Time to take my pill.
Every morning, before I go downstairs for breakfast, I take one of the pills in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. The label for Lexapro is written in braille, but I don’t need it. The bottle is always on the bottom shelf of the medicine cabinet, all the way on the left. The next bottle in the row is Tylenol, which is easily distinguishable from the Lexapro by its size. There’s one other bottle, which is my sleeping pills, although I only take those if I need them. So the Lexapro is the only one I take every single day.
They started it back at rehab, when I refused to participate in my therapies anymore. It wasn’t always that way—I started off strong. Really strong. I got out of the hospital after being seriously ill for a long time, and I was eager to get back to my real life. I knew I had a lot of challenges ahead of me, but I was used to hard work. I thought it wouldn’t be anything I couldn’t get past with some training. In other words, I was fucking deluded.
For three months, I was a model patient. I learned to navigate voice-operated programs on the computer and my phone. I learned to walk using my white cane without bumping into things (much). I was even learning to cook. They got me into the kitchen and had me make scrambled eggs. I seasoned them with salt and pepper and parmesan cheese, and I joked with my therapist that they were the best eggs I ever made in my life.
The night I made the eggs, I had trouble sleeping. I had struggled with insomnia since my injury, and usually would listen to an audiobook or ask for a sleeping pill. But that night, I decided to use my newly acquired kitchen skills to make myself a cup of tea.
I had a mental map of the rehab unit, so I felt confident of finding the kitchen without any difficulty. I was so confident, I didn’t even bring my cane. I had been there dozens of times in the three months I’d been in rehab. Dozens of times. It hadn’t even occurred to me I’d have any trouble.
But as it turned out, I missed the turn for the kitchen. I kept walking, intermittently feeling the walls for landmarks, but not finding anything familiar. At some point, I realized I had accidentally wandered out of the rehab unit entirely. If it were daytime, someone would have rescued me quickly and brought me back, but since it was two in the morning, there was no one around. No one I could hear, anyway.
At first, I was confident I could find my way back. I kept feeling the walls for landmarks. At one point, I felt the edges of a sign and was certain it would tell me where to go, but while the signs on the blind unit all had braille characters, this sign was flat. I ran my fingers over it, frustrated that I had no way of extracting the information it contained.
It took half an hour. Half an hour of wandering around, growing more and more frustrated and scared, before a woman’s voice asked if she could help me. I told her in a shaky voice that I was trying to find my way back to the blind rehab unit. She led me there, and here’s the punchline: I was only about three minutes away. I’d been going around in circles the whole time, trying to find something practically under my nose.
I couldn’t sleep after that. All I could think about was how I’d gotten hopelessly lost going to a place I’d been to many times before. The thought of doing something new without help was unfathomable. No matter how hard I worked here, I would always need help. I was always going to be on the brink of being lost.
For the first time since I lost my sight, I felt the full weight of my disability.
I lost interest in therapy after that. I figured what was the point? A lot of days, the therapists had trouble persuading me to even get out of bed. I got sick of hearing their motivational speeches. They could see and I couldn’t, so what the hell did they know anyway? I wanted to go home.
That’s when a psychiatrist came in to evaluate me. No PTSD, he decided. Just depressed. He prescribed the Lexapro, but it didn’t help. I still wanted to go home.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t as easy as all that, and I knew it better than anyone. Maybe I was competent to say I wanted to leave and they couldn’t hold me against my will, but so what? It wasn’t like I could physically leave on my own. I didn’t even know how to get out of the building, much less find my way back to Dorchester. I was trapped by my disability. They had to call my parents, who flew in to see me and to try to convince me to stay. It didn’t work.
Well, maybe he’ll do better once he’s home, they all said.
Except I haven’t done better at home. I’m the first to admit I haven’t made any progress whatsoever since I left rehab. At first, I dutifully went to the low vision clinic in JP, but I refused to go once they pushed me to do anything outside of the VA. I’ve been to the psychiatrist there once, but missed my last two appointments.
I pull the bottle of Lexapro off the shelf. I shake it—it’s about half full. I remove the cap and place it carefully on the sink so it doesn’t end up flying into the toilet bowl. I shake one pill into the palm of my left hand. Then I hesitate.
These pills don’t help. I should just dump them down the toilet—on purpose this time. I can’t figure out why I’m taking them other than it makes my mother happy. I’m on the maximum dose now. It does nothing.
I sigh and toss the pill in my mouth. I turn on the sink, let some cold water run into my hand, and throw that down my throat to help me swallow it. Taking the pills keeps my mother off my back, at least.
