Rituals

1.

Monday morning, it’s Mindy’s turn on the leash.

She strips off her gown and Nurse ties the leash around her waist. She gets down on all fours. Mindy’s breasts hang below her. She barks at a slender old man opposite her. When she is done barking, Nurse says, “Flail,” so she flails. Her toes flex against the floor. Nurse says, “Scream,” and she screams a wet and tired sound.

The old man is dressed in khakis and a bloodstained sweater. He crosses his arms, smiles, puts them down then crosses them again. He does this over and over but he never talks. The Machine’s projections don’t talk.

Nurse says, “Breathe,” and Mindy inhales, takes off the leash and puts her gown back on. She walks out and comes to sit beside me.

“Well done,” I tell Mindy.

“Water,” she croaks.

I give her my bottle and she drinks. She keeps her head down, staring at her hands, folded in her lap. I put my hand on top of hers, feel her roughness under my fingertips. She cries and I hold her. “You can cry if it’s your first time,” I say. “I cried my first time. It’s fine.”

“It’s what he did when he showed the police the grave.” Mindy says. “He was proud of it, the grave he dug for my Teddy.”

I close my eyes, catch myself trying not to think of graves or dead children. Four months I’ve been here now. Four months, one week, two days.

I touch her wrist, feel her pulse is up, say, “You’ll be just fine.”

“This is hell,” she says.

“Not quite,” I say.

Through the one-way mirror on the leash room, we watch the remaining mothers take turns. They bark, flail, scream. Then they come around and sit next to us. Mindy and I watch as the Machine’s holograms morph into a pit bull with a foaming mouth. Then the pit bull’s face melts and becomes a bus bumper with bits of someone on its grill. Then the grill grows a tap and becomes an overflowing bathtub. The bathtub grows tentacles and morphs into a large brain tumor.

When all the mothers have taken their turn, Nurse switches off the Machine and everything quiets down. She walks back and stands before us with her clipboard. She’s wearing bright white shoes.

“Bedtime,” she says and we walk to the dorm.

I can never sleep these days. Mindy’s bunk is next to mine. She stares at the empty bunk above her.

“Karen, you’re a good person,” she says.

“Thanks, I guess.”

I always have a hard time with Mindy’s bedtime conversations.

She asks, “Is the worst of it over?”

I shut my eyes, feel a tear against an eyelid. I hold Mindy’s hand.

2.

Thursday night is Purge Night. Nurse seats us in glass boxes, four to a box, each in a corner. The glass is cold against my bare skin. Nurse says, “Purge,” and we bang our hands against the glass.

We bang until someone breaks the glass in each box and it turns red with blood.

I break the glass in my box. Warm blood runs down my palms. “Up,” Nurse says and I rise and step out of my box and walk to Nurse. I start to cry then I wipe my eyes. Nurse holds a small mirror to my face. There is blood on my forehead and my cheeks, straight lines down and across from wiping my face with bloodied hands. It looks like the face of a warrior from some Amazonian tribe. For a moment, this calms me.

Nurse puts the mirror away then touches a small glass canister against my cheek, trapping my tears into it. She caps the canister and stashes it in her pocket.

“Where do they go?” she asks for the millionth time.

“In the water, in the water we drink.”

“Why do they go there?”

“Because they’re good for you.”

• • •

That night, when everyone is sleeping, I sneak back into the leash room. When I enter, the leash is folded on the table, the Machine next to it whirs like a refrigerator. I fidget with the bandage on my hand then sit on the floor.

The Machine emits a small whistle before a beam of light hits my face. I sit and stare at my own eyes. My projection is me and I’m wearing a blue dress with a cloud pattern. When Alex first spoke, he had pointed to that dress and said, “Sky.”

“I hate you.” I tell the projection. It doesn’t respond; this is a one-way conversation.

Four months ago, when I first arrived at LeaveBehind, Nurse asked about my pick for the Machine.

“Can it be me?” I asked.

“It’s a difficult decision, who to blame for the broken things inside us.” Nurse said. “You can pick yourself but maybe we put some makeup on the projection to assist you during the more intense sessions.”

“No,” I interrupted her, “no disguises.”

Nurse shrugged, wrote “self” on her clipboard. Then she repeated the motto of the facility.

“All it takes is a step forward.”

3.

A List of Things You Will Throw Out

His old coloring books (outlines of black parrots, pink rabbits, all messy inside), his crayons, his schoolbag (empty out crumbs and all that sand), his water bottle, his Star Wars bed sheets smelling like lilac (keep just this one thing?), his shoes (fidget with the Post-It on the garbage bag that says: “Goodwill”), all his books full of wicked witches and giants and talking goats, his Legos, his underwear with the bad elastic, his height chart and Oddball, the duck in armor with a frayed tail (“I found a name, I found a name, I found a name! Wanna hear it? Sir Oddball the Frayed! Ha! Ha ha ha!”).

