Published in character i.
The police officer is worried less about my green dress and more about the blood smeared across my face.
“It’s fake blood,” I explain, rubbing a hand across my unshaven chin. “I needed it for a play.”
“What play?” asks Sergeant Lowe.
“A bunch of my buddies and I figured we’d put on a community theatre performance of My Fair Lady. We didn’t have any women to play Eliza Doolittle, so I had to play the part in drag.”
“I don’t think there’s any blood in My Fair Lady.”
I cross my arms and look sadly at him. “Maybe not on Broadway. We prefer the rare, unedited version of it.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of such a thing.”
“Then you’re really missing out.”
“Okay…let’s try to get this straight…you put on a green prom dress and smeared blood across your face.”
“Right…fake blood. Then you walked down Main Street at 11:30 at night while shouting something about the rain in Spain.”
“Singing, not shouting,” I snap.
“Come on Evan, kick his ass,” says my friend from across the room. Percy leans against the far wall, his fists clenched. “We can take him.”
I don’t say anything back to Percy. I just flip him the bird, disguising it by scratching my chin with my middle finger. A fat lot of good that traitor has done me so far. He hasn’t even tried speaking up in my defense.
“Sorry about my tone of voice there,” I say. “I’m just getting a little irritable. My dress keeps riding up on me.”
Lowe continues without acknowledging me. “You walked down the street singing. That’s when you came across Mrs. Goldstein.”
“Yes. I figured she might make a better Eliza than me. I asked her if she was interested and showed her my prop knife. Then she started screaming bloody murder.”
“Evan, that wasn’t a prop knife. You were waving around a eight-inch long stainless steel kitchen knife. You could have killed someone with it.”
“It wasn’t a real knife,” I insist. “I know it looks authentic, but it’s spring-loaded. My friend picked it out for the play. Tell him, Percy.”
Lowe follows my gesture toward Percy and gives him a blank stare. My short red-haired friend just shrugs his shoulders and rolls his eyes. He’s a mouthy little prick, but he turns into a church mouse when it comes to actually confronting an authority figure.
“Well, we seem to have things pretty well straightened out,” says Lowe. “There’s just one more thing, Evan…do you have a legal guardian?”
“No. I’m nineteen. I’ve lived on my own for a year and a half now.”
Lowe frowns and looks at his paperwork. “That’s what I was afraid of. I’m going to have to call Mental Health to take care of you for the night.”
“That’s really not necessary,” I start to protest. “I—”
“Evan, I need you to calm down, or there’s going to be trouble.”
I slump in my chair and put a hand on my forehead, rubbing the dried red gel into my palm. Across the room, Percy clears his throat.
“Well, I’d better get going,” he tells me.
Then he walks through the wall.
I really hate it when he does that.
The assholes who pick me up from the police station call my destination a hospital. I know the truth. They lock me behind a steel door and show me to my room for the night – a carpeted jail. The cell holds a single bed, a television that’s been bolted into the wall, and a remote control with only five buttons on it. The light switch activates fluorescent bulbs on the ceiling that hide behind a wire cage, preventing me from shattering them and touching my tongue to the wires if Percy dares me to do it. The door locks from the outside, so only psychiatrists and security personnel have access to my room.
I have approximately 48 hours to spend in the furnished cell reserved for me. The doctors will try to contact my family, only to find out that my parents died eight years ago. They’ll check my case file and find out that I’ve gone off my meds before. Then they’ll spend most of tomorrow passing me between therapists and case workers before deciding whether I’m dangerous or not. If I’m lucky, they’ll assign me outpatient privileges and make me promise to keep taking my pills this time. If I’m not, they’ll lock me away somewhere else and I won’t get out for a very long time.
They try to explain to me why I’m here. Men in white coats tell me that Percy isn’t real. They try to give me criteria to tell the difference between hallucination and reality. They look like walking dreams to me. I bet if I reached my hand out, it would go right through them. They tell me Percy isn’t real, but where does that leave them?
They ask me if I need anything before they lock me up for the night. I ask them for a kumquat.
“We only have a tangerine,” says an orderly after fifteen minutes of searching the cafeteria downstairs. “Will that do?” He hands me the fruit hopefully.
“This isn’t a tangerine. It’s a tangelo – a cross between a tangerine and a grapefruit,” I inform him dismally. He shifts awkwardly from foot to foot, ashamed that he’s failed the nutcase in front of him. “It’ll do,” I tell him in hopes of giving him peace of mind for the rest of the night.
The orderly leads me to my quarters and locks the door behind me, leaving me in a room that is gray on top of gray. I breathe in through my mouth and grimace at the smelly taste of disinfectant hanging in the air. My clothes itch, but I ignore them. The hospital lent me a disposable shirt and pair of pants, the fluffy blue-white kind that feel like a cross between tissue paper and a plastic bag. I guess it’s better than my dress, which hadn’t been properly dry-cleaned the night before.
