Children Without Faces, by Jeff Meisner

Jeff Meisner lives in the Pacific Northwest of the United States with his wife and son. He is a former newspaper reporter and magazine journalist and is currently a blog editor at a global technology company.

This story first appeared in Issue Seven of Tincture Journal, and its sequel “Before I Forget Who You Are”, appears in Issue Nine. Buy the journal today and help support our work!

Penny

Penny admired her brother’s uniform from where she sat in her apartment on East 21st. He was standing at the window, looking down on Gramercy Park, shaking his head. Spring sunlight poured through the window, almost washing out Jake’s hard, chiselled features.

“I like your army uniform,” she said.

“I’m in the navy, Pen.” He spotted a couple with a stroller admiring the rose bushes and tulips in Gramercy. “How the hell can you afford this place? You’re an art student for Christ’s sake.”

Penny sighed in frustration. “I told you. It’s not mine. It belongs to a friend. Her dad’s a big time executive on Wall Street or something. She lets me stay here during the summer.”

He turned to her with a grin on his face. “Art chick, huh? Is she single?”

“She’s way out of your league, soldier boy.”

“I told you, retard, I’m a sailor.”

“Come here and hug your little sister then, sailor. I need one.”

Jake went and gave Penny a hug, then sat in the chair beside her. They held hands. “Now, tell me this guy’s name,” he said.

“No way. I know what you’ll do.”

“I won’t do anything.”

“Jake, you have to stay out of trouble. How many arrests will the army put up with?”

“The navy, moron.”

“Right. Seriously, I’m OK. I’ve just been down a little.”

Jake looked at his sister’s gaunt appearance. “A little? Are you kidding me? This one really did a number on you, didn’t he?”

“He was just another asshole. They’re the only ones I attract.”

“Maybe it’s your taste in men.”

“Oh, puh-leez! You’re going to lecture me? At least I don’t have to pay for my boyfriends.”

Jake went a little red. “Shut up.”

“Hey, I don’t care how you spend your money. I just think it’s a waste. You’re a great looking guy. You don’t need those whores.”

“Whatever. I’m a sailor. It’s expected.”

Penny looked at her watch. “Look, I have to go soon. Mom and Dad will be here in an hour.” She closed her eyes. “Thank God they didn’t tell Charlie and Miranda. I really couldn’t stand to hear another lecture from those two.”

“Where is this place anyway?”

“It’s in Connecticut somewhere. It’s supposed to be real nice.”

“I hope it’s better than the last place.”

Yeah. No kidding. “I saw a brochure.”

“And what are you going to do with that?” He pointed to the tiny Pomeranian sitting asleep in a dog bed with lace frills and a maroon, satin cushion.

Penny made a face. “Ugh. I hate that horrid little thing. It’s a total nipper too. Look what it did to me the other day.” She showed Jake her forearm. There were two scratches and a small bite mark right above the wrist. Just below the wounds was a thick, three-inch scar. Jake ignored that one.

“You’ll survive. What’s its name, anyway?”

“Claire calls her Lucy the Wonder Dog.”

“Claire sounds sexy.”

“Forget it. She only sleeps with black guys.”

“Why?”

“Probably to piss her father off. Last Christmas, she brought home this black guy named Justin and her dad went ballistic right there at Christmas dinner. And this guy was so sweet too. Just another student from our school. It was way ugly.”

“Sounds like it.”

“Anyway, her housekeeper is coming to get Lucy in a while.”

Jake stood up. “Come on. Let’s go for a walk. Show me Gramercy Park.”

“OK. Hold on, I have to pee.” She got up and went into the bathroom. It had a claw foot tub and floors made of Italian marble.

“Close the door, Pen, will you?” Jake asked when he heard the distinctive tinkle of her pee.

“Oh, don’t be such a priss. What kind of navy man are you anyway?” She closed the door.

Jake got up and looked around the room. A roll-top desk made of mahogany sat next to the window. It was covered with books about painting and art as well as a collection of stationery. He looked to the bathroom and rifled through the correspondence. At the bottom of the papers was a note written in a graceful hand on letterhead from the School of Visual Arts. Jake stiffened as he read the bottom of the letter, stuffing it into his breast pocket when he heard the toilet flush. Penny came out of the bathroom.

“Ready?”

“Ready.”

They walked through Gramercy Park for about forty-five minutes, then took a quick jaunt over to her campus, stopping for chilli dogs from a street vendor along the way. Then, they returned to the apartment building. Their parents, Jack and Joely, were waiting for them in the lobby. They both stood when they spotted Penny and Jake.

