I laugh and laugh, and when I’m done laughing, say, “You can’t be serious?”
Sitting next to me in the principal’s office is my mother Julia. Beside her, my step-father Charles makes a grim face. They say little but frown much as Principal Goodman, crouched on the other side of the desk, explains why I am being expelled from the twelfth grade.
For a long time there is silence and then Principal Goodman turns to me and says, “Mica, you need help. People under severe stress, they sometimes—” He takes a sip from the water bottle on the desk. “The point is you can’t keep blaming yourself for what happened.”
The truth is I don’t blame myself for my father’s death. Charles and Julia only think I do. I blame Charles. It doesn’t make sense to blame him, but I do. As for Principal Goodman, he is right about one thing; lately, I don’t feel like myself. The doctors, and I see a lot of doctors, have all sorts of names for it. And some of the things I have, they don’t have names for. All I know is, some days I think I’d be better off dead. It isn’t that I want to kill myself. It’s just that some days I don’t care whether I live or die.
“There must be some other option besides throwing Mica out of school,” Charles interrupts. Except for his eyes, which are beautiful, the top half of his body seems lop-sided, out of place, on his tall, stick-figure frame.
“There is another option,” says Goodman. His tone suggests something other than that which he is saying; that his primary concern is not my mental health, but his own. “But you’re not going to like it.”
Charles seems to consider this for a moment. “Try me,” he says.
“In my line of work, I sometimes have occasion to run into young people who are struggling. People who are, shall we say, depressed,” says Principal Goodman. I don’t see how the two things are related, but I pay careful attention to what he says next. “Mica, as I’m sure you would agree, is one of them. And I think it goes without saying that her case is rather severe.”
Reaching into his desk, Principal Goodman slides Julia a brochure. A vague unease settles over her face, as if something is about to go horribly wrong, but she doesn’t yet know what. Principal Goodman seems to choose his next words carefully.
“The brochure in front of you is for a privately run program out of San Diego. I have seen it work,” he goes on, “and I’m not exaggerating when I say it saves lives.”
“Program?” Julia says, and all eyes turn to Principal Goodman. “What kind of program?”
“A boarding school of sorts,” he says, tapping the front page of the brochure. Ten minutes ago, I could barely keep my eyes open. Now I am wide awake. “The reason you haven’t heard of them is they prefer it that way. That’s their name in red. You can Google it, but you won’t find anything.”
I skim the front cover of the brochure and feel more ill than before. I am about to say something when Julia shushes me.
“We tried boarding school when she was little. It didn’t help,” she says to Principal Goodman.
“The program is different,” Principal Goodman says, flipping the brochure over. “Helping people in extraordinary situations is what they do. That’s why the program itself is so… extraordinary. My suggestion, of course, is that you enroll Mica. If she finishes with satisfactory scores, she can graduate on time.”
“Boarding school?” I say, and reach for the brochure.
If there’s one thing I don’t care for, it’s meddling, and Principal Goodman is a meddler. There’s no nicer way to put it.
Principal Goodman gives me an unfunny look, as though I am about to say something rude, and puts the brochure in my hands. Most of the writing on it is made up of testimonials. The only information about the school itself is that it’s run by a company called Storybook, Inc., whose motto—We Fix Things that are Broken—is emblazoned across the front cover.
“Try to be open-minded,” Principal Goodman says, patting me on the back. “Think of it like a vacation.”
I don’t listen to him, and turn the brochure over. On the back is a cartoon drawing of Humpty Dumpty. Below it, a poem:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again
“A vacation?” I say, and try not to think about dingy dorm rooms and soupy cafeteria food. Unlike most suicidal people, I am extremely careful about what I eat. “Are you kidding me?”
Principal Goodman pretends not to hear the question and addresses my mother. “Speaking of which, there is the small matter of payment. May I assume price is not an issue?”
I look from my mother to my step-father to my mother again, ignoring Principal Goodman. Nobody says anything. Finally, Julia nods and puts the brochure in her purse. Principal Goodman continues speaking.