I sit on the bed in silence. When I look to my right, I see Percy leaning casually against the wall.
“Sorry about how I acted at the police station,” he tells me. “You know how the cops are.”
I stare at him without saying anything for a moment.
“Wanna see a magic trick?” I ask him finally, trying to put the whole event behind us.
“Sure,” he says, straightening up. Whatever our differences, he always makes a good audience for me.
I hold the tangelo at eye level, and then turn my hand upside down so the fruit faces the floor. I snap my wrist back, hiding the tangelo from Percy for just a second. Then I flip my hand forward, showing that the fruit has disappeared.
“Where did it go?” asks Percy.
I spread my legs, revealing a large bulge in my crotch. As much as I’d prefer to say otherwise, it’s not natural. I shake my right leg and the tangelo rolls out from its hiding place in my pants, falling out the end of my disposable clothing’s blue plasper leg.
“Bravo!” cries Percy. He claps his hands together, and something snaps inside me.
“Don’t fucking clap you little shit!” My voice turns into something foreign – angry and poisonous and not me at all. I spring forward, muscles tensed. “If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t even be here.”
“Look, Ev, calm down. You’re in one of your moods again. It was a prop knife, I swear.”
My fist whispers to me, asking to enter the conversation. I grant it permission and take a swing at my cowardly friend’s head. Pain rings through the arm as Percy dodges out of the way and I end up punching the wall. We’ve had these fights before, and he’s always just a little too fast for me. I put my hand over my mouth to muffle the cry of pain. Percy takes that chance to dart through the bricks of the wall, disappearing from sight.
“I’ll be back when you chill out a bit, m’kay?”
With Percy gone, my body begins to shake and my mind starts to freeze. I shouldn’t have done that – I have to watch my temper. Getting angry opens up other cracks in my mind, letting loose a flood of other emotions. Each emotion has a voice that whispers to me, and they’re all a lot less friendly than Percy.
I sit on the bed, clasping my hands to my head. One of the orderlies knocks on the door.
“Evan? Were you talking to somebody?”
“N-no.” My tongue sweats as I speak. “Just…just thinking out loud.”
Footsteps retreat from the door, content that I’m safe and alone. But I’m never really alone, and the one person I want to see might not even exist.
I ignore the rat-tat-tat on my door the next morning. The knocking ignores my ignorance. Finally, one of the orderlies comes to the rescue.
“Let me get that for you,” says a voice muffled by the metal door. The lock clicks open and the orderly leaves, allowing for my visitor to speak with me in privacy. Even so, I’m sure the glorified male nurse is standing within earshot of my room.
I reach under my pillow and grab my tangelo as the door swings outward. I ignore my visitor, pretending she’s not there. Maybe she really isn’t. Instead, I focus on the fruit in my hand. It looks sad and bruised, its red-orange skin dull and cracked after a night acting as my backup stress squeezer. I hold it up to my eye and squeeze, watching a tiny spray of citric moisture leap from the pores of its skin. The flesh of the fruit has become too bruised and squashed to make for a good meal. In a few days it will become brown, moldy, and useless, left forgotten at the bottom of a compost heap.
“Evan? Are you up for a visitor?” comes a familiar female voice, unimpressed by my casual torture of the unwanted fruit.
I keep pressing into the fruit while I listen to the noises outside my room. The sounds of the homeless and the crazy serve as this floor’s orchestra. Down the hall I can hear muffled sobbing as someone cries into a pillow, a few supportive remarks from visiting family members who know they’ll be cruising the hospital’s gift shop in half an hour, and the rambling philosophy of macaroni artists.
“Evan? Are you okay?”
I take a deep breath and finally shift my attention to my visitor. I prop myself up on my elbows, clutching my abused tangelo protectively. Suzie is already standing next to my bed, dressed in a jean jacket and with her strawberry-blonde hair tied into a ponytail. She’s got the same thin build and plain features I do, except that she’s about three years older. And she puts on way too much foundation in the morning – a remnant from the times when she had something to hide. She sits at the foot of my bed. The mattress crunches downward like folding paper under the added weight.
I draw my legs toward me, hugging my knees to my chest. “You’re looking good, sis” I tell her. “Better than you did the last time I saw you, at least.”
Suzie’s hands fly up to her face, brushing her hair back and hiding the desperate smile that comes with the half-compliments I feed her. “I look like shit. I barely slept last night, then at six this morning I got a phone call from the police about you. I paced around the bus stop for almost an hour and a half waiting for the first run to take me up here.”
“You still don’t have a car, huh?”
“Michael has the car.”
