I did not look forward to reading from Emily Dickinson’s exhaustive collection of poetry, but I felt honor-bound to do so. At every opportunity I had, I would carry the book around with me. While the rest of the kids were sitting in the living room each night in front of the television, slack-jawed and drooling, I flipped through page after page of poems. Each short poem washed over me, nothing more than numbing waves of letters and dashes. None of it meant anything to me, and I couldn’t make heads or tails of what Dickinson was on about, but if it’s what Annie wanted me to do, I was determined to barrel through it.
Each week, I was scheduled to see Dr. Lau. It was our first scheduled meeting since I had started working with Annie, and I knew that she would be curious to see how we were progressing. I had set a goal for myself to finish the poems by the time we met so that she could see how serious I was about my tutoring. As I flipped through the remaining pages, eager to take count of how much reading I had left, I came across a tiny blue sticky note wedged between the last few pages.
There was nothing written on the note itself, so I searched the pages before and after the page that was marked. I found that the last few pages were dedicated to Dickson’s other writings, including letters and things that were uncovered after she had passed. I flipped back to the page to find the letter that had been marked with the sticky note. There were a few lines that had been highlighted that I read aloud:
It grieves me that you speak of Death with so much expectation. I know there is no pang like that for those we love, nor any leisure like the one they leave so closed behind them, but Dying is a wild Night and a new Road.
I suppose we are all thinking of Immortality, at times so stimulated that we cannot sleep. Secrets are interesting, but they are also solemn -- and speculate with all our might, we cannot ascertain.
“Geez,” I muttered to myself under my breath, “no wonder she ended up in here back then. This shit is depressing.”
“I see she lent you the Dickinson,” called a voice from behind me. I bolted upright and the book fell from my hands. I spun around in the chair to see the doctor leaned against the door frame. She looked down at me from over her glasses, grinning.
“Don’t sneak up on me like that, Jesus!”
“First, don’t take the Lord’s name in vain. See the sign?” Doctor Lau deadpanned. She gestured to a wooden placard on the wall which had I am a child of God ingrained into it in golden letters. “The team takes that very seriously, so keep your heathenism to yourself.” She slunk around me with a self-satisfied laugh before stopping in front of the mirror. She tore the blanket from the mirror to expose the unblemished reflective surface of the mirror.
“You got it fixed,” I commented offhandedly. I leaned over to pick up the book from the ground. “That was fast.”
Doctor Lau gave me a confused glance. “You told me that you understood that those cracks were not real, did you not?”
“I…well…” I fumbled, still hunched over to reach the book. I couldn’t remember what I had seen. Did I ever actually see the cracks go away? I remember playing it off as if I had imagined them, but they seemed way too real for me to have actually imagined them. I grabbed the book with one hand and used the other to push myself back into the chair. “I guess I don’t remember all that well. I just know the feeling I had.”
“Feeling, huh?” Doctor Lau said. She took a seat in her chair behind the desk and pulled her notepad from under a stack of papers. “I can work with that. What did you feel?” She clicked her ivory pen in anticipation. “I want you to look into that mirror and tell me how it makes you feel.”
I turned to face the mirror. The first thing I felt was disgust. For the past few years, I’d wanted to lose weight. Everyone in my family had always said I had my father’s face, which I came to understand was code for “chubby.” It was something that I had always loved about my father -- his apple-shaped face was round, friendly, and furry like a teddy bear. But the animal I looked like was a bloated puffer-fish.
But since I’d been at Dogwood, my face had lost its round shape. More and more I was starting to resemble my mother, with her harsh, angular features and pinched cheekbones. If there was a beautiful middle ground, I passed it up weeks ago. The nurses assured me that the weight loss was “normal” and “actually a good thing,” but it didn’t feel right.
“You don’t look happy with what you see,” Doctor Lau interjected. “Why is that?”
I didn’t want to talk about that train of thought, so I blurted out the next thing that came to mind to change the subject away from my physical appearance. “I feel scared.”