“It’s better not to look at the price until you see the results, anyway.” He adds thoughtfully, “Mica will need an invitation to get in. I have that here with me.”
Something about his tone bothers me. It is cold, like no one held him enough when he was a baby. Leaning over the table, he hands Julia an envelope with a significant gesture. I don’t look at either of them and frown.
“The program starts next week,” Principal Goodman adds. I continue frowning as he gives Julia a name and address from his pocket. “She’ll need to see Dr. Bluth for a physical first. They’ll have the rest of the paperwork for you to sign there.”
My only company inside the drab downtown Seattle waiting room of Dr. Harris Bluth is the doctor’s receptionist, an American fat girl with a face like a mushy banana. Hating her a little, I gaze through the window at the courtyard below.
Flitting between well-manicured shrubs are several species of brightly colored songbirds, some of them quite loud, and none of which seem to care in the least of what is happening to me. I sit up straight, almost rigid, and turn my attention to the clock on the wall. It’s been forty-five minutes since I arrived.
I resolve to wait fifteen more minutes before saying anything, and turn my attention back to the courtyard. It is raining heavily now. The sound of raindrops beating against the roof overwhelms the otherwise silent room. In my boredom, I begin to count the ceiling tiles, and it’s then that the receptionist calls my name.
“Mica Psmith?” she says, waving me into the hallway.
The receptionist is wearing fancy high heel shoes, like she doesn’t know where she is, and her feet make a clanking sound when she walks. Taking small steps, so she doesn’t fall out of her shoes, she leads me to a room at the end of the hallway, shutting the door as she leaves.
As I look around, a tired feeling comes over me, like running in quicksand. The room has an almost violent feeling to it, as if violent things happen there every day. I see nothing on the walls, not even a window, and turn to the center of the room. Bolted to the floor is a steel machine shaped like a throne. It looks like a blood pressure-reading machine, the kind you slide your arms into, except there is a helmet-shaped gadget where the headrest should be. The only other furniture in the room is a glass table and chairs.
The doctor arrives momentarily and takes a seat at the table beside me.
“How are you feeling this afternoon, Ms. Psmith?” he asks, glancing sideways at his watch. His tie is loosened around the neck, and the sleeves of his shirt are rolled up, as though he is about to get his hands dirty. “Am I pronouncing that right?”
“Yes,” I say quietly. “The P is silent.”
My least favorite thing is when people ask me how I am. For one thing, I never know how to respond. Do I lie or tell the truth, which they already know? My father was great at talking to strangers. As for me, I rarely know what to do or say to anyone these days, and most days, I just feel tired.
“My name is Doctor Bluth, and it’s my job to do your evaluation,” the doctor continues, flashing his teeth. He puts out his arm, as though to shake my hand, but then he pulls it back to his side, as if he thinks this is a mistake. “Do you have any questions before we begin?”
I try without success to imagine what my father would say, and shake my head. It’s on days like this when I miss him the most.
“Very good,” he says, raising his right hand. “And now for the oath.”
“The what?” I say, frowning.
My senior English class is reading 1984 and the word oath strikes a chord in my mind. I get concerned, like the doctor is starting to sound like something out of a George Orwell novel, and slide my chair against the wall.
“It will all make sense soon,” the doctor says, nudging my arm. His eyes move from fire to cold as he waits for my response. “Now, please raise your right hand and repeat after me. I do solemnly swear not to divulge the content of this meeting, nor of any part of the program, to any friend, relative or acquaintance.”
The words give me a tense feeling in the back of my throat, like someone wraps a noose around my neck, and starts pulling me up by the rope. Finished, the doctor puts down his hand and picks up a file from the table.
“Now then, it says here that you’re seventeen and that your father, Conner Psmith, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head when you were fourteen,” he says, without taking a breath. “Your physician remarks that you’ve suffered from extreme depression—the word ‘extreme’ is underlined—ever since. There is also a reference to an anxiety disorder.”
