This was my brain on drugs: I wondered whose hands were on the steering wheel. I moved my fingers to see if they were mine.
The point of the party was to escape thinking about the night before. Yet despite the lines we banged and the shots we drank, I forgot nothing. The shame only expanded, pressing against my ribcage like an infected inner organ.
I drove and my best friend Erik snored. Calling him my best friend sounded great to everyone but me. People liked us together. We were fun at parties and we were a novelty. A straight girl and a straight guy calling each other best friends didn’t happen at Oakdale High School unless the two were friends with benefits. We definitely had no benefits. Erik and Anne Sanders hooked up almost as soon as he started at our school.
As for me, I was an acquired taste that nobody felt like acquiring.
Whether I was satisfied with the fact or not, Erik was my best friend. I would get him home safe. The road was snaking side to side in the headlights, but I was determined. I hunched over the wheel. If he was awake Erik would have clowned me for driving like an old woman.
This is what I remember happening next:
A dude wearing a hood rose from the asphalt like he was made of smoke. I swerved to the shoulder where a bunch of fallen wooden crates were stacked on the highway shoulder like a pile of broken bones.
Broken bones was my last thought before I hit them. Hard pillows blasted out of the dashboard as we flipped. The windshield exploded and we flew through space in the smashing and crashing of metal and glass.
We landed upright. The car rocked a little bit as if it was thinking about one last flip before finally taking a rest.
“You okay, man?” I asked once I caught my breath. My hands were still on the steering wheel as if I had any control whatsoever.
He didn’t answer.
My neck killed me when I turned to see that Erik’s eyes were closed and his head rested at a wrong angle. He’d been too high to fasten his seatbelt and I’d been too high to do it for him.
I undid my own, the strap whipping back. The engine hissed and I worried about a fire starting. I brushed the glass windshield pebbles from Erik’s shirt. I was sober enough to be able to tell that if he was still alive, pulling him clear of the car would kill him.
I settled back in my seat. If the engine blew, Erik and I would die in flames together. In my aching foggy brain I hoped we would.
A siren wailed.
I brushed the hair from his forehead. “I love you, Erik,” I said.
Above the ragged beat of my own heart, I thought I heard somebody laughing.
Callie. Callie Gil.
A doctor calling my name tugged me from darkness. A light flashed in my eyes. Something beeped. A hospital.
A plastic brace encircled my neck. Maybe I was paralyzed. Doctors moved around me, poking me, ripping my shirt. My boobs were flashing everybody but I didn’t care. I didn’t really feel like I was part of the scene so much. The doctors were doing fine without my help. I closed my eyes and a deep beautiful nothing pool sucked me back down.
I woke again, blinking under the fluorescent ceiling lights. My first thought was to wonder what was happening to Erik. Whatever it was, the whole thing was my fault. My own blame was the one sure thing I knew for a fact.
Erik and I had agreed to go for total annihilation before we’d even banged our first lines.
We had a bad secret squirming between us and we just wanted to kill our guilt over what we’d done. We wanted the shitty feelings dead.
“Erik?” I called. No one answered. I was in the room alone.
Alone except for the tall man who leaned against the wall almost out of my sight line. A sweatshirt hood shadowed his head and face. Maybe the guy was in the wrong room by mistake. Maybe he was a pervert there for a peek at the girl strapped to a board with her shirt ripped in pieces. Or maybe he didn’t exist and it was just the alcohol and Oxy playing tricks on my brain still.
I bit my lower lip until it bled. Erik had been covered in glass, his head cocked to the side and his chin lifted like he was a broken puppet. There had been something wrong with Erik’s neck. A long panicked alarm rang from across the hall.
“Erik!” I called again. A woman I couldn’t see barked orders as the footsteps thundered from the hall to the other room. I tried to sit up but my forehead, wrists, and thighs were strapped. Pain shot down my spine and zinged through my arms and legs as I pushed against the restraints.
Tears streamed down the sides of my head. It had to be Erik in trouble. My best friend and the only guy I ever loved was dying and it was all because of me.
In the corner, the hooded man lifted his arm in a slow, strange way. I struggled to turn my head to look at him straight on but I couldn’t do it.
Staying in the periphery, the man extended his finger as if to accuse me. He had to be a hallucination except that I really didn’t think I was high anymore. I was, however, maybe going to puke. My head hurt. My whole body ached.
The man’s finger uncurled unnaturally long like it was a party blower from a kid’s birthday.
“Hell no,” I said.