I head downstairs to get some breakfast. I don’t use my cane inside the house, so I have to walk slowly and carefully. My parents’ house is small and I know it really well. I keep my hand on the wall intermittently when I walk, and the dim shadows I can see are enough to ensure I probably won’t walk into a wall. Probably.
There are twelve stairs to get from the second floor to the first floor of the house. I have to count carefully as I walk down them, holding onto the railing. Last week, I counted wrong somehow and ended up on the floor. I couldn’t see it, but I was told I had a black eye for days. If I were smart, I’d use my cane in the house, but I don’t want to.
When I get to the base of the stairs, the scent of eggs fills my nostrils, and I nearly gag. Ever since that day in rehab, I can’t stand the smell of eggs. I know I’ve told my mother that, but she’s making them anyway. The smell is bad enough that I nearly go back upstairs. But I barely ate dinner last night and my stomach is growling. Better eat.
The stench of eggs grows stronger when I get closer to the kitchen. Now that I’ve lost my sight, my buddy Dan (the only friend I’ve got who still talks to me) asks me if my other senses are heightened. For example, do I have Super-smell? Short answer: I do not. But I know eggs. I could recognize them a mile away.
A pan sizzles loudly, and I don’t get any closer. I have no interest in getting anywhere near the stove anymore. I can microwave anything I need to eat. My parents put braille labels on the buttons of the microwave so I’d know what was what.
“Hi, Colin.” My mother’s voice. I’ve gotten used to her forced cheerfulness. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah,” I mumble.
Another sizzle from the pan. “Do you want some eggs, honey?”
My stomach turns. “No. I’ll make myself some cereal.”
“I can make it for you,” she offers.
I bite back a smartass response. She’s always pushing me to do more on my own, but somehow she doesn’t think I’m capable of making a goddamn bowl of cereal.
“I can handle it,” I say through my teeth.
I turn to the cabinets where I know my parents keep the bowls. I open the cabinet and pull out a medium-sized bowl. Frosted flakes are kept on the countertop. I find them with my fingers, open the box, and shake them into the bowl. I don’t hear any hit the counter, which I count as a win.
“So what did you talk about with Major Floyd yesterday?” Ma asks me.
I leave my bowl of cereal to find the fridge. Ma keeps the milk on the door of the fridge, bottom shelf, all the way on the left.
“Quit pretending you don’t know,” I say. I pull out the half-full carton and bring it back to the counter. “I’m sure he had a talk with you about me. Didn’t he?”
Ma is quiet for a minute. She’s always been a crap liar. “He mentioned he thought you might want to learn to read braille for books.”
I open the container of milk and sniff it. I made the mistake of not smelling the milk in the past and ended up with a bowl of frosted flakes and sour milk. And once a bowl of frosted flakes and orange juice. I almost lost it when that happened.
“So?” she says.
“So are you interested in getting better at braille?”
“No.” I tip the milk carton just enough so that I don’t drench my cereal. I hate soggy frosted flakes. “Not really.”
“I think it would be great for you,” she says. “It would be a challenge, but not too overwhelming.”
Somehow she’s seized on my “not really” to mean “maybe.”
“I called the library,” she goes on. “They didn’t have any braille books at the Dorchester branch, but they said they could order some and have them in a few days.”
“The library?” I replace the cap on the milk and walk back to the fridge to put it back where it was, where I’ll be able to find it next time. “I’m not going to the library. Are you out of your mind?”
“I thought it would be nice to get out of the house,” she says.
“I get out of the house.”
“Walking to the corner store every day and back is not getting out of the house.”
Every few days, when I feel like I’m suffocating within the walls of my bedroom, I take a walk. I’ve got a map in my head of everything on the five-block walk to the mini-mart at the corner. I know where all the crosswalks are. Raj at the mini-mart knows my situation and doesn’t act awkward when I come in the door. He pours me a coffee, and I know the stools and the counter are on the left. The chances of my falling, injuring myself, looking like an idiot, or getting lost during this excursion are relatively minimal.
“Please, Colin.” The smell of eggs is fading. Maybe she’s done cooking. “I think this would be good for you.”
I feel around in the drawer below the counter for a spoon. Ma was always the queen of weird spoons—the silverware drawer contained impossibly tiny spoons, comically giant spoons, spoons with holes in them for no discernible purpose. I used to joke around that it would take me half an hour to sort through all the crazy spoons and find a normal-sized spoon. But now I feel in the first slot of the silverware sorter and pull out a normal spoon on my very first try. It’s all she has in there anymore. I don’t know where her crazy spoons all went.