“Is that a question?” I finally say. The doctor makes a weepy face.
“Is it true that you’re depressed?”
I find a lot of things disturbing, if that’s what he means. Like public restrooms and used clothing stores. Dark alleys have never been a favorite thing of mine and, if I’m being totally honest, the whole concept of riding in airplanes disturbs me. Public speaking isn’t exactly at the top of my favorite-things-to-do list either, but then, not a whole lot of things are. If my step-father Charles is to be believed, and he isn’t, then these things are just in my head.
“Sometimes I have trouble staying awake,” I hear myself say. The doctor jots a note and moves on.
“On a lighter note, I am made to understand your birth father left you a substantial trust fund—a million dollars if I’m reading this right.” He skims to the back of the file and gives me a pitiful look. “Are you receiving that now?”
“I get an allowance. The rest on my eighteenth birthday,” I say, and think how weird the questions are getting.
Then a new thought. What if I just run out of the room and keep running? Does the doctor chase after me? Drag me back kicking and screaming? I consider it and don’t think so. It’s probably not the kind of thing that’s good for business, after all. But the thought of running makes me feel tired, and I don’t do it.
“How nice for you,” the doctor says, and the tone of his voice improves, as does his mood. “You must at least be excited about turning eighteen?”
“I don’t think excited is the right word.”
“What’s the right word?” he asks.
I feel suddenly and unbearably fatigued, as if the doctor’s dry, colorless voice is physically penetrating my skull, and putting me to sleep. I do everything I can think of to stay awake, but the more he rattles on about anxiety, the more tired I feel. It takes all my strength just to keep my eyes open.
“One last question,” he says, dropping the file. “Ms. Psmith, why do you think you’re here?”
“Because Julia and Charles think I’m crazy,” I say, before thinking better of it. “Be honest. Do I seem crazy to you?”
The words hang in the air between us like a thick fog. I think the doctor scribbles something in the file, but I don’t look at him.
“Let’s find out, shall we?” he says without sarcasm. He motions to the machine in the center of the room, the one that looks like a throne.
The chair feels like ice cubes on my legs, sticky and freezing at the same time. I don’t watch where the doctor goes, and he presses a button on the wall. No sooner am I seated than metal cuffs twine around my wrists and ankles, strapping me in place, and a gold helmet lower over my head.
Rising in my throat is a needling feeling, like something pokes at my brain. My body goes still. I begin to panic, and before I can object, the doctor goes out of the room. He comes back a second later with a glass of water.
“Lie back and take this,” he says, handing me the water along with a blue pill.
The room is cold. Darker than I remember. Bit by bit, I realize why I’m confused. The room I’m standing in isn’t the doctor’s office.
The first thing I notice about the room is the walls. The walls are made out of mirrors, and all of the mirrors are tilted at different angles, so that the images inside them appear distorted. The effect takes some getting used to, and at first, I don’t see the woman standing across from me.
Her skin is pale white, and even though she is dressed plainly in an orange jumpsuit, I can tell she is beautiful. I see something else when she lifts up her hands. She is holding a pistol.
The sight of the pistol should make me act, but instead it turns me to stone. I mumble out a few words, but it’s no use. The woman doesn’t understand English, and when I try to reason with her, she just points the gun at my head. I step back out of instinct, tripping over a smaller pistol that is strategically placed at my feet. Now I am terrified. A circular sensation comes over me, like I’m running in place, and it feels like my throat closes.
I have always known the ability to commit suicide lives inside of me. But what about murder? Do I have that inside of me too? What if I miss? My brain is so jammed full of information that I feel every bit as if my head might explode.
Reading my hesitation as weakness, the woman steps forward, still pointing the gun at me. I get nervous, and pick up the pistol, but I’m only bluffing. The idea of shooting anything, let alone a person, makes my palms sweat, and the pistol almost slides out of my hands. Closing the distance between us, the woman cocks the pistol.
