Friday, April 21, 2017

Our Song'll Go On by Scott Bassis

Nineteen year old art student Kristin struggles with the scars of having been sexually abused as a child, and expresses her anger with a painting she fears is too bold for her professors; by Scott Bassis.

"Just the lyrics keep changin.'

We'll dance on too,

Duel with nimble moves,

Engage and defend, but no one'll win."

Feeling a tap on her shoulder, Kristin jumps. She pulls out her earbuds.

"Who are you listening to?" Professor O'Neil smiles the same fake smile she has when she ruthlessly tears down her students' work. Kristin was spared today. During class, Professor O'Neil was speechless each time she passed Kristin's piece.

"Lori Drake," Kristin mumbles.

"Never heard of her. Why don't you ever connect your music to the speaker? You always seem so into it after class ends."

Kristin shrugs. If she were to play Lori Drake for everyone, she wouldn't be able to enjoy it. She would only be thinking how no one else understands what Lori is really saying. "Our Song'll Go On," for example, might sound to some ears like a torch song of lost love. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. It's about Lori's struggle with the ongoing effects of childhood sexual abuse.

Professor O'Neil squints at Kristin's piece, feigning a look of thoughtfulness. Her genuine reaction came two hours earlier, when she walked into the studio for the first time since spring break: open-mouthed shock. Kristin spent her spring break here, painting from dawn to dusk, despite the peril it put her in.

"Your technique is always excellent, and it's definitely... striking, if a bit theatrical. You're not the first student to paint herself topless, you know. I had one a few years ago. She used a photo. I assume you didn't."

Kristin shakes her head, no.

"The administration objected to it. I was actually questioned by Dean Gutin! The nude form is possibly the most iconic image in art. I have no problem with it, but..." Professor O'Neil is wasting her breath. Kristin isn't going to change a thing. It's about the injustice being done to her now, how the world turned against her, when it had already turned a blind eye to her torture at seven, eight and nine.

"It's obvious to me that you're suffering from an eating disorder."

"Huh?"

"Sorry if I've overstepped my bounds. Maybe you've elongated your figure, or exaggerated your bones' contours, but I've thought so for a while. You're such a beautiful girl. You'd be more beautiful at a healthy weight." Professor O'Neil touches her shoulder. Kristin flinches, as she does whenever anyone touches her. It's true, she is anorexic, for the same reason she doesn't like to be touched, and the same reason she hates when anyone pretends to care about her. Professor O'Neil lingers momentarily with a phony look of concern before returning to her office. Kristin puts her earbuds back in.

As she turns her attention back to the singed hair of the burned plastic baby doll suckling her breast, she notices her ribcage has grown more prominent as of late. It isn't surprising considering the stress she's under. She thinks, if only Professor O'Neil knew, she would see that anorexia is the least of her problems. But then, she realizes Professor O'Neil must know.

The light in Professor O'Neil's office goes out.

"I'm here if you need to talk!" Professor O'Neil shouts before leaving.

The instant Professor O'Neil shuts the door to the studio, Kristin's knees buckle. With her legs stretched out, she sits weeping beside the palette stool. Why can't they leave her alone? She's experienced more suffering in her nineteen years than anyone should in a lifetime. The nightmares continued long after Derrick left. A butcher chopped up her mother with a cleaver. An old woman handed her a paper bag with a bloody fetus inside. A mugger slashed open her throat, then made off with all she had. Every night for a decade, a new horror awaited her.

Grabbing the palette stool for support, she pulls herself up. There's no use in crying. It only gives them satisfaction. She has to keep on going like Lori Drake says, and Tim said too.

"They won't leave you alone either," she thinks bitterly, recalling Tim's recent troubles. Three weeks ago, some jerk hacked into his Facebook account and posted a coming out message as a prank. His password must have been changed on him. As of this morning, it was still up.

The message is full of clich├ęs: It's a huge weight off his chest. He finally accepts himself. The shame nearly drove him to end his own life. To her dismay, people actually believe it. "So proud of you, Cuz," Madison wrote. At last count, it got fourteen likes. Tim only has eleven friends. That's still more than Kristin has. She only has one.



Kristin met Tim in March of last year, but Madison mentioned him months earlier, soon after they first became roommates. "You remind me of my English cousin, Tim. He's so shy, not like me." Kristin only half-listened as Madison moved on to an anecdote illustrating how amusingly, not obnoxiously, brazen she was. She wondered if Madison's cousin was really like herself.

Kristin couldn't carry on a simple conversation with another person. Looking people in the eyes was like trying to stare at the sun. She was in awe of how proficient others were at these skills, others much dumber and uglier than herself. Not only was she a straight "A" student, she was pretty and skinny enough to be a model. Nonetheless, she lived in lonely despair, incessantly daydreaming of the things denied her which everyone else took for granted. Art was all she had. It had kept her going since she was seven.