Joely gave her youngest daughter a hug. Her voice brimmed with concern. “How are you, sweetie?”

Penny rolled her eyes as she returned the embrace. “I’m fine, Mom.”

Jack shook hands with his son. “Jacob.”

“Dad.”

Penny and Jack hugged and Jake planted a kiss on his mother’s cheek.

“We expected you twenty minutes ago,” Joely said. “We were worried.”

“I was showing Jake Gramercy Park and the campus.”

Jack looked at his watch. “Well, do we have time for lunch? There must be some nice restaurants in this neighbourhood.”

“We just had chilli dogs, Dad.” Penny said.

Jack shook his head. “Great.”

Joely shot her husband a dirty look. “They were hungry, alright? It’s no big deal.”

“I didn’t say it was a big deal. You did.”

“No, I didn’t. I said it wasn’t.”

“Penny needs to get her stuff,” Jake interrupted. “Should we go up?”

“Yes, let’s go up,” Joely said.

§

Penny sat with a copy of People in a quiet waiting room, reading a story about Princess Diana’s death, which had shocked the world a week earlier. A door opened and a woman stuck her head out and said, “Penelope Doyle?”

“That’s me. You can call me Penny.”

“Come on in, Penny.”

She got up and went into the woman’s office. The woman was dressed in a sharp grey pant suit. She offered Penny a seat and then sat down across from her.

“I’m Dr Sheila Montgomery, but please, call me Sheila.”

Penny drew her legs up to her chest and rested her chin on her knees. “Hi.”

“Are you getting settled here?”

“Yes, it’s really nice.”

Sheila had a file resting in her lap. “What were you reading in the other room?”

“Oh, just a copy of People. My dad says it’s trash.”

“Well, what does he know, right?”

“Right.”

“Was it the issue about Diana?”

“Yeah.”

“Pretty sad. I remember watching her wedding to Charles.”

“Me too! I was only a little girl at the time but I’ll never forget that super-long dress trailing down the aisle after her.”

“Every little girl’s dream, I guess,” Sheila said. “Like I said, a sad story.”

“Yeah, it’s sad, but I hate the hypocrisy of it all.”

Sheila frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Well, the same people crying at the gates of Buckingham and leaving all those flowers and everything are the same ones who ate up all those British tabloid stories about her and the royals.”

“I see.”

“I just think it’s hypocritical. It’s sad the way we all feed off of one another.”

Sheila settled into her chair. “That’s an interesting observation. I haven’t heard anyone look at it quite that way before.”

Penny nodded and a silence ensued.

Sheila opened the file in her lap. “Well, why don’t you tell me why you’re here.”

“I tried to kill myself.”

“Why did you do that?”

“I can’t paint.”

“Pardon?”

“I can’t paint. I haven’t been able to paint in six months.”

“You’re an art student,” she said, perusing the file. “At the School of Visual Arts. That’s impressive. You have to be pretty good to get into that school.”

“I’m not that good.”

“It says here you swallowed a bottle of pills.”

“Yeah.”

“And this wasn’t your first attempt.”

“The first time was two years ago.”

“Tell me about that, if you want to.”

Penny shrugged. “I just got tired of being depressed. I can never stay happy for very long. My brother found me. Jake.”

“Are you two close?”

“He’s my favourite person in the world.”

“I never had any brothers or sisters. That must be nice.”

“Jake is really sweet.”

“Tell me about this second attempt. What was going on around the time you stopped being able to paint. Were you depressed? Trouble at home? Boyfriend problems?”

“All of the above. But the last one, mostly. I was seeing someone and he dumped me.”

“Who was he?”

“One of my professors. He’s married.”

Sheila nodded and took her glasses off. “Well, that’s a zero-sum game right there, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“It means it was doomed to end badly, no matter what you did.”

“Oh. Yeah, I guess that’s true.”

“Why did you do it then?”

“Sleep with him, you mean?”

“Yes.”

“I liked him. He said I was really talented. I don’t know, he paid a lot of attention to me.”

“OK.”

“Are you married, Sheila?”

“Yes.”

“Isn’t it nice when your husband says nice things to you? When he pays attention to you?”

“Of course it is.”

“I guess I wanted the same thing.”

“Did you get what you wanted?”

“No. And now I can’t paint. I can’t focus on anything. Nothing inspires me.”

“Are you behind at school?”

“Way behind. That’s why I’m taking time off. My father is pissed.”

“Do you want to talk about your dad?”

“No.”

Sheila was quiet for a moment. “I see a note from the ER doc here that says you stopped taking your medication about a year ago. Why?”

“That’s when I met Allan. I felt great. I didn’t think I needed it anymore.”