I look from her hands to the wall behind her, and as I look back, the woman vanishes. As if from thin air, three women—identical in appearance to the first—materialize in the spot where the woman was standing. I don’t have time to think, and stare at the figures the way you stare at a mirage. They move slowly, but what strikes me is that their movements are in sync, as though each of them is a projection of the same image. Sweating, I point the pistol from woman to woman, not knowing which one is real, or if they all are.
My immediate thought is to run, but the room has no doors that I can see. I hesitantly gape at the floor, and before I can move, the sound of gunfire splits the air. I brace for the impact, but it’s not like in the movies, where the person goes flying back. My body doesn’t move an inch, and for a moment, I hardly feel anything.
Then the pain kicks in, and the pain is crippling. I feel it in every fiber of my body, like a hundred knives tear into my flesh. When I look down, my stomach is bleeding.
On the other side of the room, the women take aim for the second time. I desperately point the gun in front of me, but I hesitate. There are three of them, and I don’t know which one to shoot at. I feel edgy, like I am pumped full of caffeine, and try to recover my wits. There must be something I am missing. But what is it?
The answer comes to me the way all answers come, vaguely at first, and then in very precise terms. Turning to the closest mirror, I stare at the reflections of the figures shining back at me. If my hunch is right, and I hope it is, one of the reflections will be different than the others. I am about to give up when I see it. In the reflection of the woman on the far left, and only this reflection, the woman is wearing a pearl necklace. Resisting the urge to fall over, I shoot at the woman on the far left.
I don’t see what happens next, and my body jolts to one side, like I am in an elevator going sideways. The elevator, or whatever it is, seems to be traveling fast, and I lose my footing. The only thing I see is darkness. Then, with a second jolt, my body stops moving, and everything gets bright, as if someone shines a flashlight in my face.
It is almost twilight, and I am sitting on the edge of a cliff with a bear cub in my lap. The cub is no larger than a puppy, and seems preoccupied with one of its legs, as though something is wrong with it. I am slow to gather my wits, and when I do, I am frightened.
Something catches my ear. Through the forest in front of me, I hear crickets chirping. Birds calling to lost mates. In my lap, the bear cub almost purrs, and I am taken aback. I didn’t know bears could purr. A numbness encircles me, as though this is something I should know, and I feel depressed.
There are two types of depression, my step-father says. The kind something causes. And the kind that just lives in you. My kind, he says, is the second kind. The kind that doesn’t come all at once, and grows like a cancer in your brain, slowly driving you mad. I read somewhere that even the smartest people go crazy from it in the end. They don’t even notice their last sane day when it comes, because they’re so doped up on antidepressants. I wonder if this is happening now. If my last sane day has come and gone.
The image of my step-father brings me crashing back to reality. I hazily remember the bullet hole in my stomach. But when I run my fingers over the spot, the bullet hole is gone. All I can think is I must be cracking up.
I don’t feel the bear cub squirm out of my lap, and turn to see which way it goes. Suddenly, the animal cries out. And I almost do too. Towering on two legs above me is the giant body of a grizzly bear. The grizzly looks angry, or perhaps I imagine this, and rears back its head.
The cub doesn’t run, and leisurely crowds around the grizzly’s backside. I am standing up now. Waiting for the grizzly to do something. As if sensing my impatience, the animal lunges forward, withdrawing just before she runs into me. Behind her eyes, the slightest twinge of fear shines, or it may be something else.
I briefly consider running, and don’t. The only thing I know for sure about bears is that they run faster than people. I reason that there must be another way out of the situation, and silently pour over the landscape. That’s when I see the cliff.
The grizzly puffs up her back, as if to appear larger. Her nose is so close to me that I can feel her breath on my cheeks. I don’t think about what I’m doing and back my feet up to the cliff, throwing my body over the edge.