Despite the innumerable remarks Madison made between September and March, Kristin never forgot the one about Tim. If he was really as shy as she was, it could only mean someone had hurt him in the same way Derrick had hurt her. Most with her past, she had gathered from TV, turned into prostitutes. Though she wasn't sure that life was any worse, it wasn't hers. She felt like an alien, the only one of her kind. Her curiosity about Tim intensified when she learned he was coming to visit.

"My cousin Tim'll be here next week. He's shy, English. He's thinking of going to Princeton Law, so he's staying here to see the campus since it's close. You don't mind, right? He'll sleep on the floor. Don't worry: he's nice, not like me. Kidding. I think I'm nice, even if Beth doesn't. She's been such a bitch since I beat her out for Ophelia and she had to play Gertrude..." Madison went on and on with no encouragement. It was certainly ironic that the quietest girl on campus was thrown together with one who never shut up.

Kristin wanted to ask Madison if she still thought Tim was as shy as she was, now that she knew Kristin didn't even say "hello" to their neighbors in the hall. Once Madison finally paused to catch her breath, Kristin tried to speak.

The words eluded her. She closed her mouth. She gazed down hopelessly. It would come out wrong. It always did.

"He's cute. That's what you want to know, right?"

"No!" She wanted to know if it was really possible that someone else was trapped in the same hell she was. Yet, her blushing cheeks gave away that she had also been wondering if he was cute.

As an artist of some talent, Kristin could subtly adjust Madison's awkward features to create a reasonably attractive male semblance. Since Tim was as shy as she was, her lack of social skills wouldn't matter. They would marry and have kids without having to speak so much as "good morning" to each other. She could get used to England. The rain didn't bother her. She would spend most days inside making art. When the skies were clear, she would try her hand at depicting the lovely moors.

She made sure to be at the dorm for Tim's arrival Wednesday evening. She usually studied at the library, and immediately remembered why. Madison removed her phone from her mouth only to send the occasional text, pontificating aloud on everything from Zac Efron's sexuality to the gross hangnail on her toe. Upon hearing a knock on the door, Kristin jumped to her feet, tossing her textbook aside.

"My cousin's here. He's British, cute, but so shy. You should stop by after..." Madison gave no indication that at any point she would stop to open the door. Kristin stood over her, glaring to no avail. Eventually, there was a second knock. Madison was busy whining how Beth ever won the title role in the spring production of Antigone.

"Can you get it?" Madison said. Kristin walked to the door. She took a deep breath. Her shaking hand jangled the doorknob as she turned it.

Tim was more than cute. He was beautiful. He was tall, and so thin that his proportions seemed that of a cast silhouette. His hair was sandy blond. His eyes were a pale, sky blue. Kristin's hair was almost the same color, only a bit lighter. Her eyes were blue too, except darker, like the ocean. She envisioned them walking down the street holding hands. It looked right. People would think they belonged together, were made for each other.

"Hello, you must be Maddy's flatmate. Tim. Nice to meet you." He extended his hand. Kristin stared at it with baffled dismay, as if it were a dead mouse a cat dropped in front of her.

"Tim! It's been so long!" Finally hanging up, Madison gave him a hearty hug.

"Yes, that's right, five years ago, at Carrie's wedding," Tim grinned.

In but a few seconds, Kristin's hopes were decimated. Tim looked into her eyes and into Madison's eyes. He didn't hunch over, mumbling into his clavicle. He said the right things, in the right tone, in a charming accent that made him sound even more eloquent. Tears welled in her eyes. She faked a sneeze; it was allergy season. Although she couldn't recall the exact age she first realized she was crazy, it was long enough ago that she had become adept at hiding it.

"Excuse me."

"Oh, right! Carrie's wedding! My first sip of champagne! I was so embarrassed when my dress..."

"God bless you." Tim cut Madison off.

"Thanks," Kristin mumbled.

Suddenly, his eyes flashed at her sharply. She didn't know what she had done. She felt terrified he could somehow read her thoughts, and knew how she had longed for him, believing crazily, on the basis of a single, offhand comment six months ago, that they were kindred souls.

"I have to go," Kristin murmured. Madison shrugged, used to her by now. Kristin put on her sneakers. She grabbed her sweater from the chair. All the while, Tim's eyes remained fixed on her. Now, she was certain he could tell she was crazy. She was going to cry, she could feel it. She was going to bawl, and a million sneezes wouldn't cover it up.

"Nice to meet you, Madison's flat-mate," he snapped as she scurried out.

"She doesn't mean to be rude. She's just shy. She's the sweetest girl." Kristin heard Madison say, lingering outside the door. She felt humiliated, and more desolate than ever. And yet, from such a disastrous start something so beautiful developed.