His blank notebooks, lined up to be filled.

His toothbrush.

His comb (keep the hair, you get to keep those strands, that’s him now, can’t throw him out).

4.

Next morning, Nurse walks into the dorm wearing her anger mask. It’s plastic and white with frowning eyebrows, holes for eyes and a mouth cut out in the shape of a bowtie.

“Who entered the leash room last night?” she says.

Nobody replies. I sit there, trying to maintain a neutral expression. Nurse comes over to me and asks, “Was it you, Karen?”

“No,” I say.

“Karen,” she says.

I look at her mask, chew on my lower lip.

“I know it was you.”

“It wasn’t me.” I say.

Nurse slaps me.

“No!” I say, tears in my eyes.

She walks over to Mindy’s chair, says, “Mindy will be disciplined if you do not admit. Was it you, Karen?”

“Why punish Mindy?” I say.

The room is silent. I can hear my own heartbeat.

“It was! It was her, it was her!” says Mindy from the far end of the row.

I look at Mindy and her eyes are wide, her fingers tugging on Nurse’s sleeve.

“I need to hear it from Karen,” says Nurse as she looks at me. In her anger mask, I can’t help but think that she looks like the kind of person who would wind up on the Machine someday, be someone’s living, looping nightmare to flail at.

“It was me,” I say.

“Why did you do it?” Nurse asks.

I don’t say anything so she presses on, “Did you want some alone time with the Machine?”

“Yes,” I say.

“Hand,” she says and I look at her.

“Please,” I say.

She cocks her head sideways, eyes still fixed on mine. I close my eyes then extend my arm and she holds on to it, fingers cold around my skin. From her scrub pocket, she takes a small syringe and injects me with it. It’s a small prick at first and I can feel the warm serum coursing up my inner elbow. Tonight, I realize, my dreams will really suck.

“No alone time except under supervision and with the leash, Karen.” Nurse says.

I sob. She sighs then moves over to my chair, pats my back. “We’re heading to the yard,” she says to everyone.

She takes off the anger mask on our way out.

When we’re out, Nurse stands with a clipboard at one end of the yard and the rest of us stand next to each other. In front of us is a row of identical little girls. All of them have the same short black hair, the same neutral faces, dead as Styrofoam cups. They’re dressed in hospital gowns and a little whiteboard dangles around each of their necks by a string. Each whiteboard has one of our names scrawled on.

Nurse says, “Move,” and each row moves a few steps closer to the other until we are a step away.

“Don’t be afraid of getting close to your inner child,” Nurse says.

My inner girl’s sign has my name misspelled (KARN). It’s written in yellow crayon so bright that I can barely see it in the afternoon sun. We stand in front of each other. I point at her with my index finger, she touches her index finger against mine, her eyes turning a bright silver.

“How have you been?” KARN asks.

“I’m well,” I say. “I’m old.”

“You are very old,” she says. “How does it feel to be so old?”

“Not super-old. Oldish. 32.”

“Are you happy?”

“What do you mean?”

“Let me show you.” Then she steps away and does a little changement that I used to do when I was nine. I find it quite moving, how she knows to do a changement, how she thinks that is happy.

“How do you know how to do that?” I ask.

She points to her left wrist where a barcode is tattooed.

I bend down, wrap my arms around her. Against my knees, the yard’s grass is rough and plastic. I wish she would melt into me, somehow. When I pull back, a strand of my hair is tangled in hers and we straighten it out.

“Do you have something to tell me?” KARN asks.

“Mindy ratted me out today.”

“You were already caught.”

“How do you know?”

“Same way I know how to do a changement.

I reach to stroke her hair then reconsider, hover my hand above her head, strands of her hair tickle my palm.

“Where do you go?” I ask. “After I get out of here, where do you go?”

She tilts her head up toward the sky where some ducks fly by. I watch them with her. They ascend, descend and ascend again, up and down like a yo-yo.

“Home,” she answers.

“Where is that?”

“Where you stop running from yourself.”

“Isn’t that line from a fucking TV show?”

“Hey! Karen!” Nurse shouts. “You can’t say ‘fucking’ in front of your inner child!”

KARN and I roll our eyes.

KARN gives Nurse a side-eye, then, under her breath, she says, “You just said ‘fucking.’ Dumb cunt.”

I giggle. KARN grins.

“Where do you go when you get out of here?” KARN asks.

I can’t find an answer. I pretend I’m thinking something profound, fix my eyes on those ducks.

5.