The updraft is strong, and I stop briefly midair, as if gravity ceases to exist just for a moment. Stiffening against the descent, I prepare to be terrified, but all I get is this overwhelming sense of relief, as though I’ve been awake for days, and I finally drift off to sleep. Even when the earth below me comes into view, and all I see are rocks and boulders; I still feel brave.
A second later, everything gets dark. It’s like a curtain comes down at the end of a play. But it isn’t the end of the play. And before I can see straight, my body heaves to one side. I slide sideways in darkness, as if through a tunnel, and the sliding seems to go on forever. After a while, I feel my body drop, and the movement stops. I fall forward with a lurch, as though whatever was carrying me spits me out.
In front of me is a petting zoo, around which a flock of children is gathered.
On one child’s shoulder is the most curious beast I have ever seen; a squirrel-like monkey with tufted ears and a tail like a jackrabbit. Perched above it, though not in a friendly way, is a banana-beaked toucan. The toucan disapproves of the monkey and tries to bite it in the face, prompting much excitement among the children.
My father, who is standing beside me, does not notice the laughter. His eyes are fixed straight in front of him on the most magnificent animal I have ever seen on television or in real life; the gigantic Bengal tiger. I look away from the animal, and stare at my father, until something catches my eye.
The tiger pit is surrounded by a large crowd of people, all of whom have ill looks on their faces, as though something terrible is about to happen. Slowly, very slowly at first, it dawns on me that a child has fallen into the pit.
With a sinking feeling in my stomach, I peer through the barbed wire fence of the enclosure and into the pit below. Standing ten feet from the tiger, and looking very much as though he might cry, is a small boy. He bursts into tears as he looks helplessly at the tiger. I am about to say something to my father when my thoughts are interrupted by a tiny voice on my left.
A cartoonish-looking man in a fedora pulls me close and whispers in my ear. “This may sound a bit odd to you, but these tigers are my life’s work and I am devoted to them,” he says, and grabs me by the arm. “I could no sooner harm one than harm a baby. But what about you?”
“Excuse me?” I say, and pull away from the man.
“You heard me,” he says.
The man scoots closer. Positioning one arm around me, he yanks open his rain slicker, and shows me the lining of his coat. Sewn into the left side are three items. The top item is a pistol, and below it is a cut of raw meat. Last in the column is a bottle of pills. The bottle is orange and the label on it says: TOXIC NO MATTER HOW INGESTED.
“Pick one,” the man says, and he doesn’t let go.
I try to squirm free, but it’s like my legs turn to lead. Careful not to be seen, the man leans into me. He orders me, in a firm voice, to do what he says. I refuse, but my refusal only irritates him.
“Get off of me!” I say, and try to push him away. The man surveys my expression.
“Last chance,” he says, smiling.
His smile is a long, half-moon shape, the kind you carve into a pumpkin. But it isn’t friendly, and it makes him look desperate. I feel sick and don’t move a muscle. In the pit below, the boy sobs uncontrollably.
Angered by my refusal, the man thrusts the gleaming pistol into my hands. I watch as he disappears into the crowd before I look down at it. Before me, I see only two choices: shoot the tiger or let the boy be eaten alive.
A feeling of dread swells up inside of me so strong that I feel as if I might pass out. I turn to my father, but my father is gone. With only two choices, and with very little time in which to decide, I am entirely unable to move. Only then do I see a third option; create a diversion.
The fence that surrounds the tiger pit is looped with razor wire, but it isn’t very tall, and I think I can climb over it. I hope I don’t shoot myself and kick the gun out of sight, watching where it lands. Now, as the seeds of a plan germinate in my mind, I lay my hoodie over the wire. Working fast, I slide over the fence.
“Stop!” someone screams, drawing the crowd’s attention.
I barely make it over the fence without getting sliced to bits, and as I fall down, I hear more screaming. I don’t see what happens next, and smack my face against the wall of the enclosure. The impact bloodies my nose. At the same time, my body goes flying, as if something jerks me back by the neck. I am running on so much adrenaline that I don’t even feel it.