It calms her to think about Tim. She's able to get back to her art and forget all about lying, phony Professor O'Neil. There's a knock on the door. She grimaces. But for all she knows, it might be Tim, at last ready to confess his feelings for her. She thinks, wouldn't it be funny if that coming out nonsense on Facebook was only to trick her so she wouldn't be expecting it? Then, she thinks, it wouldn't be funny, because she remembers how she wept. Still, she would forgive him.

Opening the door, she can't help frowning, though it isn't Professor Cruz's fault for not being Tim. She wonders what he's doing here. She yanks out her earbuds.

"Hi, Kristin. How're you? Enjoying painting as much as printmaking?"

"I'm good, thanks. It's completely different, but I love them both. I'd never be able to choose," she laughs. "How are you?"

"I'm fine. That's the thing about art, you don't have to choose. I've got a feeling you'd excel at everything. Have you seen Jill?"

Jill is Professor O'Neil. She never knew Professor O'Neil and Professor Cruz were friends. In fact, she stayed late after every class since January, and neither Professor Cruz, nor any other professor ever came looking for Professor O'Neil.

"She left twenty minutes ago," Kristin says, playing along. Professor Cruz doesn't press her to come inside. He must be able to tell she isn't buying it.

"Thanks, I'll try texting her." While he pretends to search his phone for Professor O'Neil's number, Kristin slides the door closed. She locks it.

"My God!" she laughs. Everyone has a price, even Professor Cruz. But nothing shocks her anymore after what happened with her mother before spring break.

She isn't sure what finally prompted her to tell her mother about Derrick. She hadn't seen the point before. He was long gone, off even Google's radar. In an indirect way, it probably had to do with Tim's "coming out" on Facebook.

At first, she was actually gullible enough to believe Tim's post was true. When he stayed in England for law school, she was hurt, but she realized it was for the best. She was still honing her social skills, and she wanted to be ready the next time she saw him. Being gay was different. It meant they had no future together. It meant he never really loved her to begin with.

She cried in bursts every hour. She couldn't make it through her classes without bolting to the ladies' room. She was in need of comfort, someone to tell her everything would be all right. When her mother called to ask what bus she would take to Camden in the morning, she hardly spoke a sentence before collapsing into tears and divulging the secret she had kept for more than half her life.

"I would have known," was her mother's abrupt response.

She could barely breathe, let alone speak. Upon hanging up, a strange sensation came over her. It felt as if she were floating above herself, as if the chains anchoring her down suddenly broke. She got a hold of herself in seconds. Her tears dried, and she saw with a new clarity.

Obviously, someone got to her mother. There was someone powerful, someone in the government, who didn't want what happened to her to be made public. For the remainder of the day, she grappled with why. Derrick was nobody. He wasn't even on Google.

Coming home from the studio at night, she spotted the scaffold over Morrow Concert Hall. That reminded her of Derrick's occupation: construction. Though she couldn't recall the exact name of the company he worked for, she knew where it was located. With that, she found it on Google. It wasn't just on Google Maps or reviewed on Yelp; it was in the Camden Star Herald, The Camden Courier and even the Philadelphia Inquirer, because two years ago it was shut down following accusations of money laundering.

It must happen all the time: the government protecting a psychopath in exchange for his testimony. They couldn't let it get out, of course, so they got to her mother. They must have gotten to all the parents of all the children whose lives Derrick destroyed over the years.

She never caught the bus to Camden. She couldn't stand to look at her mother, knowing how she sold her out. But neither could she place her in harm's way. Once they realize she won't shut up because her mother pretends not to believe her, Plan B surely involves a military-trained sniper.

She's being watched, obviously: twenty-four/seven. In the studio, the cameras are hidden in the overhead light fixtures. That was how the painting began, as a kind of "fuck you" to the agents surveilling her. She didn't just create the most disturbing image her mind could conjure; she also forced them to stare upon the body their crony had repeatedly violated.

The painting scares them, especially with the semi-annual student exhibit next month. A picture is worth a thousand words, and this one is all about what their star witness did to a little girl of seven, eight and nine. Censuring it for its nudity would backfire in their faces. The feminists at Womyn House would be up in arms, and they take to the campus streets so often, it's a wonder they ever make it to class. Better to beat the PC crowd at their own game, claim it promotes an unhealthy body image.

First, they had Professor O'Neil express concern over how thin she made herself look. Next, Professor Cruz was supposed to talk her into painting on clothes, perhaps a nice, floral dress for spring, as well as eschewing the other controversial elements. It doesn't matter if Dean Gutin herself deigns to pay her a visit; she won't alter a single feather atop her blood-soaked headdress. The kicker is the title, which she came up with last week, while painting the cotton stuffing from the torn open teddy bear clutched in her fist: "Mangled by Derrick Nazwiski."

"Mangled" is a good description for what Derrick did to her. He didn't kill her, but there wasn't a part of her he left intact. He robbed her of her voice and her sanity. He filled her nights with grotesque horrors. He made her recoil from human contact. "Mangled by Derrick Nazwiski," the feds will love that. Of course, she knows they'll probably destroy it before she ever finishes.