“Was that the right decision?”

Penny shrugged.

“I’m going to ask you to start taking it again. Will you do that?”

“If you think it’s important.”

“Penny, you’re manic depressive. It’s important. You know that.”

“I know.”

“OK. Well, that’s enough for now. Let’s talk again in a few days.”

painting

§

Jake leaned over the billiards table with a cue and snapped the twelve ball into the corner pocket, then looked around the hospital’s games room. “Pretty nice digs for a bunch of mentals.”

Penny swatted him on the rear end with her cue. “Eat my butt, jerk.”

“Whatever. Fifteen ball in the side pocket.” Jake gave the white ball a gentle push with the cue and the fifteen rolled into his intended destination. “How’s the new doctor?”

“I like her.”

“That’s a surprise. Usually you think they’re all useless.”

“Not this one. She’s… direct.”

Jake sank the ten ball in the corner pocket, then took a slug of his Coke. “Good. You’re feeling better?”

“A little. I’m taking the medication.”

He circled around the table. “Thirteen ball in the corner.” He drove the thirteen home.

“Hey! When do I get a shot?”

“When I miss one. Fourteen in the side pocket.” He tapped the white ball a little too off centre though, and the fourteen missed the pocket by a few inches. “Your turn, squirt.”

Penny punched him in the arm with a tiny fist. “Don’t call me squirt, ass face.” She lined up the white ball with the two ball and sent it into a side pocket. “Where are they sending you?”

“I can’t say, Pen. You know that. I ship out day after tomorrow.”

“When will you be back?”

“Six months.”

Penny missed her next shot. “Shit.”

“Go ahead, take another.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

She missed the next shot too. “I hate this game.”

Jake went to the opposite side of the billiards table. “Eleven ball, corner pocket. By the way, I have some news that should make you happy.”

“Yeah?”

“I ran into your prof friend, Allan, the other day.”

Penny froze. “Jake, tell me you didn’t.”

“Oh, it was just a few shots to the gut, Pen. He’ll survive.”

“And you thought this would make me happy?” She dropped her cue on the table and sent the remaining balls into a sprawl. “You’re an idiot.”

“Well, what did you expect me to do? Let him use my little sister?”

“I expected you to mind your own business, Jake! God, I can’t even look at you.” She left him there in the games room.

§

“Something’s wrong.”

“How can you tell?” Penny asked.

“You aren’t very good at hiding your feelings, Penny. Don’t worry, that’s a good thing. It makes you honest,” Sheila said.

“My brother visited me a few days ago. He beat up my ex.”

“The professor?”

“Yeah.”

“How bad?”

Penny puffed out her chest and did her best Jake imitation. “Oh, it was just a few shots to the gut, Pen. He’ll survive.”

“And that upsets you.”

Penny sat Indian style on a couch. “Yes and no. Part of me is glad he roughed up Allan. And part of me still cares for him. Is that messed up?”

“No. I think that’s a pretty normal reaction. How are you feeling otherwise?”

“OK.”

“Have you been able to paint at all?”

Penny shook her head. “I haven’t even tried.”

“The nurse says you’ve been taking your medication though. That’s good.”

“It doesn’t seem to make me feel any different.”

“It will take some time to work. You’ve only been here a week or so. Have you had any more thoughts about suicide?”

“No.”

“Good. What else are you feeling?”

“I’m scared.”

“What of?”

“That I’ll never paint again. That I might try to kill myself again.”

Sheila nodded. “Those are very natural fears.”

“I’m scared I’ll always be this way.”

“Do you want to be this way?”

“No.”

“What do you think you could do to change it?”

Penny drew her legs up to her chest and rested her chin on her knees. “I don’t know.”

“You should think about it, Penny.”

“Why?”

Sheila uncrossed and crossed her legs. “Because I think your suicide attempts are more than just cries for help. I think you’ve been serious in your efforts to end your life. And I think you’ve just been lucky that you haven’t been successful yet.”

Penny was quiet for a moment. “You’re different from the other doctors I’ve talked to.”

“Oh? How so?”

“They never talked to me that way. Sometimes I got the feeling they were trying to save me.”

“Do you want to be saved?”

“It would be easier if someone would.”

“It might. But it’s not going to happen. I can’t save you, the other doctors can’t save you and Jake can’t save you.”

“He thinks he can.”

“I know he does. But he’s wrong. I think you know it too.”

“Maybe.”

Sheila glanced at the clock on the wall behind the couch. “Time’s up. Think about what I said. Keep taking your medication. I’ll see you in a few days.”

§

“How old are you, Sheila?”