He whispered to me from inside his hood. I thrashed on the board, moving like a fish on a line. I yelled for someone to help me.
A cart rattled into the room across the hall. There was a buzzing and a shout for everybody to clear. Was Erik’s heart stopping?
The hooded man chuckled in a voice so deep the sound rumbled in my bones. He approached me with leisure, his finger leading the way. I yelled again for help, but the man did not seem worried that anyone would interrupt his purpose.
He probed my side where the doctors tore my shirt and exposed my skin to the air. The cold fingertip buried into the space between my ribs. I sucked in short breaths, straining to move away from the long weird finger. The bony tip dug into my skin. It broke through my rib cage. The bones moved apart in popping bursts of bright blue pain. He broke through my ribs from the side and pressed that long finger into the muscle of my heart.
My body stiffened in pain. I arched against the board. The monitors attached to me shrieked frantic warnings. The hooded man stepped aside as the doctors jumbled in.
He pantomimed a gun with long white fingers.
Aimed at me.
Pulled the trigger.
Twitter rumors spread that my best friend and we died on arrival. R.I.P. Erik and Callie.
#R.I.P. Skinny. Erik’s nickname was natural for a kid who was six feet tall and could fit through two slats in a fence sideways.
People were dumb. They believed the hype. Neither of us died in the wreck I caused driving drunk and high. The doctors saved me from the freak seizure that stopped my heart.
Other doctors in the other room shoved breathing tubes down Erik’s throat. His brain wasn’t damaged but the nerves of his neck were severed at C-7 and everything below his waist was a ghost town.
Erik and I both lived.
There was no resting and there was no peace.
I lay awake my first night in the state Juvenile Detention Center. A cry fluttered in my mouth like a moth in a net. I did not let it out.
The week before I studied everything I could find about JD. Basically I got an online PhD on how to get through ten months of lockup without getting the shit kicked out of me. I didn’t know if the information was any good yet, but it was all I had.
First off, it was important not to seem weak to the other girls.
Problem was, I’d never felt weaker in my life.
Online wisdom suggested that in prison it was best to be forgettable. I meant to keep as invisible as possible. I meant to be so under the radar that nobody knew me enough to forget me in the first place.
To be honest, most of the tips for surviving in Juvenile Detention weren’t so different from the things I did to get along in the real world: Don’t be eager to make friends but don’t make enemies either. Be chill but don’t be anybody’s punk.
Nights were supposed to be the worst. A person’s mind could just start rolling and never shut off. I lay in the dark and went over the tricks to not going crazy. For example, it was important to not think about the fact that the door to my room locked on the outside.
It was also ideal not to cry. If it was impossible not to cry then at least keep it quiet.
Last but not least, thinking about what I’d done to get to JD would make the time I spent there last forever. I had to put my crime out of my mind.
The only problem was that the image of Erik bleeding, covered in glass and looking dead played in a movie behind my eyes whenever I closed them. Unless I figured a way to sleep with my eyes open, I’d be thinking and dreaming about what I’d done to Erik every single night of my life.
Something rustled in the air vent.
“Hey, do you hear that?” I asked the huddled lump in the next bed. Gia was her name.
“Just be cool,” Gia said.
She was giving good advice. I knew this but there was something in the vent and my breath was speeding up like I was running. Anxiety attacks were a new habit I’d picked up since the wreck. People at school would laugh like crazy if they could see how nervous I was now. They were used to Callie Gil being a tough bitch. I was sarcastic and hilarious. I had been very careful since before middle school that nobody could ever say they saw me sweat.
Claws scratched against thin metal.
It could have been the wind as it roared through the valley and whistled through the cracks in the walls. Most likely it was a rat. The Central Juvenile Detention Center for
Girls was a crumbling building in the middle of a huge empty field off the highway. There had to be a ton of rats.
I made myself still as a dead person. If I was already dead then nothing could get me.
I closed my eyes. Pieces of glass like diamond pebbles sparkled on Erik’s chest. His chin pointed up, his mouth was slack. How many times had I stared at those lips when he was talking, wishing so bad that he would just kiss me?
From a deep place in the air vent someone was laughing. My brain flipped in their gymnastics of denial. It was kids in another room. It was a guard playing a prank. It was a trick in my brain caused by a summer spent snorting Oxycontin through the nose.
“One two, buckle your shoe.” The voice crackled like fire, laughing at his own joke.
I tightened the blanket around myself as though it could protect me. My mouth felt like it was full of paste.
My eyes burned as I stared at the vent two feet off the floor just near where my head would be if I dared to lay it down.