Once she puts the final touches on the warped petals of the crushed rose clenched in her teeth, she glances at the wall clock. Sociology's in fifteen minutes. She rinses her brushes off in the sink. She covers her palette with Saran wrap. She puts her brushes and oils back into her art bin. Blocking the vantage point of the light fixtures, she reaches into the bottom of the art bin. She removes the blade knife used for cutting canvas. She slips it into her jeans pocket.

She braces herself before stepping outside. They can get to anyone, which means everyone is an enemy. She turns the sound up on her iPod. Despite the danger she's in, the music makes her feel safe. Sometimes, she feels like it's just she and Lori Drake against the world.

Tim is with her too, she reminds herself. From the very beginning, he was looking out for her. Of course, she despised him until she realized that.



She held in her tears all the way to the studio, but broke down sobbing the second she walked inside. She didn't even turn on the lights. She sat in the dark, her forehead to her knees, crouched against the wall. She picked herself up after a few minutes. She had work to do. She wasn't satisfied with her woodcut.

Once she started to carve into the wood, even her sniffling tapered off. This wasn't the first time she thought she had fallen in love. This semester alone, there were three others she was sure she would marry: one who watched her in Wade Dining Hall, one in Medieval History, and Professor Baker, until she decided it would be wrong since he already had a wife.

Unlike Tim, the others had expressed an interest in her with pining looks, or, in the case of Professor Baker, suggesting she visit his office to further discuss her most recent paper. She hadn't even known what Tim looked like before deciding they were meant to be together. She was more embarrassed than heartbroken, and felt completely over him by the time she cleaned up.

"Hi, Kristin," Tim said when she came back. Madison stopped talking mid-sentence, looking uneasy. Kristin waved to him.

"I said 'hi,'" he said.

She froze. She knew he had to be a cruel person to take pleasure in making her feel so pathetic.

"Hello!" she spit out, as if it was a putrid food she had been forced to take a bite from.

"How was your evening?" he asked, unsatisfied. However, she'd had enough of his mockery.

"Fine." Grabbing the first textbook she saw on the shelf, she was out the door before she'd even had the chance to shut it.

She returned to an empty dorm room around midnight, four chapters ahead in The Basics of Neurology. Shortly after falling asleep, she was stirred awake by the sound of Madison's voice. Madison didn't do whispers. Tim and Madison soon left to get ready for bed.

Tim came back from the bathroom first. He walked over. Opening her eyes a crack, she made out his form standing above her. He stared with, what through her lashes seemed, a quizzical expression. She thought, he must be trying to tell if she was faking. He moved upon hearing Madison's jabber outside.

She fell back asleep expecting he would ignore her tomorrow. When at seven years old she had become suddenly taciturn, her mother, her teacher and her friends had tried making her talk too. It wasn't long before they gave up, seeing how much happier she was just left to herself.

"Good morning, Kristin," Tim said before she even smacked the snooze button. Madison groaned half-consciously, her first class not until nine.

"'Morning." She leapt up, grabbed her toiletry bag and towel and left to take a shower, forsaking ten minutes of sleep to get away from Tim ten minutes faster. When she came back in her towel, Tim was sitting at Madison's desk, flipping through a Princeton course catalogue.

"Shall I leave the room?" he asked.

"Please," she blushed.

After getting dressed, she stuffed enough study material into her backpack to keep her occupied until it was time for bed. She hurried so quickly past Tim standing in the hall, she didn't catch if he said, "See you later," or "See you soon."

Until the Sunday he left, her interaction with Tim was limited to the handful of pleasantries he pried out of her. Either he required little sleep or took long naps during the day, because he was always awake before she was and was still up when she returned at night.

"Sleep well?" Tim asked as soon as she opened her bleary eyes Sunday morning. He was repacking. Madison was watching TV. Madison had fallen into the pattern of preoccupying herself with something else whenever Tim started in on Kristin. She had never seen Madison so quiet as when all three of them were together.

"Yes, I did. And you?"

"Very well, thanks."

She grabbed her things and headed to the shower. When she came back he was folding a pair of jeans. He glanced up at her and smiled. He grabbed another pair.

"I have to get dressed," Kristin mumbled. Tim gazed at her blankly, pretending not to understand.

"Can you leave, please?" Her voice choked with tears. Of course she knew what she was supposed to say. She saw others do it. But it was so hard, in the moment, to speak the right words, to point her eyes in the right direction, not to panic, not to be overcome with despair because it was so easy for everyone else.

The tears rolled down, too suddenly and too many to conceal. Tim moved toward her with a look of concern. He stopped as her eyes flared at him. She would have scratched him with her nails if he got any closer. Keeping his hands up and several feet distance between them, he edged out the door.