The next thing I know I am spread out on the ground. The boy is behind me, and crouched in front of me, like a cat with a toy, is the tiger. I taste blood on my lips, and motion for the boy to be still. He looks unwell, like the act of standing still is physically killing him, and I don’t know how long he can do it.
Everything gets really quiet after that, as though an invisible wall forms between us and the crowd. I think it’s safe to stand up, but I am wrong. The movement catches the tiger’s eye and seems to anger it. Roaring out its displeasure from a place deep within its gut, the tiger runs at me like a badger, grinding to a halt just inches from my face.
Panicking, I throw out my arms. I am neither tall in stature, nor particularly menacing in appearance, and I don’t have a good feeling, but it’s the only idea I have. To my surprise, the tiger stops running. It sniffs at the blood on my face.
Regarding me with an almost scientific curiosity, the tiger flicks its tail. The desire to run is so strong I can taste it. Instead, like a lunatic, I start screaming and waving my arms in the air. All the while, I look the tiger right in the eye. I do this because I read somewhere that it shows dominance, and I am all out of better ideas.
Not moving, the tiger stares ferociously at me. The noise is too much for it to make sense of. It makes a low growl, and cocks its head to one side, as though it has encountered a snake or something hard to understand. I don’t do anything except keep screaming at it, and after a few seconds, the tiger steps back. It stands motionless for what seems like an eternity. Then, to everyone’s amazement, the tiger throws back its ears and walks calmly away.
Just then everything goes dark.
I awake from my trance inside the windowless office of Dr. Harris Bluth who eyes me narrowly.
“Drink this,” says a woman with pink hair, handing me an opaque glass.
Using her other hand, she unclamps the helmet from my head. The sound it makes is like metal on glass. I hear it and feel it at the same time. The glass of liquid, in the tumult, tips sideways.
“No, thank you,” I say. The woman scrunches her face.
“Easy,” she says, highlighting each syllable of the word so that it sounds like E-Z. “It’s orange juice. To help you get your strength back. Or would you prefer to lie there like a zombie?”
She gives me a smart look, as though I am being chastised, and slams the glass in my hand. My legs are numb from the chair, and take several seconds of movement to regain feeling, during which time another nurse, this one with normal-colored hair, examines my heartrate. I judge by her voice that several hours have passed in what seemed like only minutes.
Presently, the nurse with pink hair informs me that the examination is over. She hands the doctor a file, which he reads with a smile. The door behind him is open, and I think I hear Julia’s voice coming from the hallway.
“Very interesting,” the doctor says, dismissing the nurses. His voice is incredulous. “No one has ever jumped off the cliff.”
“No?” I say sullenly.
“One might even say brilliant,” he says, closing the door. “But also reckless.”
Try as I might, I have only a vague sense of what the doctor is talking about. I try to remember each thing he says, but the memories come slowly, and with pieces missing, like I am remembering a dream. And, like a dream, the point of it all seems just out of reach.
“What made you choose the woman on the left?” he asks, unhooking me from the machine. There’s a war in my head, like I should know what he’s talking about, and I don’t.
“What woman?” I say.
The doctor eyes me skeptically. He doesn’t say anything further about the woman and changes the subject. “We thought for sure you would choose the steak. So did the machine.” He points to the machine I’m sitting in.
An odd thing to say, I think to myself, running my eyes over the machine below me. The cord that connects it to the wall is shooting sparks. It wasn’t doing that before. Uncaring, the doctor goes on.
“There was only one like it in the world. I don’t know how we’ll replace it,” he says, helping me up. “Add it to your bill, I suppose.”
I say nothing and step away from the cord.
“Here’s a fun fact,” he adds brightly, forgetting the machine. “You, my dear, scored better than the one-hundredth percentile on the IQ portion of the test.”
“That was an IQ test?” I ask dumbly.
“That was an everything test,” he says, pausing for effect. “What’s interesting is the machine puts your IQ at 184—that’s two points higher than Albert Einstein. In other words, you’re a genius.” His glance lingers on the machine. “Do you know what the trouble with geniuses is?”