“No, Ma,” I say. “I don’t want to. It’s… pointless.”
“You say everything is pointless.”
Maybe because everything is pointless. I come out of my room for meals, I go outside every once in a while, I shower and brush my teeth—what the hell else does she want from me?
I pick up my bowl to carry it the three feet from the counter to the kitchen table. It’s something I have done dozens of times before. Something I’d felt confident I could handle without any difficulty. But just like when I was in rehab and thought I could find the kitchen, there’s something waiting to trip me up.
Except this time it’s literal. I trip on the leg of one of the chairs.
The miracle is I manage to hold onto my cereal bowl. But the contents go flying. I hear Frosted Flakes hitting the floor and milk sloshes against my hand clutching the bowl. The spoon clinks against the ground. Or is it the table? Who the hell knows?
If I were alone, I don’t know how I’d possibly begin to clean this up. Maybe this is something they would have taught me if I’d stayed in blind rehab—how to clean up a bigass mess you can’t see. Because your parents left a fucking chair in the middle of the room.
“What the hell?” I yell, my right hand balling into a fist as I slam the bowl down on the table with my left.
“Calm down,” Ma says quickly. “It’s no big deal. I’ll clean it up.”
“But you…” I kick at the chair—hard. There’s a loud thump as it topples to the floor. “You left a fucking chair in the middle of the room when you knew I’d trip over it!”
All the blood rushes to my face. “Really, Ma? Are you fucking kidding me?”
But it’s too late. My fist has taken on a life of its own. Before I can stop myself, I’ve thrown a punch directly into the wall.
If I didn’t spend over an hour every day burning off my frustrations by lifting weights in my bedroom or if the walls in the kitchen were a little better reinforced, the outcome might have been different. As it is, the plaster cracks and yields under my fist. I may not be able to see the damage, but I know it’s bad.
And then I’m shaking. I’ve never punched a wall before. Never done anything like that. I’ve seen plenty of guys in my platoon do it. Some of those idiots broke their hands on walls less yielding than this one. But not me. I didn’t have a temper. I was the guy who talked the other guys down.
I can’t believe I broke the wall. Shit.
What the hell is happening to me?
I hear soft whimpering. Ma. She’s crying. Christ, she’s crying. I made my mother cry.
“I’m sorry, Ma.” I rub my hands over my face. My right knuckles feel sore—I wonder if the skin is broken. “I didn’t mean to…”
She doesn’t say anything. She’s still crying.
My chest feels tight, like someone is cinching a belt around my rib cage. “Ma?”
“I don’t know what to do for you anymore, Colin.” Her voice is barely a whisper. “Tell me what to do. Please.”
She’s crying harder now. I feel awful. I want to hug her, but I don’t entirely know where she is.
“Look,” I say, “I’ll… I can go to the library with you. We can do the braille thing if you want.” I’m desperate to get her to stop crying, so I add, “It won’t be so bad.”
“You’ll really go?” Her voice shakes when she says the words, but she sounds hopeful. This is not going to be something I can back out on if I agree.
“Yeah, I’ll do it.”
I jolt because my mother’s arms are suddenly around my neck. She’s hugging me, like the way I wanted to hug her. I hug her back, but I feel as empty as ever. I’ll go to the library if it will make her happy. I’ll bring my braille for dummies book. I’ll do it for my mother.
I’ll pretend for her. But really, nothing’s changed.
Carrie McNally runs the Children’s Floor with an iron fist.
Carrie feels strongly about it. She’s had this job for ten years now. Since you were in high school, Sophie, she always says. So that means she knows what’s best. Kids will get out of control if you let them. Children will be the ruin of the children’s library.
As such, there are some rules that must be followed in the Children’s Floor:
1) Absolutely no running.
2) Indoor voices only.
3) No snacks or drinks.
4) Toys can be played with for maximum of thirty minutes, and then must be returned to their proper location, even if nobody else is waiting to play with them.
5) Only adults may touch the computers.
6) No laughter or sounds of enjoyment.
Okay, the last one isn’t a real rule, but considering how steadfastly Carrie adheres to the other rules, it may as well be. Telling kids they can use “indoor voices only” is all fine and good for a seven-year-old, but it’s hard to tell that to a one-year-old. A one-year-old does not know what an indoor voice is. They’re lucky if they know their name.