She dressed as fast as she could. Madison appeared mesmerized by the television, perhaps because, for once, she wasn't talking over it.

"See you later." Although Kristin was annoyed with Madison, she still sympathized with the awkwardness of her position.

"See you, Kristin," Madison said, bemused.

She stormed past Tim. He went after her.

"Wait!" She heard him call as she raced down the stairs. She ran out of the building and halfway through the courtyard. Momentarily blocked by a game of tackle Frisbee, she gazed back at Clark dorm. Tim stood at the entrance, barefoot in his flannel pajamas. Their eyes met. Throwing a hand up in frustration, he darted back in, slamming the door behind him.



They come for her twenty minutes into class. The back door of the lecture hall creaks open and a middle-aged woman slinks in. Kristin doesn't know who she is, though she remembers seeing her around campus. She looks harmless, with frizzy, gray hair, wearing mom jeans and a frumpy, magenta blouse. As she makes her way to the front, Professor Wei's voice trails off.

She catches a murmur from one of her classmates: "It's Dean Gutin." Her stomach clenches. Professor O'Neil mentioned Dean Gutin wouldn't like her painting. That's no coincidence. Dean Gutin speaks briefly to Professor Wei. Professor Wei scans the classroom. His eyes settle on Kristin.

"Kristin, can you step outside with Dean Gutin, please?"

Her hands shake so wildly that her pen drops to the floor. She tries to stand, but her trembling knees won't lift her from the seat. The class is turned to her, staring with varying degrees of curiosity.

"Help me!" she wants to scream. She can't. No doubt, a sniper's rifle is aimed at her head right now. If the sniper misses, she won't be able to live with the death of an innocent on her conscience. She isn't like them. She was so stupid, choosing a seat two rows from the window.

She plays the music of Lori Drake in her mind, "Our song'll go on, just the lyrics keep changin'..." She hums it softly. This gives her the courage to stand. As she bends down for her backpack, she discretely pats her jeans pocket to reassure herself the blade knife is still there.

Dean Gutin walks back. She smiles at Kristin as they meet at the door. Kristin continues to hum, which prompts a peculiar look from Dean Gutin. She stops automatically. Though, seeing as she's moments from being executed, she could belt out "Ave Maria" for all it matters. An agent must be waiting outside the lecture hall. "Mangled by Derrick Nazwiski" proved her to be too much of a wild card. They can't risk letting her live.

No one is outside the door. She has some time.

"Hi, Kristin. I'm Connie Gutin, your dean. I don't believe we've met," Dean Gutin says. She shakes her head, no.

"I've tried calling you. Your mom says you don't own a cell. Is your dorm phone working? There's only a busy signal. You know, it can be fixed free of charge. Your RA will put in the request for you."

Kristin stares unresponsively. She isn't going to play this game. Dean Gutin knows very well she disconnected her phone last Monday upon realizing it was bugged by them.

"Your mom says she was expecting you home for spring break. She's called the administrative office repeatedly. We confirmed you've used your student ID, so we knew you were on campus. I also called your roommate's cell. She said you were asleep in bed when she came back last night. Family issues are complicated, but your mom cares..."

Kristin runs for it.

She considered brandishing the blade knife, but lost her nerve upon realizing she might be forced to use it. Taking the exit facing Calvin Field, she runs right between two colossal agents disguised as jocks. She keeps going, too terrified to look behind to see if they're chasing her. One of them was in her freshman biology class. It chills her to realize he was planted over a year and a half ago.

There has to be others: her roommate, obviously. Assigning roommates is the administration's task, and Dean Gutin is the government's primary liaison. If this plot goes back to freshman year, Madison is a plant too. Never shutting up could have been a ploy, so she would be too distracted to pick up on the signs. Then again, while "Madison" proved a better actress than her dorm room rehearsing would suggest, Meryl Streep couldn't have pulled that off for an entire year.

"Oh my God!"

She stops in her tracks: if Madison is a plant, it means Tim is too. It all makes sense now, why he didn't enroll in Princeton Law, when they would have been so close to each other, why he keeps his Facebook messages brotherly and brief, and why, just to make her think she's crazy, he announces he's gay.

She falls to her knees and weeps. It's the cruelest thing anyone's done to her since she was a girl. He was supposed to love her forever. Love was supposed to heal her, so she could know the wholeness she felt once, so briefly, so long ago. She pulls up fistfuls of grass and dirt. She opens up her palms. Without him she has nothing. She has no reason to live. She drops face down.

The sniper's got an easy shot. She's lying flat in the middle of Calvin Field, no one around for a good twenty yards. But she jumps up quickly. She can't say why, except that she always does. It's survivor's instinct. She slips the backpack off her shoulders, dead weight. Taking her student ID out from her pocket, she tosses it too. Dean Gutin unintentionally revealed it's how they've been tracking her. She runs for another minute before flinging her blade knife behind her. In nineteen years, she never hurt a soul. She isn't going to start now.