I feel like a genius would know the answer to the question.
“They alter their environment,” he quips, waiving his hands in the air. “They break our machines. The last time—”
“I didn’t mean to break anything,” I say, biting down on my thumbnail.
I am not very girly by nature, but I do wear my fingernails long, and right now I am grinding them to dust. The doctor is too caught up in his file to notice. He thinks he’s stumbled onto something interesting.
In reality, it was my second grade principal, Mr. Norton, who first thought I was a genius. I don’t recall much about the conversation, except that my parents were there, and Mr. Norton was there too. He just kept going on and on about my test results, and how they were literally off of the charts. He said literally so many times that I started counting up all the times he said it, and by the end of the meeting, I think I got to twenty-seven or twenty-eight.
My poor parents didn’t know what to say. Eager to prove his theory, Mr. Norton showed them these two pieces of paper with my test results on them. Then, from a pile on his desk, he showed them everyone else’s results. Like a bar graph, the results were drawn out in colored lines. Each one was exactly a page. Explaining how they had to add an extra piece of paper to the printer just to make my results print, Mr. Norton couldn’t help but smile. “So you see,” he said, “literally off the charts.”
That’s when it all went sideways. I was transferred to this special school for geniuses where I was supposed to learn faster. The headmistress was this fast-talking nationalist type who got upset anytime someone who wasn’t an American did something important. I remember how upset she was with Vincent van Gogh for being Dutch, as if the whole nature of his birth was a calculated ploy to unnerve her. The teachers were like the headmistress; they worked ten hour days and talked incessantly about socialism.
Bored and unhappy, I spent most of my free time dreaming up ways to escape. This, on account of the headmistress, was easier said than done. In her frenzy to keep students in, she employed a multi-faceted Big Brother-like security system of live sensors and rolling cameras, complete with metal detectors at the doors. Even the windows, which were too small to climb through, had bars. To complete her efforts, she has this deathly tall fence built around the perimeter of the school.
One day, when I was feeling particularly unwell, I decided to try climbing that fence. I no more than reached the top before I was spotted, and just like that, there were more spotlights on me than Yankee Stadium. From the ground, a series of manic voices took to yelling at me, ordering me to come down. Even when I tried to hear what they were saying, I couldn’t make out the words. There were too many people talking at once, and all I heard was the ground talking to me. It just kept saying, “Why don’t you jump? You know you want to.”
The doctor waves a hand in front of me to make sure I am listening. He looks besieged.
“Never mind about that. The important part is that you are very bright. Sharp as Sherlock, as they say in London,” he says, taking the untouched glass of juice from my hands. He gets this grave look on his face, as if he is about to say something very significant, but all he says is, “I want you to remember that I said that.”
Another nurse, this one in a starched white overcoat, pops her head in the room. Her face prickles at the smell of burnt metal. Turning to the doctor, she gives me a devious look.
“Doctor, they’re waiting for her,” she says, and beckons me to come with her.
In the lobby, Charles and Julia are waiting by the counter. In front of Julia are two stacks of paperwork. Charles, who is not a genius, motions first to the nurse and then to the papers.
“Is this all of it?” he asks.
“All of what?” I say.
No one answers me. I feel ill at ease, and slink to the countertop beside Julia. She is dressed in a floor-length black dress, as if for a funeral, which seems fitting. On the limestone countertop in front of her are two legal documents which she scans but does not read.
The first has the words “Confidentiality Agreement” written across it, and like the questions on a test, its paragraphs are numbered. The second packet is thicker than the first. It says “Liability Waiver.” Printed at the bottom of both documents in small, almost too-small-to-read, font is the same phrase: Cherchez la Femme. I commit the phrase to memory for later use, paying careful attention to its spelling.
Julia, as if on cue, stops reading and reaches for a pen. Turning first to the confidentiality agreement, and then to the waiver, she signs both documents.