“Forty-three,” she replied. She had a brown paper bag in her lap.

“You don’t look it.”

A thin smile formed on her lips. “Thank you. I found something interesting.”

“What?”

“This,” she said, taking a thick hardcover book out of the bag. It was the annual compilation of student art put together by the School of Visual Arts. “I hope you don’t mind, but I was curious about your painting, so I ordered this when you first got here a few weeks back.”

“I don’t mind.”

Sheila flipped to the middle of the book. “Tell me about this. It’s beautiful by the way.” She handed the book to Penny. On the left-hand page was a print of a painting Penny had done during her first semester at school. It was a watercolour of a little girl in a summer hat with a light blue balloon in one hand. Her other hand was held by a grown-up, but only the grown-up’s arm was visible. A caption below the print read, “A day at the fair—Penelope Doyle, freshman.”

Penny studied the print for a moment and then looked back to Sheila. “I don’t know what you want me to say.”

“The little girl has no face.”

“It’s a watercolour. She isn’t supposed to.”

Sheila remained quiet.

“You want me to say that the little girl is me, right?”

“Is it?”

Penny turned away.

“Penny?”

“God, I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. I don’t think about stuff like that when I paint. It all comes from a place I don’t try to understand or interpret.”

“OK, I get that. That makes sense. You’re an artist. You don’t want to taint the creative process by asking too many questions.”

“Yeah.”

“But the painting’s done. The creative process is over for this particular piece. What do you think this painting is about? Just take a guess.”

“I told you. I don’t know. Sometimes my paintings are just jumbled memories and feelings I stick together as I work.”

“OK. That’s a start. Let me ask you this. The grown-up in the scene. Who is it?”

“The little girl’s father.”

“Did your dad ever take you to a fair?”

“Sure. What kid hasn’t ever been to a fair?”

“Do you remember this particular day?”

“No.”

“Why doesn’t the girl have a face?”

“No one in the piece has one.”

“Yes, but the only people visible are children. What do you think that means, all those children without faces?”

Penny closed the book and handed it back to Sheila. “I really don’t know.”

“We don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to.”

“I don’t want to.”

“OK. Can we talk about your family?”

“No. There’s nothing wrong with my family.”

“Well, what would you like to talk about?”

“Why do I have to talk about anything?”

“You don’t.”

Penny shifted in her seat. “I mean, I feel fine. I don’t even really know why I’m here anymore.”

“You’re here because you tried to kill yourself. The reason you feel fine is you’re back on your medication. And you don’t have to stay here, Penny. You can go any time you want.”

“I don’t want to go.”

“Well, then what are you going to do?”

Penny shrugged. “I just wish I could paint again. My parents sent me all my supplies from school a few weeks ago, but every time I try, I’m like an empty well. There’s nothing there.”

“You’re stuck. Like writer’s block.”

“My brother Charlie’s the writer, but yeah, like writer’s block.”

“OK. Let’s stick with that for a minute. How do you usually get unstuck?”

“I drink.”

Sheila laughed. “That’s one way to go. The tortured artist. I like that. Does drinking work?”

“Yeah. But usually I get so blitzed that I can’t think for a few days. I just sit in my bed puking and crying.”

“Crying?”

“Yeah. It’s almost like once I start drinking, I have a key to a door that’s usually locked, only I can turn the key now and see what’s behind the door.”

“That makes sense.”

“Are you saying I should get smashed?”

“No, Penny. It’s against the rules for one thing and for another, I’d like to see you unlock that door, as you put it, without the aid of alcohol.”

“I can’t do that.”

“No, you won’t do that. There’s a difference.”

“What does that mean?”

“I’m not going to tell you. You think about it and get back to me in a few days. Time’s up.”

§

“Penny, you can’t stay there forever. I can’t afford it.” It was her father on the other end of the line.

“I thought you said your insurance covered it.”

“It does, up to a point, but you’ve been there going on four months now. It will only cover another few weeks and then it’ll have to come out of my own pocket and that place is really expensive.”

“Great. So, you’re saying, get better in the next two weeks or you’re out of luck, right?”

Jack sighed. “Be reasonable, peanut. Your mom and I aren’t made of money. I thought you’d be out of there by now. Hold on, she wants to talk to you.”

Joely came on. “Honey, forget what your father said. Stay as long as you have to, we’ll find a way to make it work.”

Jack’s voice rang in the background. “Don’t tell her that! We can’t keep doing this, we don’t have the money—”

“Penny, are you OK?”

Jack’s voice again. “Give me the phone—”

“Penny? Are you there? Pen?”

The receiver dangled from the wall phone where Penny had left it.