Upon leaving campus, she laughs aloud at the ease of her escape. They weren't expecting her to make a break for it. Everyone has always underestimated her: except Tim.

A bullet whizzes past her ear, lest she get too cocky. Since the sniper uses a silencer, no one on the sidewalk notices. Fortunately, the bullet strikes a wall or the pavement. She, herself, feels only a slight tingle, as if a leaf or twig landed on her.

She has to act fast. The police station is three blocks down Main Street. She remembers because it's next to Prism Art Supplies. It might seem like she's running straight into the arms of the enemy. But while the police are under government authority, they're still men with an ingrained reflex to protect an innocent in danger. For the moment, it's her best hope.

Half a block away, her thoughts again turn to Tim.

"I hate you," she thinks. No betrayal, not even her mother's, stings as deeply as his. She hates him because even now she loves him. He was a lie, but such a beautiful one. For a year, she felt less alone than she had her entire life. She doesn't know if she can survive without the hope he gives. She only knows she has to.

"They're trying to kill me!" she screams.

An officer stands up and rushes out from the booth. A second picks up the phone. She runs for the door the officer swung open.

"Hey!" Blocking the door, the officer grabs her arm. She doesn't understand. Didn't he hear her?

"Who?" another officer asks, no less brusque. Suddenly, there are five officers surrounding her. If she says, "the government," they'll think she's a criminal. She can say "a sniper." She doesn't even have to let on that she knows why he's shooting at her. Better yet, she can just say, "someone with a gun."

"Have you taken drugs?" an officer asks. More arrive. There's about a dozen now.

She shakes her head, no. An officer tells her to put her hands against the wall. She tenses up, thinking of the blade knife until she remembers she discarded it. Frisking her, all he finds is her iPod.

"Who is trying to kill you?" an officer asks. Suddenly, she isn't sure a sniper is shooting at her. She supposes it could have been a twig or a leaf. She wishes she could take back coming here. She wonders how she can get away. Still, she thinks there could be a sniper outside, and he really might kill her.

"No one," she says, prompting unanimous looks of suspicion.

"I don't know," she amends.

"Call an ambulance," an officer who just arrived says. Middle-aged and wearing a peaked cap, she assumes he's the captain. He swiftly walks away.

When she makes it into the ambulance bullet-free, she figures she must have been wrong about the sniper. Dean Gutin might have been telling the truth. She seems more the type to be planting tulips than agents of espionage. Professor Cruz showing up could have just been a coincidence. She lays on the gurney trying to sort out how much of it is real. Confident that Tim is real, she feels elated. She realizes they are kindred souls after all.



One positive to come from Tim's visit was all the progress she had made on her woodcut. Professor Cruz had warned her that a woodcut wasn't the same as an etching. Hers had become cluttered with too much detail. Fortunately, the nature of the medium let her cut away to a bolder, more powerful image. By the afternoon, not a superfluous splinter remained. Since she didn't know when Tim's flight was, she couldn't go back yet. To waste time, she played around with different colored inks on different colored sheets of paper.

There was a knock on the door just as she pressed the woodblock down with all her weight. It took a full minute for the ink to transfer properly. She considered not getting the door at all. She preferred being alone most of the time, but especially in the studio. Her conscience ultimately won out. She opened the door to see Tim walking away.

"Hi!" she called out. Like opening the door in the first place, allowing him the chance to apologize was the right thing to do. Turning around, he grinned. He walked back. She took out her earbuds.

"Who're you listening to?" he asked.

"No one," she said. Rather than criticize her inept response, he smirked.

"Sinead O'Connor," she admitted embarrassedly. Her mother was a fan of eighties female singer-songwriters. As a girl, she had connected to the sadness in their voices. Her favorite artists were popular before she was born: Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman, Indigo Girls and Sinead, the maddest and saddest of them all.

"She's good," he said. "You should hear Lori Drake. She's a bit of a train wreck as well, but she's got a stunning voice, and her lyrics are like poetry. Sometimes I feel like she understands me better than anyone."

"Never heard of her."

"She's new." He stared into space for a long moment. She wondered why the mention of this "Lori Drake" would make him so thoughtful. Her songs must have been even more plaintive than Suzanne Vega's.

"Maddy says your work's brilliant. Mind if I take a peek?" he asked.

"No," she led him to her work table where dozens of prints were strewn out to dry. He let out an astonished gasp.

"They're haunting," he remarked. He leaned over to examine them more closely.

"I like this one best. It conveys a great deal of emotion." He gazed down at one of her first efforts. She hadn't thought much of it; it was mostly a test to see how a pink moon would pop against a midnight blue sky. "I feel this way a lot too."