“Seven, eight, get your neck on straight.”
I was stressed and hearing things. Or maybe a guard was watching television and the vent caught the sound. Whatever it was, it had nothing to do with me.
My brain did cartwheels of nope. Somersaults of this-can’t-be-happening.
The vent banged as though something inside was trying to come out.
“Callieeee,” the crackling man crooned. “I waaant yooou.”
The pajama pants issued me that day by the state of California warmed and just as quickly cooled as I wet them.
Our slippers whispered across the floor as we shuffled into group therapy in a straight line. We took our seats in creaking folding chairs.
Every other day the other girls in my block and me had to get in a circle and talk about our feelings In JD there were girls who loved this part of the day. They never stopped talking about their feelings. There was the girl who talked with her arms wound around her body as if she were holding a wild animal in her ribcage. There was the girl who talked while staring at the floor. There was the girl who talked while staring at the ceiling.
Whatever their style, almost everybody talked.
I saw my cousin get shot. He died at my feet.
A friend from my old crew broke into my house and held a gun to my little sister’s head.
My mother beat me with an extension cord. A wooden spoon. A hammer.
My stepfather did worse. You don’t want to know what he did.
During the first few group sessions I made the mistake of thinking that the stories were a bunch of lies. I never said so aloud, but there was no way they could be true. Nobody’s life was that bad.
Now I sat rubbing my hands together and listened without a shred of doubt. The stories didn’t seem crazy anymore. They weren’t even that interesting. I never said this either, but the thing about the stories that impressed me the most was that the girls telling them survived. Yeah, they were in JD. Not great. But I had to admire the fact that they were still alive when it seemed like the whole world wanted them dead.
It was my cellmate’s turn to talk. Gia’s story was just flat out frustrating. She’d been in the backseat of her cousin’s car, headed to a house party. On the way, they took a detour to shoot a guy in a rival gang in a drive-by. Gia wasn’t a validated gang member, which meant nobody told her anything about the plans for the night. She had no idea what was going down but it didn’t matter. Under new anti-gang laws, Gia faced twenty-five to life. In two years, she was heading to adult prison.
“By the time I get out, I’ll be forty,” she said.
I examined the lines on my palms to avoid looking at Gia’s face. Forty was my parents’ age. A lifetime in prison was impossible to imagine for a girl like Gia. She was never going to be able to have kids. She loved to read and she liked things in the cell to be extremely neat. She wasn’t a murderer. She didn’t even do the thing that landed her in lock-up.
Meanwhile, the best person I knew was paralyzed for life because of me and the judge only gave me one year. I wouldn’t have blamed Gia for hating me for the fact I was going to get out by the next Christmas.
She didn’t hate me, though. We weren’t friends, but she never acted mad. I rubbed my hands together and wondered if I would have been as cool as Gia was if our stories were the other way around. Probably not. I’d probably be too jealous to be cool.
I liked the swishing sound my palms made. The habit kept me calm when I was stressed. I didn’t notice at first that the room had gone quiet. When I lifted my eyes, everybody was looking at me.
“What about you, Callie?” Counselor Dave asked. “Do you have anything you want to say?”
Dave was younger than the guards and over half the other girls had a crush on him. I could admit that he was much more of a human being than the other adults running the show. He had no sense of humor about himself, though. I could tell that he thought was was making a real difference in young lives working in that place and it made me want to punch him in the face. And as for me talking in group, that just wasn’t going to happen.
“I’ve got nothing,” I said. “Seriously. I’m just an asshole.”
“Nobody believes that, Callie Dave shook his head.
A big girl named Lily raised her hand.
“I believe it,” Lily said. This comment earned her laughs. Lily looked around the room, a half smile on her round face. My dad would have said she wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. I steered clear of Lily, though. Everybody did. You don’t have to be sharp to be able to do some damage.
“You all are laughing,” Lily said. “But none of you are talking about the man with the hood and I know at least some of you have heard him even if you haven’t seen him.”
“Let’s not change the subject,” Dave said.
“No, let’s,” I said. I sat up, my hands still for once.
“Mr. Hood’s always there,” Lily said, warming to her audience. “He sees everything you did to get here. If you done a bad thing, he knows all about it. He’s like Santa Claus only Satan Claus. Do you feel me? I hear him at night.”
“Me too,” I said.
“Shut the fuck up, Callie.” A harsh whisper from Gia. “Don’t get her started.”