Dr. Lau’s head tilted to one side and she scribbled on her notepad. “Scared? In what way?”
I had to think about it. Unlike the feelings of disgust that were rooted in my mind, the fear felt deeper. “I feel it in my bones. It feels like someone is … watching me.”
“Like in the horror movies, right? You think you might see a killer in the mirror and turn around to be face-to-face with him?”
“Not exactly. More like … there’s someone on the other side of it. Not behind it, exactly. But … through it.”
I could hear the doctor inhale sharply. Her scribbling became more furious. She said nothing and only nodded her head to demonstrate that she was listening. I waited for a moment, curious to see what she might say. After a few more moments of scribbling, the doctor’s eyes met mine and she smiled.
“Do you ever see anyone there? Someone, or something, through the mirror?”
“No, I’ve never seen anything,” I lied. She was fishing and I did not appreciate it. I considered changing the subject back to the body image shit just to not have to go down this rabbit hole.
“You don’t sound too confident on that. You can tell me,” she said, putting on her most reassuring therapist voice. “I am not here to judge you. I want to help. But in order to help you, I have to know what it is that you are experiencing. If there’s something painful in that mirror, like your father, I need to --”
“What!” I snapped. “I didn’t say a damn thing about my dad.”
“I know, I know. But I don’t want you to feel that you can’t--”
“You’re just leading me on. Trying to get a reaction out of me.” I was trying to hold back tears. I would have given anything to see my father in that mirror instead of cracks and shadows and whatever else, and the doctor was throwing that fantasy in my face.
“I apologize,” Dr. Lau said, adjusting her glasses nervously. “I did overstep a bit, I admit. I thought we were making progress, but it seems that I misread the situation.”
“I don’t even know where you’d get something like that,” I muttered. I folded my arms and sank into the couch. “That’s a pretty messed up thing to assume.”
“I’m a grief counselor, Skylar. Grief manifests itself in strange ways sometimes. This is especially true when that grief has not been processed and is still raw. Before we can start the restorative process and move past the grief and pain, we need to have an understanding of what your pain feels like, how it is manifesting, and how we can address it.”
“I’ve addressed it,” I snapped. I inspected my dirt-laced fingernails. “Every day since he died I’ve addressed it. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of him and work through my feelings about what happened. And there’s not been one day that I felt like I needed someone else rummaging around in my freaking brain, trying to help.”
“Doesn’t that wear you out,” Dr. Lau cooed, “doing all that work on your own? Asking for help is not a show of weakness, and receiving help is not an invasion.”
“If I have no choice, it’s an invasion.”
Doctor Lau studied me for a moment before slumping her shoulders and sighing. She jotted down a few more notes on her pad.
“You are a terrible therapist,” I snapped. “You do know that, don’t you? Aren’t you at least supposed to pretend like all of this doesn’t annoy you?”
“Shifting your anger to me does not address the root of the anger.”
“The root of my anger is you.”
“It isn’t. Just as your mother is not the root of your anger when you lash out at her, and how that poor girl at the birthday party wasn’t the root of it when you attacked her.”
“You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” I growled. “I didn’t attack Candice.”
“You did. You are so in denial of your pain that you can’t even admit to your own mistakes.”
“I did not attack her. I didn’t touch her. She fell.”
“If I had a dollar for every time I heard that excuse,” Doctor Lau scoffed. “Hurt people hurt people, and you will continue to hurt those around you if you don’t let anyone in to help you heal.”
“This is your idea of healing? Accusing me of shit I didn’t do and using my grief against me? This is bull and I’m not going to sit here and take it.” I shoved the chair out from underneath me with a painful scrape against the wood floor. I stormed towards the door and only stopped when the doctor raised her voice at me.
“You can run from this all you want, Skylar. But you are not leaving this place. I will veto every single request for you to be discharged, from now till the day I retire, until you are able to sit in that chair and tell me exactly what happened that night. Admit to what you did so we can finally move on.”