§

“Your parents called me the other day to check on you. They were very upset.”

Penny balled her hands into fists. “What did you tell them?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“You’re my patient. I can’t discuss what goes on in here with anyone, not even your parents, without your permission.”

“Oh. Thanks.”

“Tell me what happened.”

Penny tucked her legs against her chest and rested her chin on her knees. “Nothing major. Just stuff.”

“But you’re upset.”

“Why do you say that?”

“You only sit that way when you’re about to tell me something that makes you uncomfortable.”

“I do?”

“Yes, you do.”

“Shit.”

“Gotcha, so you may as well spill it.”

“Fine. My dad says I can’t stay here much longer. Finances and all.”

“This place isn’t cheap. But this is OK. This could be a good thing.”

“How’s that?”

Sheila closed her file and tossed it on the table between them. “Penny, I’ve taken about twenty pages of notes since you got here. I’ve read and re-read your file. We’ve had some great, interesting talks. But I don’t know if there’s anything else I can do for you.”

“Why?”

“Because you refuse to open up. You have too many closed doors. We’re not allowed to talk about your family, unless it’s about how great Jake is. You won’t talk about either time you tried to commit suicide. You won’t talk about your painting, unless it’s about how you can’t paint. We’re going in circles. And you’re running out of time here.”

“You’re not being very supportive. I thought you were my friend.”

“No, I’m not your friend. I’m your doctor. And as your doctor, I have to tell you that I am very worried about your chances once you leave here.”

“You’re scaring me, Sheila.”

“You should be scared.”

“OK! Fine! I’m scared! Happy?”

Sheila was quiet for a moment. “Let’s go back to the painting, the one with the little girl at the fair.”

“That again?”

Sheila stayed quiet.

“You want to know about the faces.”

“Yes.”

Penny looked away.

“Come on, Penny. This is the only way. You’ve tried everything else. Alcohol. Drugs. Sex. Suicide. Has any of that made you happy?”

“No.”

“Then talk to me.”

Penny said nothing for a long time. Then, “I’m not going to cry like all the other patients I see coming out of here.”

“Good. Crying’s overdone. Be original.”

“The little girl in the painting? Yes, it’s me.”

“Why doesn’t she have a face?”

“Because that’s how I always felt with my dad. At least since I got sick.”

“I don’t understand.”

“He did take me to a fair once. A picnic actually, when I was in first grade. We had a great time.”

“So, you were about six at the time.”

“Yeah, around there.”

Sheila consulted her file. “And your patient history says you were diagnosed as manic depressive, hold on, it’s right here…”

“I was eight.”

“Right, eight years old. That’s pretty rare.”

“Yeah. And after I got sick, he never looked at me the same way again. I mean, my mom got totally overprotective of me, you know? Like I was made of porcelain or something. But my dad, he was different. He still spent time with me and stuff, but he wouldn’t talk about me being sick. He wouldn’t even say the word ‘depressed’ unless he absolutely had to, not even with my mom. I remember one time at Christmas when my grandma was over and when she asked him whether I was still depressed, he got up and walked away. All he said was, ‘Penny’s fine.’”

Sheila nodded. “You went from being the apple of his eye to…”

“His disturbed daughter. Even though he was in total denial, I always felt like he thought I was weird.”

“Maybe he did. That says more about him than you though.”

“Maybe.”

“So, that’s why no face in the painting. Your dad couldn’t see you. Not the real you.”

“Yeah. And after a while, I got used to it. I thought every girl felt that way.”

“But it still bothered you.”

“Yes. So, am I cured?” Penny asked with a sarcastic smile.

“Not quite.”

“Damn.”

Sheila considered for a moment. “OK, let’s switch gears a little bit. Tell me about Allan. What was he like?”

“At first, very attentive. It really turned me on.”

“Sexually?”

“Yeah, but in other ways too. He knew how to listen. Up to a point. I guess, as gross as it sounds, he was the father I never had.”

“It’s not gross. Sometimes, people seek out partners that fulfil them in ways they weren’t fulfilled as sons or daughters, or as wives or sisters. It happens.”

“Anyway, he lost interest in me after a while. He has a wife and kids.”

“How do you feel about that now?”

“Sort of used. But I also knew what I was getting into.”

“It’s refreshing to see you recognise that, Penny.”

“Do I have to talk any more today?”

“No. Go outside and relax. Watch The Real World. Get something pierced. Whatever you girls do for entertainment these days.”

Penny laughed. “I’m not into piercing.”

“Get a tattoo then. That’ll get your dad’s attention.”

§

Someone knocked on Penny’s door. She looked up from the television.

