stories about Cindy growing up. And Maureen is sitting across from me and not saying a word. I gather she and Donna hang out a bit, but it hasn’t become a real friendship yet.
Overall, the conversation at dinner is very low-key, which gives me plenty of time to study my hosts. I’m struck by how much the family members resemble each other. Mrs. Van Schacht must have been a beauty in her youth, and in her forties is elegant enough to still turn heads, I bet. Cindy’s older sister Maureen is even prettier still, with more height and the pale blondness she gets from her father. They’re all quite attractive. Cindy’s the outlier, looking like Maureen but taller, less symmetrical features, and simply gawky.
We go to Cindy’s room, which is about the size of our living room. Cindy’s got a king-size bed, big-screen TV, desk, bookshelves, small refrigerator, microwave, and her own bathroom. The only thing odd about the room is that there is absolutely nothing personal in it: no posters, no toys, nothing to indicate how Cindy spends her leisure time or what her tastes in popular culture are. Unless she reads all the time or spends all of her time online. Or does she just lie here in her brain-dead mode?
This is a sleepover, so I’ve brought an overnight bag. We settle down with some soda and popcorn to watch a movie, stopping it frequently to chat.
About forty-five minutes after we get started, I get a piece of popcorn caught in my teeth. It’s uncomfortable, so I get up off the bed and go into the bathroom to see if I can see it in the mirror and dislodge it with a fingernail. Turns out I can feel it but can’t see it. I need a piece of floss or maybe a toothpick. My own overnight bag is back in the bedroom. I don’t see any floss on the bathroom sink counter. In fact, there’s nothing but a soap dish on the counter, as if Cindy’s a compulsive neatnik. So I pull open the mirror over the sink to look in the medicine chest behind it.
The medicine cabinet is filled with pills. The brown transparent pill bottles for prescriptions just fill the whole cabinet. And all the labels I can read are for Cindy.
I stare at them. I’ve never seen so many pills in one place outside of a drug store. And I recognize a few names, because I’ve had friends with serious psychological problems. Cindy’s got some heavy stuff here.
“Ah, Jane, what are you doing?” Cindy calls as she comes in the room. I turn and see her see me, see me and the medicine cabinet open. And she freezes.
My stomach turns into a painful lump. All I can say is, “I was looking for some floss, Cindy. I didn’t mean to pry” and when that doesn’t produce a reaction, “I’m sorry.”
Cindy gets this weird look on her face, a smile that looks like it doesn’t mean it. “Oh, that’s okay, Jane. Let me tell you about what we’ve got here.” She walks over to stand beside me in front of the sink. She picks out one bottle. “This one’s for when I’m hyperactive.” She pulls out another. “This one is for when I’m depressed.” Another. “This one is for anxiety.” “This one is for insomnia.” “This one is for bipolar disorder.” “This one is for schizophrenia.”
She reaches for another, looks at it a bit baffled. “Oh, yeah, this one just makes me stupid.” She puts it back. Her expression has turned bitter, as if the pills are her enemy. And the bitterness just pours into her voice. “They all make me stupid.”
And then she lights up with a crazy smile. “Oh, look, this one doesn’t make me stupid. It doesn’t belong here.” And she opens it up and turns around and pours the contents into the toilet. She tosses the bottle into the wastebasket and flashes that crazy smile at me before she turns back to the medicine chest. “Oh, let’s go find another one that doesn’t make me stupid.”
She begins taking out bottles, looking at them, and putting them back. “Nope, not this one. Not this one. Not this one.” Her face is crumpling up and she’s beginning to cry. “Not this one, not this one, not this one.” She slams her hand across one row, knocking the bottles into the sink and onto the floor. And then she just loses it. She closes her eyes and grabs the counter and opens her mouth to scream. But nothing comes out. Her whole body’s shaking, the tears just running down her face and she’s trying to scream but she can’t.
I don’t know what to do. It’s like she’s having some sort of fit. I don’t think she’s even breathing. This is going to kill her if I don’t do something. But what do I do?
And then Cindy suddenly recovers, I guess. She stands up, opens her eyes, and says, “Oh, shit, my mother. She can’t see me like this. She’ll kill me.” She turns and sees me, looking like she had forgotten I was there. “Jane, go answer the door. Whatever you do, keep my mother from coming in here.”
I leave the bathroom and stand in the bedroom. What’s Cindy talking about? Her mother’s not here. I’m standing there for almost a minute, and then there’s a knocking at the bedroom door. I go to open it. It’s Mrs. Van Schacht. “Jane, is everything all right? I thought I heard something breaking.”
Donna and I used to cover for each other, so I know what to say. “It’s okay, Mrs. Van Schacht. Cindy and I were in the bathroom talking about female things and Cindy was making a joke and knocked over the wastebasket.”
Every mom wants to know when their daughter’s talking about “female things,” but none will ever dare to ask for details. Mrs. Van Schacht smiles and replies, “Female things, eh? Well, I’ve been a female for a while, so if you two need advice, let me know.” And with that she gives me a wink and leaves. I close the door behind her.