I turned around in the doorway and slammed the door behind me. I threw the Dickinson book at Dr. Lau. It missed her head by inches. “You aren’t freaking listening to me! I can’t admit to something I never did! And even if I told you what happened, you wouldn’t believe me anyways so what is the point? Talking to you is a waste of my goddamn time.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I do,” I said as I opened the door.
“If I can guess what happened to you, will you sit down?”
I stopped and took a deep breath. “What?”
“I’ll do you one better, actually,” Doctor Lau said hurriedly. It was clear that she understood she had one last shot to get through to me. She hid her desperation under a layer of playfulness. She pointed one long manicured finger at me. “If my guess about what happened at that party is wrong, I will personally go to the treatment team tomorrow and recommend your discharge. If I’m right, you sit your ass down and we finish this session.”
I thought about her proposal for a moment. It was idiotic. There was no way that she’d hold up her end of the bargain. My eyes darted back and forth as I collected my thoughts on all of the holes in her scheme. “How do you know I won’t just lie to you and say you’re wrong no matter what?”
“Because you are a terrible liar, Skylar,” she laughed.
I folded my arms in protest. I didn’t like the direction this was headed, but I couldn’t deny that the offer was tempting. Even if she was bluffing, it was too valuable of a bluff to pass up. Besides, there was absolutely no way that she could guess what happened that night.
“There was a mirror in that bathroom, wasn’t there, Skylar?”
“Most bathrooms have them, yes.”
“And I know from your file that you have a history of alcohol use. It was a teenage slumber party and there was probably alcohol involved.”
“This is the part where you assume that I got so black-out drunk that I don’t remember hurting Candice, right?”
“No, this is the part where I address the shadowy bird creature in the room,” the doctor said with a self-satisfied grin. She leaned back in her chair, eager to soak in my shock. I could feel my heart stop, and my limbs turned icy. Her reference to the bird in our first session was not a fluke -- she knew something that she couldn’t possibly know. Slowly, step by agonizing step, I approached the doctor’s desk. Her eyes met mine from behind her glasses. She attempted to suppress a laugh, but it overwhelmed her. She erupted in a witch-like cackle that reverberated against the walls in the tiny office.
“W-what did you say,” I asked. It was intended to be threatening, but the warble in my voice betrayed me. I opened my mouth to speak out, but the scratching of a record player interrupted my thoughts. My eyes darted upwards to the cluttered bookshelf behind Doctor’s Lau’s desk. Most of the space on the bookshelf was occupied by various boring psychology textbooks and binders of client information, but on the shelf just above the doctor’s head sat an old record player. It reminded me of the one that my father used to own when we lived with my grandmother. After a few moments of crackling nothingness, the familiar whine of a steel guitar whispered through the air:
In this mental institution,
lookin' out through these iron bars
How could he put me in here,
how could he go that far
Yes I need help but not this kind--
“An interesting choice,” the doctor commented as she scribbled down notes. “A bit on the nose, it seems. But interesting.”
“How … how is this happening?” I whispered. I could see the needle of the player bobbing up and down, but there was no record on the platter.
Oh Daddy come and get me
and take me home with you
I'm depending on you Daddy
'cause there's nothing else I can do
And you said that I could come to you
if I ever was in need
I can't come to you,
you'll have to come to me.
Just as quickly as the song had started, it ended. I took a step back, genuinely shaken. The doctor turned back to look at the record player after it had stopped spinning. She chuckled to herself, not at all phased by the entire ordeal. She acted as though this was a regular occurrence.
“That song is about a woman and her no-good cheating husband,” the doctor said, speaking out to someone other than me, it seemed. She laughed again before turning her focus back to me. “Whoever, or whatever, is trying to contact you does not have the greatest gift for lyrical analysis.”
“Y-you’re worried about the lyrics of a ghost song?” I exclaimed. “What the hell is going on?”
“I have just approved you for a more … targeted treatment method.” Doctor Lau approached me -- the first time she’d done so since the first time we met. She placed one slender hand on my shoulder and looked down at me. “It is time that I introduced you to my own specialized treatment -- Open Mind.”