A nurse motioned for her to come outside. “Someone’s on the phone for you, Penny.”

“Who is it?”

“He says he’s your brother.”

Penny got up and went out to the area where the phone sat on a table between two armchairs. She picked up the phone. “Hello?”

“Hey, it’s me,” Jake said. “How’s it going?”

“Fine.”

He let out a long sigh. “OK, look, I’m sorry I hit your boyfriend.”

Ex-boyfriend.”

“OK. I’m sorry I hit your ex-boyfriend. There. I apologised. Satisfied?”

“Wait a sec. I’m supposed to be jumping for joy because it took you three months to say you’re sorry for acting so stupid?”

“This is the first chance I’ve had to call you, Pen. They don’t give me two weeks’ vacation like in a normal job, OK? I said I’m sorry. I meant it.”

Penny didn’t say anything.

“OK?” Jake said. “You there? Pen?”

“OK.”

There was a pause and then Jake said, “Listen, I’ve got some good news. The navy’s sending me to Earle in a few months.”

“That’s right in New Jersey!”

“Yeah, about seven miles from Staten Island. I mean, it’s not a walk around the block or anything, but it’s pretty close. So, if you decide to stay in New York then we’ll be able to see each other more often.”

“It’s right near Asbury Park.”

“Where?”

“You know, where Springsteen is from?”

“Oh, yeah, I knew that.”

“Bullshit you did.”

“OK. Well, maybe I can set you up with the Boss.”

“That would be nice.”

“Are you doing OK there?”

“Yeah. Dad wants me to leave here soon though. He says he’s running out of money.”

“Want me to talk to him?”

“Yeah, right. That’ll just make things worse.”

“OK. I’ll stay out of it. I’m just sick of him pretending there’s nothing going on all the time.”

“Jake, let it go, will you? I can’t deal with the two of you being at each other’s throats.”

“OK, OK. I hear you.”

Penny changed the subject. “Met anyone yet?”

“Yeah. My bunkmate. Great guy. Carlos Hernandez. Very hot. I’m thinking of going gay.”

“Hernandez, huh? You like them exotic, don’t you, sailor boy?”

“Bite me, you little snot.”

§

“Do you think I’m messed up?”

“Completely,” Sheila said without looking up from her file.

“Thanks.”

“I was kidding. We’re all messed up, some more than others. You just happen to have a disorder that causes emotional problems. You have to learn how to manage it better.”

“I told you, I’ve been taking my medication.”

“Good. Keep taking it. It’s important.”

“I know.”

Sheila looked up from her file then. “Tell me about the first time you tried to kill yourself.”

“What do you want to know?”

Sheila was surprised. “What, no fighting me on this? No resistance?”

“Come on. This isn’t easy.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry. That was clumsy of me.”

“It’s OK. Like I said, what do you want to know?”

“Well, what was going on at the time? The ER report says you were eighteen.”

“I was depressed.”

“Why?”

“I’d just moved to New York for school and felt really out of sorts. Jake had gone into the navy the year before, so I hadn’t seen him in a long time, and my boyfriend from high school had stayed behind to go to Washington State. He was a really great guy. Next to Jake, I loved him more than anyone else in the world.”

“What’s his name?”

“Sean.”

“Do you still talk to him?”

“No. He wanted me to go to WSU with him, but their art program sucked. I don’t think he ever forgave me.”

Sheila scribbled down this new information in her notebook. “I’m sorry it worked out that way. In any case, what you’ve just described is a whole lot of change over a relatively short period of time. No wonder you were stressed out.”

“I couldn’t get out of bed. I felt like I was at the bottom of this deep, dark hole in the earth and I couldn’t get out, no matter how hard I tried. My roommate thought I was crazy.”

Sheila stopped writing. “You’re not crazy, Penny.”

“Sometimes I feel like I am.”

“I talk to crazy people all the time, and trust me, you’re not even in the same league.”

“No?”

“Ever hear voices?”

“No.”

“Feel like you’re being watched? Spied on? From another planet?”

“No, no and no.”

“Then you’re not crazy.”

“Well, that’s good to know.”

“OK, so you’re in this state of paralysis, right?”

“Right.”

“What made you decide to slit your wrists?”

“Well, Jake came to visit me. He was on shore leave. And for the first time ever, seeing him didn’t make me happy. It didn’t snap me out of it. I got worse.”

“Go on.”

Penny’s voice got quiet, her eyes on the floor. “I felt like I was never going to get any better. Ever. If seeing Jake didn’t wake me up, I was never going to wake up. So, I got in the tub and opened my veins while he was out. He wasn’t supposed to be back for a long time, but he’d forgotten his wallet. He always does that. I was really lucky.”