Lily leaned forward with her elbows on her knees. She looked like a football player getting ready to charge center field. “Oh now the asshole got something to say. You hear what the Hooded Man has to say to you, bitch? You hear him through the vents?”
Everyone else in the room seemed to fade away. “I hear him every night, ” I said.
“There is no escape from Mr. Hood,” Lily said.
“I saw him too.” For the first time I was not alone with the fear. So, I wasn’t crazy or hallucinating. I hadn’t broken my brain permanently with pills and alcohol. The thing haunting me even had a name. “He tried to kill me.”
“Mr. Hood can’t kill you.” Lily shook her finger at me. She acted like she was an expert on the subject and I needed to be schooled.
“He did try to kill me,” I said, still aware of the shadow of the shooting pain where my ribs had been broken.
“But you’re still alive though,” Lily said. “I see you there. Breathing.”
Dave waved his arms for attention like he was trying to land a plane that was out of control. I rubbed at my chest. My heart ached where the icy finger had pressed in.
“The doctors saved me,” I said. “But the hooded man wanted me dead.”
“You can die. You can want to die. Mr. Hood can’t kill you, though.” Lily said.
“What do you mean?” Lily was talking in riddles when what I needed were facts. I needed information that I could use. If the hooded man was real, then I could make him go away if only I knew how.
“Let’s talk about what this story symbolizes for you,” Dave said, interrupting. “What’s it trying to say to you?”
Lily and I both turned to look at our poor, dumb counselor.
“Seriously, ladies,” Dave sounded like a kid. “This is actually cool, nothing to be afraid of. You’re talking about your own sub-conscious. You know this, right? There isn’t an actual boogeyman talking to you through the vents.”
“Not the boogeyman,” I said.
“Boogeyman is a different thing.” Lily nodded at me as if I were suddenly her co-expert.
“Mr. Hood then,” Dave said. “A Satan Claus or whatever.”
Lily turned back to me. “Just because he can’t kill you don’t mean he’s not coming for you.”
“What can he do?” I asked. I kept expecting for the others to shut the conversation down with calls of bullshit. But this was not business as usual. The group sat straight as rods, tense and listening. Even the guards standing along the walls were paying attention.
Lily shook out her shoulders like she was getting ready to lift a weight.
“Mr. Hood can’t kill you, but he can make you wish you were dead.”
Lily leaned forward. “He can hurt you so bad that you give him your soul yourself and then thank him for taking it.”
At this, the other girls finally erupted. Gia crossed herself over and over. Chairs scraped against the floor and a couple of the girls rushed Huey and started waling on her and pulling her hair. She ducked her head and windmilled her enormous fists, clocking someone in the jaw. Another girl hugged herself, moaning “Hell naw, Hell naw.”
Dave jumped out of the fray, clinging to the door and banging on it to be let out. A couple of us took a knee and froze in place like we were supposed to during a fight.
I got down in time to avoid a face full of the pepper spray a guard blasted in the room. My eyes were burned almost blind anyway, my nose a running mess. I would never get used to the pepper spray.
“See what you did,” Gia said later in the cell, a wet paper towel over her eyes. “You got Lily riled up and crazy.”
“Do you know what she was talking about?” I blew my nose but it didn’t help. My nose and eyes would never stop running. “Have you ever heard his voice? Have you ever seen Mr. Hood?”
“Maybe. I don’t know,” Gia lay on her back in bed, the heels of her hands pressing into the wet paper on her face. “Everybody’s got a story about this and that. I’ll tell you what,
Lily isn’t right in the head.”
“Maybe she’s not right, but she’s not lying,” I said. I clung to this piece of truth as if would save my life in a flood.
Gia didn’t answer for a while. Finally she sighed like she was the kind of tired ten years straight of sleeping couldn’t help. “Not lying exactly, but she doesn’t know everything she thinks he does.”
“Like what? What was she wrong about?”
Gia waved her hand over her face. “You should never talk about what you were talking about in there. Talking about the man with the hood makes him come around more. And by the way, you should quit drawing him too. The more you do that shit, the more you bring him to life.”
Blindfolded by the towel, Gia crossed herself in an elaborate dance of hand to forehead, lips, heart, shoulders, back to heart and lips. She did it again for good measure. Gia made me wish I had a ritual or charm to feel better. All I had was drawing, and Gia was right about the subject of my sketches. Almost every page was filled with a man in a hood. I wore my pencils flat from shading in the black where the face should have been.