Some Questions You Will Remember Given the Right Drug

What – what car accident? What do you mean “identify the body?” When? How?

What food do we get for the funeral? Which coffin?

What face to wear?

Who will be at the funeral? Why do they get to smile and cry and say they are sorry for my loss? Why is there no hand around their lungs, squeezing the air out of them with each breath?

How is he now my “loss?”

Can we cancel the funeral? Why are there funerals?

Why now?

Is he in the ground? Is he in these fucking pictures?

Did it hurt?

Why us?

Why me?

6.

A week later, Nurse comes into our dorm, says, “Karen, Mindy, your first assessments are next Thursday.”

A passed assessment means we get out. A failed one is a month’s extension. Every mother’s assessment is different. Mindy sits up in her bunk, facing me.

“I’m sorry,” she says, “about the other day.”

I study her face. She has pockmarks on her nose and her left cheek. Her lips are parched and her eyes are dry. Somewhere under there, there was once a person. Now there’s only skin and imperfections. I wonder how my face looks, if it has melted away yet.

“It’s okay,” I say, “I forgive you.” I move over to sit on the bunk next to her.

“Do you think we’ll pass the assessment?” she says.

“I’m not sure. Do you want to get out?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you think it’s going to be like, getting out?” I ask Mindy. She’s silent, maybe she’s thinking, but I can’t stand silence anymore. Not today. I want to open my chest and lay my red heart in her lap and have her feel everything inside. Here Mindy, I’d say, tell me something good.

Instead, I put my hand on her head and push her face against my chest, feel our collective lungs breathing like a machine.

7.

Bed Sheet

THERAPIST OFFICE INTERIOR, MORNING.

KAREN seated on one side of the office, holding onto a child-sized black sneaker. THERAPIST is sitting on opposite end of the office next to a small table. In the background is a big, circular, colored glass window with the outline of a white swan drawn against a blue backdrop. Daylight shines through it. Center is ALEX who lies face-up, head at KAREN’s side and feet at THERAPIST’s. His eyes are closed and there’s blood pooling around his head.

In both of KAREN’s and THERAPIST’s laps are their own hearts, red and pulsing, dripping blood down on the floor and their clothes. Their hearts are connected to their bodies at their chest with two plastic tubes that go under their shirts.

KAREN: Some days it’s like every angle I see is slightly off by a few degrees. As if everything I own, my couch, my toothbrush, the little cherub figurine on my bookshelf had been stolen and then replaced with an exact replica. Some days it feels like I’m stuck in a bag of skin. Like I, too, am a copy of someone else who used to live in this body. That doesn’t make sense. I don’t know.

THERAPIST: Go on.

KAREN: I think what hurts the most is forgetting. Because it’s not in my control and because I’m forgetting already. Last Thursday, I was at the supermarket, shopping for groceries. When I got home I realized I had only got my Captain Crunch and not Alex’s Fruit Loops. I didn’t even think twice about it at the cereal aisle or at the cash register or on the way home. Only when I was unpacking the shopping bags. Then last Friday, somebody sent me a cat video and – well, I laughed. I felt so guilty about laughing and right after, I tried to remember Alex’s laugh, the sound of it. But I couldn’t. In my head, it was just this silent loop of him laughing, as if someone had pressed the mute button. So I said words I associated with his laugh out loud to myself instead: “Warm, comfortable, loved.” I could put words to the memory but the thing itself was gone.

THERAPIST: (puts his hand on the heart in his lap as if petting it) That all sounds very hard.

KAREN: I always heard people talking about grief. I used to think of it as some sort of extra-sad sadness. But I don’t think it’s that.

THERAPIST: What do you think it is?

KAREN: A kind of death.

(KAREN pinches one of the tubes connecting her heart to the rest of her body. Her heart struggles in its pulse. Then she lets it go and the heart goes back to normal.)

THERAPIST: Have you had thoughts about hurting yourself or others?

KAREN: If I say yes, you’ll just put me away someplace.

THERAPIST: I can’t put you anywhere you don’t want to be. You never gave me that authority.

(Silence)

THERAPIST: (crosses one leg over another) What’s with the shoe?

KAREN: I got it back from Goodwill. I couldn’t find the other half of the pair, though.

THERAPIST: Do you like holding it?

KAREN: (nods)

THERAPIST: How is your sleep?

KAREN: Bad.

THERAPIST: Ambien?

KAREN: Mostly. I got a few hours last night though, at least.

THERAPIST: Did you do anything different last night or just the Ambien?

KAREN: Knitting.

THERAPIST: (surprised, smiles) Well that sounds – interesting.

KAREN: (laughs weakly) Yeah.

THERAPIST: What are you knitting?