I go back to the bathroom to see Cindy pouring another prescription down the toilet. She looks up at me. Her face and eyes look red, and I can still see the streaks from her tears. But she looks at me as if she’s back to normal and says, “It’s okay, it’s expired. I really should have cleaned out the old pills before this.”
“Cindy,” I remonstrate.
Cindy drops her eyes so she isn’t looking at me. “You want to go home?”
I’m a bit wound up, so I reply, “No, I want to know who your fucking drug dealer is, because if I can get drugs like this, I can make a fortune selling them back in Boston.” I close the toilet lid and sit down on it. “Talk to me, dammit. What is this shit?”
Cindy looks at me, curious. “You really could get good money for some of this stuff?” she asks.
I nod. “The oxycontin alone would pay for the trip. Though I’m disappointed that you don’t seem to have any Viagra.”
Cindy shrugs. “Missed opportunity.” She walks past me into her bedroom. I follow. She’s sitting on the bed. I go and sit beside her.
Cindy doesn’t look at me. She stares straight ahead. Her face is tense, and judging from her posture, so is her whole body. “You want to know what it’s all about?”
My own emotions are ping-ponging all over the place. Yeah, I want to know. Somehow I’ve gone from “not prying” to “tell me your secrets.” But I’m not sure you’re ready to tell, or that I deserve the confidence, Cindy. So I go slow. “If you can talk about it, yeah.”
Cindy nods, still not looking at me. “When I was seven, I told my mother I was hearing voices in my head. She took me to see a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist prescribed some pills. Since then, I’ve averaged six new prescriptions a year. Eight prescriptions had no discernible effect on me. Fourteen had severe side effects. The rest . . .” She turns to look at me. “The only ones that stop the voices make me stupid or sleepy or both.”
“You still get voices, then.”
“Oh, yeah, on and off.” She gives me a weak smile. “It’s not like they’re telling me to go out and kill people or anything like that, Jane. They just tell me things.” She pauses as if trying to remember. “Like knowing you’d opened the medicine cabinet, or that my mother was coming up to check up on me. Stuff like that.” Her voice became more urgent. “Jane, you know how I am at school, quiet and then talking a storm up?”
“Yeah, I remember telling you so and that you should get an alarm. I recall what happened next.”
Cindy laughs a little. “Yeah, well that’s to keep the voices away. If I make my mind very still, or if I’m talking a lot, I don’t hear the voices.”
I shake my head. “I don’t understand, Cindy. If you’ve got these voices under control, why all the drugs?”
“Because everyone in my family still thinks there’s something wrong with me. And so do the psychiatrists. Don’t you see? Unless I act ‘normal,’ they think there’s something wrong with me. But if I act normal, the voices become too distracting. I can’t win.”
There’s something wrong about this. And then I realize something. “But just now, while we’ve been sitting here talking and watching the movie, you’ve been acting normal. I haven’t had to duck to avoid you swinging your arms around at all.” I have to smile a bit.
Cindy smiles a bit, too. “Yeah, that’s because you’re here. I noticed that the first day we sat together at lunch. The voices, they get weaker, and they feel kinder, too, when you’re around. That’s why I made my mother invite you over, Cindy. I missed you. And I missed how you make me feel better, too.” Cindy’s face changes from a smile to a pleading look on her face as she leans forward and wraps me in a hug. She whispers in my ear, “Please, please stay with me tonight, Jane. I’ll pay you if you want. You can take all the drugs you want, too.” She releases me and drops her head, looking down at the covers. “But if you want to go home, I’ll understand.” Bitterness creeps into her voice again. “Who wants to be friends with a crazy person?”
I’ve known some definitely crazy people. And what Cindy’s got sounds to me like a form of schizophrenia. But so what? It’s not like she’s not fun to talk to. And she’s not violent. Okay, so she kicked Tom Kelly off his feet and he got a concussion. But he was asking for it. On that basis, I’m crazy, too. And that gives me an idea.
“Well, Cindy,” I say to her, “I’ll stay on two conditions. First, answer me a few questions. You ever hurt anybody because of these voices?”
She looks up at me. “No, never.”
“Are the Toms crazy, Cindy?”
She lifts her eyebrows, looks up at the ceiling. “Stupid, yes. Jerks, yes. Crazy, no.”
“You tell me you’re crazy but you’d never hurt me, while the Toms are not crazy but they do hurt people. Who’s really the crazy ones there, Cindy?”
That gets her to smile. She reaches out and gives me another hug. When she sits back, I can see she’s blinking back tears.
So I proceed. “That was the first condition. Now the second condition. You got any chocolate around here? After an experience like this, I think chocolate is required.”
Cindy puckers her lips before answering. “Well . . . I think I can find some. But I have one condition of my own.”
Cindy smiles broadly as she asks, “Could you repeat that speech you gave in the cafeteria about Tom Smith’s sex life? It was hilarious.”
End of chapter six
(So now it’s not Jane’s problems, but her friend’s. To quote Jane, “Sheesh!” On the other hand, I feel like chocolate, too. Maybe I rustle up some between now and the next chapter.)