She was stunned by the break in his voice. Lifting his face, he revealed his glimmering eyes, and the deep sorrow he carried within. Without truly understanding, she still sensed that he never hated or judged her, and it wasn't anger she caused him to feel, but pain.

"I didn't mean to upset you. It's only that you remind me of how I used to be. No one helped me, and I went through some awful things before I realized I had to change. 'Sometimes, you won't see the truth 'til it's over and done. And sometimes, you don't see you 'til you see you in someone else.'" Wiping his tears with his sleeve, he let out a chuckle. "That's Lori Drake, 'Till You See You.' You really should listen to her."

She couldn't believe what she heard: his deft words, his somber voice, implying that, not long ago, he was just as pitiful as she was. She had to know who had hurt him. She had to know what his dreams were like. Above all, she had to know how he went from being like her to being himself. He stood.

"I've got a plane to catch," he said.

"But, you said, I mean, you were, how did you, um..." Her words fumbled out, fitful, sputtering and unclear, like water from a rusted pipe.

"Just keep on going, no matter what. I promise, you'll be fine," he said. She actually believed him, when not for one moment since she was seven-years-old had she ever believed she would be fine.

"Bye," she said. He gazed at her attentively. She looked like she had more to say. "It was a pleasure having you." She finally caught on.

"Take care." A delicate smile appeared on his face, then instantly crumbled. Again, he stared down at the print, the one he liked best. She should have given it to him. It would just end up stuffed in a portfolio in her closet. And she owed it to him. She owes him her life.

With a short wave, he rushed out. To beat the tears, she knew: she was in that position often enough herself. It confused her why anguish should overtake him now. At last, she was making the effort. Only after mulling over this encounter for weeks every day, and most nights in her bed, did it dawn on her it was because he fell in love with her.

Although she didn't yet recognize it as love, the flicker of optimism he gave followed her into sleep. She dreamt of a baby being born. At first, it was hers. Then, she was the doctor delivering it. The parents were Tim and a woman she never met, but knew to be Lori Drake. As she held the newborn up, her tiny feet kicking the air, she realized this new life was her own, and the gleaming, white room filled with joy. For the first time in a decade, she awoke smiling, not shaken.



Minutes after coming into the E.R., a nurse asks her to sign a form voluntarily committing herself to inpatient psychiatric care. It's then she realizes she's had a breakdown. Distraught, she signs unquestioningly. While she's waiting for a room, a doctor comes to visit her. He says he'll be her attending and will meet with her daily. She tells him of the abuse, and the years of nightmares and hardly speaking. He promises she'll finally be getting the help she needs. She isn't brought to the floor until after midnight.

An orderly shakes her awake in the morning. She says she has group therapy, and tells her to set her alarm before nine to make sure she isn't late tomorrow. For fifty painfully disillusioning minutes, the group shares their thoughts on the topic at hand, "Self-Esteem and What I Can Do to Feel Better about Myself." Only a handful of patients contribute. Most, like herself, are mopey and silent. Some are disruptive. Some seem imbecilic.

They force her to eat three meals a day, each with a can of Ensure. The orderlies are told to watch her, but one of them, Rob, is lazy. He leaves the tray and returns for it five minutes to an hour later. When it's Rob, she dumps the Ensure and most of her plate's contents down the toilet. Even so, she seems to get fatter by the hour. Her doctor says severe malnutrition can cause cognitive impairments, including delusional thinking. He seems to latch onto this theory, though it ignores Derrick and her prior struggles with reality.

They put her on medication, a little beige pill she takes twice daily. She doesn't know what it's supposed to do. As far as she can tell, it does nothing except make her lethargic and cause a tingling in her sinus area like she has a bad cold. Her doctor mentions that a therapist will work with her to find the right medication when she's released.

"Could a pill have helped me speak?" she asks. It's a rare rebellious moment, since "when she's released" is up to his discretion. Luckily, it goes by unnoticed.

"Maybe," her doctor says, thoughtfully. He's well-intentioned, but he's an idiot. She isn't, so she smiles and nods interestedly.

Her mother visits as often as her job allows. Aisha, her friend, takes over some of her shifts at the restaurant. Her mother brings pencils and a new sketchpad, which is a nice gesture, even if she's done so many drawings since coming in, she's starting to wish for a sociology paper to break the monotony. Her mother doesn't mention the "D" word. Kristin doesn't want to discuss it now anyway. She enjoys the distraction of hearing about the crazy customers and Luka, the Yorkie her mother adopted soon after Kristin went off to college.

A week in, the doctor grants her two privileges for good behavior. Her iPod, confiscated on her arrival, is returned to her. He says a nurse has volunteered to let her borrow her charger whenever she needs it. And, at three-thirty each day, for twenty minutes she's given access to a PC in a vacant office one flight down.