“Oh? Why?”

Penny looked at Sheila like she was nuts. “Because I wouldn’t be alive now if he hadn’t! Why else?”

“You feel lucky to be alive.”

“I do now, yeah.”

“Does that mean you don’t want to die anymore?”

Penny looked thoughtful. “I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re alive.”

“Yeah? Why?”

Sheila closed the file. “For the same reasons anyone would want to know you, Penny. You’re smart. You’re talented. You’re pretty. You have a lot to say. The world needs people like that. It makes life interesting.”

“Thanks.”

“So, did you get a tattoo or what?”

“Uh, no. I’d like to stay the only girl at school who doesn’t have a gazillion tats.”

“Good thinking. Be one of a kind.” She looked at the clock on the wall. “Time’s up, kid.”

§

“Penelope Doyle?”

Penny looked up from her bed. She was reading a copy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. “That’s me.”

It was one of the hospital’s staff. “You have a visitor. Out front.”

Penny frowned. “I’m not expecting anyone.”

“Why don’t you come out front, Penny.”

“OK.” She put the copy of Capote down on her bed and slid her feet into a pair of sandals. When she got to the lobby, she saw her mother sitting in a chair. “Mom? What are you doing here?”

Joely turned to face her daughter. Her eyes were red. “Hi. Let’s go talk in your room, OK?”

“Why? What’s wrong?”

Joely stood. “In your room. Please.”

Penny led her back to her room, a feeling of dread building up inside her. They sat down on her bed. Penny waited.

Joely held her daughter’s hands. “He’s gone, Penny. Jake’s gone.”

Penny knew exactly what her mother meant. She was silent for a moment. When she finally did speak, her voice was hollow. “How?”

“He was at sea.”

“Did he die saving someone? He probably died saving someone, right? Someone who was about to be swept overboard or something?”

Joely pulled her daughter close. “I don’t know. The navy hasn’t told us anything yet. He’s being flown home tomorrow, or the next day.”

“I bet they were in a storm or something. Even those big aircraft carriers get caught in storms, don’t they? He was on deck or something and he saw one of his friends in trouble, so he tried to help him and he was swept overboard too and his body hasn’t been found yet, so maybe he’s not really dead, right Mom?”

“Penny…”

“They haven’t found his body yet, they couldn’t have if it was only yesterday, the ocean out there is so big, it would take a long time to find him, so maybe he’s actually OK, you know? Jake’s really strong and he’s a real good swimmer. Remember when he won all those swim competitions in high school? I mean before he dropped out? Remember?”

Joely looked her daughter in the eye. “Penny, you’ve got to hold it together now, OK? Stay with me now. I need you to stay with me for when he comes home, OK?”

Penny fainted.

ocean

§

“What’s wrong with our daughter?” Jack demanded. Joely sat next to him on the couch in Sheila’s office. “Why won’t she talk?”

“She’s in shock, Mr Doyle.”

“For two weeks? She wouldn’t come home for the funeral!”

Sheila sighed. “Anger is not going to serve your daughter well here. She needs time.”

“Time for what? To become even more catatonic?”

“That is an exaggeration of the situation. Penny is hardly catatonic. She eats, sleeps, reads, showers, walks outside and she’s still taking her medication. What she won’t do is talk. Yet.”

“Well, when the hell will she?”

“Jack—” Joely began.

“No! I’ve had enough of this crap. She’s been here for months and she’s getting worse.”

“On the contrary, Mr Doyle, Penny was just starting to open up to me when her brother was killed. You can’t expect her to recover from something like this right away.”

“Well, none of the other kids are acting this way!”

“That’s because they’re not manic depressives, Mr Doyle. Penny will talk when she’s ready to talk.”

“And how many more goddamn trips will I have to make out here from Seattle?”

Sheila dropped Penny’s file on the table between her chair and the couch where the Doyles sat. “With all due respect, Mr and Mrs Doyle, I advised against your trip here. Penny made it clear she didn’t want to see you after Jake’s death.”

“She told you that?” Joely asked.

“I asked her if she wanted to see you and she shook her head no. You and your husband decided to come anyway. Now you’re disappointed that she won’t talk to you. I’m very sorry for your loss, truly I am, but you are not helping your daughter.”

“And you are?” Jack demanded.

Joely scowled at her husband. He threw his hands up in the air and went quiet. “Dr Montgomery, what should we do?” she asked.

“Go home. Let Penny deal with this in her own way.”

“What if she tries to hurt herself again?”