“So you don’t have a car.”
Her hands fall to her side. One of them clenches into a tiny fist – thumb on the inside, showing that she doesn’t know how to throw a punch. “Not for the last six months, no.”
“Six months…has it really been that long since you threw him out?”
“I didn’t throw him out. We just had some problems. We’re in counseling now.”
“Is the therapist on your side or is he just trying to turn you back into a punching bag for Michael?”
She flushes. I glance at Suzie’s left hand. She’s still wearing her wedding ring.
“You wanna see a magic trick, sis?”
“I know all your tricks, Evan.”
“I’ve got a new one you haven’t seen yet.”
“Oh? Did Percy show you that one?”
“I had someone to practice in front of, yeah.”
“Is that why you went off your meds again? So you could have an audience?”
I shrug and decide to change the subject. “I haven’t seen you in a long time.”
“I’ve got a job. I’m going through therapy. I’m trying to piece together a life.”
“Am I keeping you from enjoying that life?”
Her eyes flutter shut and then open again. “No. It’s just…you need help, Evan. I’m not the healthiest person to be around. I can’t keep my own shit in order. How would you get better having me around more?”
I give the tangelo a brutal squeeze. Some of the juice underneath its peel bubbles to the surface.
“If you and Michael get back together, do you think you’ll have kids someday?”
A spark flashes under the fake blue of her contact lenses. “I’m too young to think about having kids.”
“You got married when you were my age. A lot of people would say you were too young to do something like that, too.”
She looks at my white knuckles against the sunset-colored skin of the fruit. “Can I see that?”
Wordlessly, I hand it to her. She sinks her burgundy-painted nails into the skin, peeling it open and putting the poor fruit out of its misery. “Are these any good?”
“If they’re fresh they are.”
The tangelo opens easily for her, as though it senses a kindred spirit. She pulls out a section of the pulped innards and pops it into her mouth.
“You should really eat these things instead of playing with them,” she says after swallowing. Her fingers start digging for more.
“I didn’t have any other props. I wanted to make something disappear.”
“Is that really what you wanted?”
I lean back, resting my head against the concrete wall. A tune comes unbidden to my lips, and I start singing along with it.
“All I want is a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air…”
“Evan! Evan!” Suzie’s voice turns hard, hammering me back into the conversation before I can get to the chorus. “Stop that! If you ever want to get better, you have to keep yourself here in the real world.”
“I’m always in the real world.”
Her mouth becomes a thin painted line as she shakes her head. “No, Evan, you aren’t. Do you know what the police told me? They said you threatened someone with a knife last night.”
“It was a prop knife. And I wasn’t threatening anyone with it.”
She puts another piece of battered fruit into her mouth. When she finishes chewing, I can already tell that I don’t want to hear what she’s about to say.
“You remember the car accident?”
“No, because it never happened.”
“It did, Evan. Mom and Dad had gone out to a party. Mom drank too much, as usual, and Dad drove her home despite the fact that he didn’t have his license.”
“Suzie, what’s the point of this story you keep telling me?”
“Halfway home, Dad started thinking that someone was following them. He started driving erratically and went off the road…”
“Nope, didn’t happen,” I snap. “I talked to Dad at breakfast the next morning. I remember it as clear as day.”
She looks at the floor and frowns. I don’t like her stories.
“He never got out of the ICU,” she whispers. Her voice picks up strength as she continues, building to more things I don’t want to hear. “We all thought Dad was kooky and harmless. I mean, he talked to himself once in a while, and he even thought a bowl of Spaghetti-Os made a good hat once. And I keep trying to convince the doctors and the police that you’re harmless, but they’re all afraid that you’ll end up hurting someone like Dad did. Now tell me, why do you keep going off your meds?”
“Six months since you and Michael split up, huh?”
“You know, it’s been just under six months since I saw you last. You convinced me to start taking my pills every day. After about a week, Percy stopped talking to me. Then you disappeared, too.”
“Don’t make me out to be the bad guy.” Her voice doesn’t have an accusatory tone to it. Instead her face, her eyes, and her slumped shoulders – everything except for her lips – says, “Please.”
“Dad used to talk with me every morning. When I started taking the medication, I had to go to his funeral. Without the pills, I have friends. I have a sister who wants to see me. But when I take the pills, everyone goes away.” I reach out to poke her cheek with my finger, but stop just short of touching her. “What’s the difference between you and Percy? How do I know you’re real, when the two of you always disappear at about the same time?”
She touches my finger and lowers my hand. I jump in surprise at the sensation.
“Don’t even joke about something like that,” she tells me. “Of course I’m real.”
“See, Percy says the same thing when I ask him.” I let my statement hover between us for a second. Then I take a deep breath and jump into dangerous territory. “I want to move in with you.”