KAREN: Knitted. I knitted all of Alex’s old clothes together. The ones, you know – the ones I couldn’t give away. I made a bed sheet.

THERAPIST: (concerned) From Alex’s old clothes?

KAREN: (excited) Well I stayed up all night. I joined each pajama top and bottom, each pair of pants, T-shirt, underwear, everything. There was even this red onesie with white dinosaurs on it from when he was two. It didn’t all fit perfectly together. But I filled up the spaces with his old socks. It’s uneven and patchy in places but now I have a bed sheet. Of him. I spread it on my bed when I was done and fell, face-first, onto it.

(THERAPIST stands, carefully holding his heart in one hand, and walks to the desk behind him and grabs a brochure. KAREN, looking directly at ALEX and not noticing THERAPIST walking, continues talking.)

KAREN: I put my nose against each part the sheet and I inhaled – his body lotion, his sweat, his powder, some of it years old. I breathed until it felt like he was closer to me than my own veins. Then I looked at the wall clock and saw it was 4 a.m and I slept.

(THERAPIST returns to foreground.)

THERAPIST: Alright, I have a suggestion. Take it or leave it, no pressure. This is a new experimental place. (He steps over ALEX and hands KAREN the brochure.) A change of scenery.

8.

The night before our assessment, Mindy gets her hands on a box of cigarettes and I convince her to sneak up to the roof to smoke with me.

I’m wearing only my nightgown and it’s cold up there. Every gust of wind seems to pierce a bone. There are broken chair legs on one side and a bucket of paint on the other. Someone has painted the word “Forgiven?” in bright yellow paint on the far wall.

“Forgiven?” Mindy reads.

“Forgiven,” I say, like I mean it.

We sit on the wall and dangle our legs in the air. Mindy lights up and passes me the cigarette. The warm smoke fills my lungs, rushes past my nostrils on its way out. Then Mindy gets up and stands on the wall. She stretches her hands to her side. Her gown is stuck to the front of her body by the wind.

“All it takes,” she says, giggling slightly, “is a step forward.”

Mindy puts one foot out, arms still outstretched.

“Get down, Mindy,” I say, trying to mask the panic in my voice.

But then, the wind rubs my hair a certain way and something changes. I put out the cigarette.

I get up and I stand a little farther on the edge and stretch my arms until my fingertips touch Mindy’s. I dangle one foot out.

“There.” I say, catching my breath. “Now, what?”

9.

Day Of

Usually you drive Alex to school but not this morning. This morning you are lazy.

You wake up crummy; two pounds heavier on the scale. The bus stop is only a couple of blocks away, he’d taken it before to school. You say, “Honey, do you mind taking the bus today?”

He sighs, says, “Lazy Karen.”

“Hey!” you say, smiling.

He leaves his cereal half-eaten and heads for the door. Before he goes out he stops, as if he remembered something. He holds the door, grins at the street outside then turns to you. This is the picture: him holding the door ajar, smiling like he has a secret.

“Forget anything?” you ask as you pick up the dishes.

“Nope.” he says. “Drink your coffee Lazy Karen.”

Then you hear the sound of the screen door shutting behind him, his footsteps on the stairs.

You’re still at the kitchen table, smoking a cigarette, when the phone rings.

10.

Nurse wakes us up the next morning and leads us to the yard. Outside, the morning is all clear sky and clueless birds. A wooden wall, as wide as the yard and as tall as the building, stands across the grass. At its center is an orange nylon tube, with only its rim visible, big enough for a person to walk into.

“You go first, Karen.” Nurse says to me. “You get in the tube, get out the other side. If you take longer than fifteen minutes, you fail.”

“That’s it?”

Nurse nods. I look to Mindy.

“Good luck,” Mindy mouths at me.

I take a step inside. The nylon is soft against my fingertips. I look behind me and the tube has already closed my entrance, the rim no longer visible from inside.

Then my legs give way and I’m on my knees. There is no other way to navigate. The tube seems to be pressing shut in front of me and I have to pry it open with my arms.

I look behind me for Mindy, but I see nothing except the shifting nylon, closed in from both sides. I push open more space and keep staggering along. Through the folds I can only glimpse what’s ahead.

Just enough to keep on, keep pushing against these shifting walls.

Fall. Get up. Fall better.

It’s hard, lonely work.

Far but inching close is the other side of the yard. I see flickers; jagged coins of tender light dancing softly, softly, on the cold, dead grass.


Hamdy Elgammal is an Egyptian software engineer and writer based in Berkeley, CA. For a few years in middle-school he wrote Harry Potter fan fiction but he’s since moved on. His prose has been published or is forthcoming in Origins Journal, Jersey Devil Press, Easy Street and Five on the Fifth.