The first day, she's escorted down by Marisol, who stares over her shoulder the whole time keeping track of each key stroke. She's afraid to do anything but surf the news sites. The next day, it's Rob. He tells her he'll be back before they even step off the elevator. He continues down to the lobby. As soon as she sits at the desk, she signs into Facebook.

For a few minutes, she simply stares at the profile photo of her only friend. Tim is handsome in that picture. He has a gentle smirk. It reminds her of the one he gave in the print studio when she said she was listening to "no one." She likes his hair at that length. Sometimes, he gets a crew cut that makes him appear gaunt. His eyes look sad. They always do, in each picture. She doesn't think it means he's sad all the time, but rather that the joy he feels never completely covers his pain.

She hasn't noticed it before, but the sadness in Tim's eyes seems to fade, just a little, with each new photo he adds: in front of Big Ben on New Year's, at a house party at UCL, posing with his tennis racket and in the latest one, as he dances in a club with a male friend.

"Disappointed, sure. But you were here for me when nobody else was. You taught me to speak. You gave me my first good dream. You introduced me to Lori Drake. I always remember what you said, to keep on going, and it gets me through everything. It's only fair that I'm there for you. You're beautiful in every way and whoever gets you will be the luckest guy in the world." As soon as she hits post, she cringes. She's such an idiot: "Luckest."

"Time's up," Rob says, waltzing into the room reeking of cigarettes. "You didn't do something crazy, did you?" he asks in utter seriousness. She shakes her head, no, utterly serious too. In fact, it just might be the sanest thing she's ever done.

Due to Rob's negligence, she's late for her afternoon session. It's the one occasion she would have actually cared, though she's missed little except the therapist's self-introduction.

"Hi, I'm Debbie. What's your name?" she says as Kristin walks in. She's young, in her early to mid-thirties, heavyset with short hair.

"Kristin, nice to meet you."

"Help yourself to a slab." She gestures to the modeling clay on the chair. Four tables have been arranged in a rectangle and lined with newspaper. Kristin has always been intrigued by sculpture. She wanted to enroll in a class last term, but chose painting instead since the times conflicted.

A wave of euphoria comes over her the instant she feels the clay's cool, pliant surface. Too excited to give it much thought, she molds the form most familiar to her.

"Wow, that's you!" the patient beside her exclaims. Others glance over, letting out oohs and ahs. Debbie stops working on her own piece to walk over for a better look. She stands over Kristin, watching the movements of her hands. She walks back without comment. Kristin finds the attention irritating. She's always preferred doing art alone.

Much too quickly, Debbie announces it's time to clean up. Kristin ruefully drops her hands. Her first piece is finished, but she's just begun a second.

"Kristin, you mind sticking around?" Debbie says. Kristin continues sculpting. Once everyone leaves, Debbie removes a wad of folders from her tote and sits down at the desk. She looks over at Kristin.

"You can stay, if you'd like. I'll be here for a bit," she smiles.

"Thanks," Kristin says. Nearly an hour later, Debbie stands.

"I've got another class in Trenton, but before I leave, I'm going to recommend to your attending that you get free access to this room and my supplies. Think of it as your makeshift studio. There's clay, watercolors, pastels and charcoals in the closet. Creative expression always has a healing influence. But for some, I believe it's absolutely essential for survival." After cramming the folders back into her tote, she heads out. She stops at the door.

"Remember to clean up," she winks. She closes the door behind her.

Kristin grins in delight. There's only one thing missing. Fortunately, her room is just down the hall. She sneaks out and sneaks back in with her iPod in hand. No one stops her, though she isn't seen by anyone not heavily medicated. Debbie's right that she needs art to survive. She doesn't need much else, except Lori Drake and to know Tim's doing fine. She puts in her earbuds. She presses play.

"It can be found in many versions,

Sung different ways, in various keys."

She listens to other singers besides Lori Drake. Yet, she's her favorite to play in the studio. The music always seems to fit her piece, as if she's doing the artwork for the album's cover.

"But for us bent upon hangin' on,

Our songs sound pretty much the same."

6 comments:

  1. A faithful exploration of the nature of abuse and the resulting pain and trauma that shifts realities into terrifying zones. Thank you, Ceinwen

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  2. I found Kristen's journey - seesawing between paranoia and just plain awkwardness - a compulsive and frightening one. As a one time art student I was fascinated by her art activities - particularly to the point where she uses it to demonstrate her pain to her 'persecutors'. I was a little unsure as to whether the art had been assigned to her as therapy for her condition or whether it was her choice of vocation.
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  3. Kristin sorry! While I'm at it I also like the switches from past to present tense - very effective.
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    1. Thanks for commenting. Art helps her cope with her pain, and it's also her vocation. I imagine her future as a renowned artist of very Frida Kahlo-like pieces.

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  4. Thanks for Frida Kahlo, Scott. I wasn't hip to her work but thanks to you I am now!I'd been carrying images of the pictures of Paula Rego when I was reading, the two painters do share common ground.
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