Later in the night when our noses stop flowing, we fell asleep. I woke to the deep voice chuckling in the vents. It could have been the wind from outside rattling the old building. It could have been kids in another cell. My brain was exhausted from trying to do flips to avoid what I knew was true. I was haunted by something bad that was trying to get me.
I lay still in the bed, my ears tuned to every noise coming from the vent. It was a tangled knot of voices, static going in and out. Then one line came out clear as if from a song by an old-timey singer, deep and full of a slow, bubbling joy.
Shame on you. Shame on youuuuu.
I pulled the scratchy wool blanket around my ears.
I had never given my life much thought. Before the wreck I never thought about my life or my soul as something to worry about losing.
I worried now.
Close to my release date, a letter from Erik came in the mail. It was folded into thirds inside a long envelope. Dave asked if I wanted him there while I opened it.
“Who says I’m opening it?” I asked. I didn’t want to talk about Erik with Dave. I tucked the letter into the waistband of my drawstring pants.
After lunch, Gia and I sat in our room waiting for yard time. Gia’s book order had just come in from the library so she was reading. All I could see was the cover hiding her face.
It was a romance with a guy on the front wearing a kilt. The only noise was the flipping of pages.
I ran my thumb along the top of the envelope, slit neatly by a mailroom guard. Our mail was never private. The guards were probably laughing at me at that moment for getting a letter from a boy who hated me. Because he had to hate me. Nothing else made sense.
I wasn’t allowed to talk to Erik at all leading up to my court date and trial. My lawyer was a friend of my dad’s and he said it was forbidden for me to talk to Erik or anyone else
who had been at Mark’s party the night of the wreck. By the time I got that letter it had been over a year since I’d seen him.
I wondered if Erik was able to type the letter himself or if a nurse had to do it for him. I imagined what the nurse would say when Erik told her what to write to the girl who ruined him:
How many times do you really need to tell this Callie person that you hate her and that you wish she was the one who was paralyze? You say you want me to write Fuck You ten thousand times?!
“Open it already,” Gia didn’t bother looking up. “Damn, girl. It’s just a letter.”
It was not just a letter. The letter was a grenade and reading it would pull out the pin and blow me to pieces.
“I can see who it’s from,” Gia said. “It’s from the dude you paralyzed. So open the letter. Just do it.”
It was funny that even though we’d lived together almost a year, Gia only knew Erik as the dude I paralyzed. Even she didn’t know how much I loved him.
She did know some things about me, though. I didn’t share much in group, but over the months together Gia and I talked sometimes when the nights went on forever. I guessed she knew as much about me as anybody.
I unfolded the paper, grateful for Gia bossing me around from across the room. It was better than being alone. I tensed my shoulders, trying to ready for whatever Erik had to say. I deserved my his hate. I deserved ten thousand pages of Fuck You.
I scanned the page.
It wasn’t a hate letter.
Cal, if you are blaming yourself for this, don’t. We were both going for total annihilation that night, and we both know why. What happened to me was not your fault.
Relief bum rushed shame and loneliness inside me so fast I fell back against the wall. For a sweet minute a sharp ray of hope sliced me right open. Erik forgave me. Maybe everything would be okay. The letter shook in my fingers. I read it again.
We were both going for total annihilation.
Shame curled its way back in to my gut like smoke from burning oil. Erik’s forgiveness did not change the fact that he was never going to walk again.
My friend’s words could also not change what happened the night before the wreck. No amount of forgiveness between the two of us could make right what we’d done together.
The letter slipped from my hands. A draft from the vent blew it under the bed.
“Bitch, you dropped it,” Gia said, always a neat freak. Anything out of place gave her anxiety.
“Yeah, all right.” I got down and reached for the paper under the bed.
Another hand shot from the dark. Hard fingers grabbed my wrist. I yanked my arm back and scrambled across the floor.
“What the fuck?” Gia drew her legs up. “Was there a rat?”
I flew to the door, pounded on it with both fists. I heard myself hollering and told myself to stop. It was a bad idea to attract attention. The whole time at the JDC I had mostly managed to stay quiet. Under the radar.
I begged myself to stay quiet but I couldn’t listen, not even to myself.
Ice pierced my wrist bones. I heard myself yelling as if from somewhere else.
The guards pushed me down. They restrained me with a zip tie. They ordered me to stop yelling. I ordered me to stop.
Ice encircled my wrist tighter than the zip ties ever would and I couldn’t stop.
There was a pinch on my arm from a needle.
I sank into a druggy fuzz, my own voice no longer loud enough to drown the sound of deep hollow singing echoing through the hall.
Shame on youuuuuuu.