“This is a top-notch facility, Joely. I have her under twenty-four hour watch.”

“That’s real reassuring. Thanks, lady,” Jack spat at her.

“You’re welcome, Mr Doyle. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a patient waiting for me.”

§

Penny sat on the couch in Sheila’s office in silence. Sheila looked at the clock. Half of their session was already gone. When she looked back at Penny, she found that her patient was watching her. Sheila thought for a moment. “Let’s go outside. It’s a nice day.”

Penny got up and slipped her feet into her sandals. Outside, the day was bright and warm. It was high summer now and the sky was a perfect sheen of dark blue. Penny took her sandals off again and walked barefoot in the grass. The hospital’s lawns and gardens were perfectly manicured and the grass was warm between her toes. Sheila watched Penny work her feet around in the grass and took her shoes off too. Penny smiled and kept walking. The sunlight accentuated the blonde highlights in her light brown hair. They walked for another few minutes before they came to the edge of a meandering brook. On the opposite shore was an old saltbox colonial with a faux mill. The mill’s old wooden wheel turned as the water moved downstream. They sat there and Penny dipped her toes in the brook.

“I saw him the other day, you know.”

Penny’s voice caught Sheila off guard and she turned her attention away from her surroundings and back to her patient. “Saw? Who?”

“My brother.”

“Where?”

Penny pointed to a cluster of oak and chestnut trees. “Over there. By that grove.”

“Were you dreaming?”

“No, I was awake.”

“Did he say anything to you?”

“He said, ‘It’s OK, Pen. It’s OK. You have to wake up now.’” She looked Sheila in the eye. “You think I’m crazy, don’t you?”

“No, Penny. It’s fairly common for people to hear and see things when they’ve undergone the kind of trauma you have.”

“You don’t think it was really him? Like, maybe he came back?”

Sheila dipped her toes in the water now and shrugged. “You know, the hereafter isn’t really my department, kid. I deal with the here and now. Let me ask you this though. Does it matter if it was his spirit or if it was just your mind finding a way to deal with the loss?”

“I don’t know.”

“I think both are possible, Penny. Really, I do. But I think Jake’s message is what’s important here.”

“So, you’re not worried I’m having a mental breakdown or something?”

“Are you worried?”

“A little.”

“In my honest opinion, you’ve been too lucid and functional since your brother’s death to be experiencing a collapse. It’s always possible, but I don’t see the tell-tale signs.”

“I guess. I’m still a little scared.”

“That’s understandable. This is a scary time for you. What do you think Jake might have been trying to tell you?”

“Isn’t it obvious? I’m talking now, aren’t I?”

“Fair enough.” Sheila put a hand on Penny’s shoulder. “You know, kid, I don’t normally do this with patients, but I wanted to tell you I’ve missed talking to you the past few weeks.”

Penny smiled. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. You’re a hoot. I missed that about you.”

“I was thinking about Jake. And why I tried to kill myself and why I can’t paint and my dad and all that stuff. But mostly about Jake.”

“What about him?”

Penny brushed her hair out of her eyes. “That he’s not coming back. That he’s over. It just seems so definite. I mean, it is definite, right? As definite as it gets.”

Sheila didn’t say anything.

Penny went on. “It makes me really sad, because I’m going to miss talking to him. I’m going to miss hearing about the new trouble he’s gotten into. Mostly though, I can’t stop thinking about how he’s just gone. I mean, one day he was here, and poof, the next, he’s gone. He ended.”

“What do you think of all that?”

“I think I don’t want that to be me. Not yet. I’m not ready for that. I thought I was before, and maybe then I was, you know? But now, something’s changed. I don’t know what exactly, but something’s changed.”

Sheila was quiet for a moment. “Penny, I think you’re going to be OK.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.” Sheila used her toes to splash Penny with some water and they didn’t talk any more.

§

Sheila walked past the receptionist, brushing snow from her top coat.

“Oh, Dr Montgomery, this came for you today.” The receptionist handed her a long cardboard cylinder like the ones used by architects to store blueprints.

Sheila looked for a return address and frowned when she couldn’t find one. “OK, thanks, Barb. Hey, when’s my first patient?”

“Not for twenty minutes.”

“Great. Thanks.” She went into her office, fixed herself a cup of tea and sat down at her desk. She opened the cardboard cylinder and a scroll of paper fell out. Sheila opened it and smiled when she saw what it was. A picture done solely in black pencil of two women sitting at the edge of a forest brook, laughing. Both women had faces.

Don’t forget to check out the sequel to this story, “Before I Forget Who You Are”, available soon in Issue Nine of Tincture Journal.

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