She rocks backward and nearly falls off the bed. “You can’t…I’m not a good influence for you. I’m not healthy myself, you know.”
“I know. But we can help each other get better. I’ll make all my meetings and take whatever medication they tell me to. And I’ll help you remember what it’s like to have someone around who respects you.”
She looks at me with those plastic contact lenses of hers, reading the textbook written in the lines of my face and the blinking of my eyes. For my part, I just wonder why she wears contact lenses. She’s not near-sighted, and she never hated the color of her eyes when we were kids.
“I’ll think about it,” she says. “Let me talk to the doctors first.”
“How do you know you can trust the doctors?”
“I just said I’d talk to them. I didn’t say I’d necessarily take their advice.”
I nod and let my knees go. I push my legs over the side of the bed and follow them along until I’m standing up. “Do you want to see my magic trick or not?”
A smile returns hesitantly to her face. “Sure.”
“Can I borrow one of your shoelaces? They took my sneakers away from me and left me with these hokey white slippers instead.”
“What are you going to do with it?”
“I can’t tell you…that’s the magic.”
Suzie frowns, wondering if I’m still harmless. Then she decides to trust me, because I’m her brother and that’s what she’s supposed to do. She undoes the shoelace on her white sneaker. I take it in my right hand and nod my thanks.
“Now I need your wedding ring.”
She clutches her left hand defensively to her chest. “You can’t—”
“I’m not going to destroy it or anything. I promise you’ll have it back within five minutes.”
She takes a deep breath in and out. Then she nods and pulls the ring off her finger. It’s plain gold, less than a centimeter thick. Michael never did get her an engagement ring to go with it.
I string the wedding ring through the shoelace until it’s about at the middle of the cord. Then I place the ring in my right palm with my hand face up toward the ceiling, letting the ends of the shoelace dangle over the sides.
“See, this trick works a little better with married men. They’re more eager to get rid of their wedding bands, even though it’s never a permanent solution. Now, where is the ring?”
Suzie points at my exposed right palm, where the ring sits in the open for both of us to see.
“Good.” Even with something so easy, she smiles at my compliment. “Now here’s the tricky part.”
I close my hand, turning it face down to the floor with the ring inside. Both ends of the shoelace still dangle toward the floor. With my left hand I loop one end of the shoelace and then the other across the back of my hand, seemingly binding the wedding ring to the inside of my palm.
“Now take hold of each end of the shoelace. In order for the magic to work, you need to make sure you’ve got it tightly.” Once she’s taken the ends of the shoelace, I ask her again, “Where is the ring?”
She grins widely, thinking that she’s figured out my trick. “It’s in your left hand.” The grin gets smaller when I open my free left hand, revealing it to be empty. “Then it’s still in your right hand.”
“Let’s find out. You can let go of the shoelace now.”
The ends fall from her grasp and dangle limply as I turn my palm toward the ceiling again. I open my right hand, where the ring should be bound by the borrowed rope. But it’s not there, either.
Suzie’s eyes widen. The murky brown irises of her natural eyes form an almost invisible ring around the fake blue contacts. “Okay, the trick’s done. Where did you hide the ring, Evan?”
“You promise you’ll talk to the doctors?”
“I promise. Now where is it?”
“It’s on your finger, of course. Where else would a wedding band be?”
Suzie looks at her left hand and gasps slightly. An invisible audience offers its applause as she finds the ring sitting firmly on her finger as though it had never moved in the first place.
“You’re the one who has to make it actually disappear,” I tell her.
“I have to go to work, Evan.”
I frown and sit on the bed. “I know.”
“I’ll be back at lunchtime if you want.”
“Take care.” She leans forward and kisses me on the forehead. Then she stands up. This is the part where she walks out the door, I start taking my pills, and she vanishes for another six months.
Or maybe it’s different this time.
She stops just in front of the door and turns around. “You really think I’m healthy enough to look after you?”
“You’re my sister. I trust you.”
“Okay.” She walks back to the bed, looking carefully at her left hand as she does so. Trembling, she pulls the wedding band off of her finger and hands it to me. “Hold onto this until I get back, okay?” She looks at me long and hard, with a resolve I don’t remember seeing from her in years. “I promise I’ll talk to the doctors.”
I smile. “Thank you.”
Then she leaves, allowing me to keep the little gold souvenir.
Twenty minutes later, an orderly comes into my room and hands me a tiny paper cup.
“Evan, the doctors would like you to take these pills, okay?”
I look at the cup, then at Suzie’s ring. I loop the tiny golden band around my right pinkie finger.
“Okay,” I tell the orderly.
Then I tilt the paper cup up toward my mouth and make the pills disappear.
Image: My Fair Lady movie poster, Warner Brothers