But Carrie is my superior and I’m not in any position to argue with her.
Right now, Carrie and I are manning the desk at the Children’s Floor together, which isn’t a very hard job. Carrie is mostly playing with her iPhone, and I get up every fifteen minutes or so to reshelf books or check if anyone is having computer difficulties—not because it needs to be done so much as I hate sitting next to Carrie. She’s unfriendly to me to the point of being hostile. Do you know what it feels like to spend an entire afternoon sitting two feet away from someone who barely speaks a word to you? It’s not fun.
I’d hoped she’d warm up to me during the three years I’ve worked here, but she hasn’t. If anything, she’s less friendly than she was when I started. I think it bothers her that our boss Steve has taken a liking to me, and she can’t figure out why. Morgan thinks Carrie is secretly in love with Steve.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see a toddler hurrying to the point of *gasp* running across one of the aisles of picture books while holding a *double gasp* cookie. I glance over at Carrie and see her immediately sit up straight in her wooden chair, her hawk eyes seeing everything. Carrie will not let this go unchecked. Not in her library.
She gets up from her seat, smoothing out the creases on her pencil skirt and brushing imaginary dust from her argyle sweater. Carrie has the ultimate librarian look. She’s in her early forties, with hair that is an undetermined mix of gray and blond, with glasses that always sit low on her nose. She looks like someone who would be sexy if she had on the right dress, lost the glasses, and tousled her hair a bit. (Isn’t that always the way with librarians?) Sometimes I look at women like Carrie and wonder… if she could be beautiful, why wouldn’t she try to be?
I know I would.
Carrie reaches the toddler in five short strides. By now, the little boy’s mother has come into sight too. The mother is juggling an infant in one arm and has a diaper bag in the other arm, the size of which rivals the bags under her eyes. This poor woman is clearly aware her toddler is running in a strict no-running zone.
“Excuse me,” Carrie says to the mother in the sharp, impatient voice she uses whenever anyone is breaking any of the rules of the Children’s Floor. “There’s no running in the library.”
“Yes,” the woman manages as she shifts the infant on her hip. “I know. I’m so sorry.” She makes a grab for her son’s arm, but he escapes her and hurries down the next aisle. “Ryan, please don’t run! Please!”
The boy stops for a moment to munch on his cookie. Crumbs fall from his mouth and dust the carpeting. Carrie inhales sharply.
“You’ll have leave if he can’t control himself,” she says.
“But my daughter is…” The woman scans the library, searching for her other child. I spot her in another aisle, flipping through one of the chapter books. I recognize the girl. Her name is Delilah and she reads extremely well for a seven-year-old. On my recommendation, she’s been working her way through the My Weird School series. I’ve put two of them aside for her today. “She wanted to look at books.”
“Then perhaps you and your son should wait outside,” Carrie suggests.
“Yes, we could, of course…” The woman swipes a few stray hairs from her face that have escaped from her messy ponytail. “Um, let me just grab Ryan… and I need to tell Delilah…”
I take this opportunity to jump out of my own seat. These wooden chairs are both dangerous and uncomfortable, and it feels so good every time I stand up. I can’t believe Carrie’s been sitting in these awful chairs for over a decade. No wonder she’s cranky.
“I’ll go talk to Delilah,” I say as I hurry over to them. I smile at the mother, hoping she recognizes it as a smile. I’ve been told my smile looks more like a grimace. “I’ve got some books for her, anyway.”
The mother lifts her slightly bloodshot eyes to look at me. I brace myself for her response. I recognize her daughter, so I’d assume they’ve been to the library enough to recognize me. But you never know. I’m relieved when she smiles back at me. “That would be great. Thank you.”
Delilah is sitting in the B aisle, cross-legged on the carpet, deeply engrossed in a book as her dark hair hangs down to obscure her face. She’s directly in front of the Judy Blume shelf. Judy Blume—one of my favorite authors when I was a young girl. I’ve read every word she’s ever written—even her adult books, although I didn’t like those nearly as much.
Delilah turns a page, too caught up in the book to even notice I’m standing over her. I kneel down beside her to see what book she’s reading. It’s Freckle Juice. One of the first things I ever read by Judy Blume.
“Hi, Delilah,” I say.
She lifts her own freckled face, and it breaks out in a smile. “Hi, Sophie.”
When I first ran across Delilah at the library three years ago, she stared at me with gigantic eyes and gasped, “Are you an alien?”
Kids react to me by staring. Always. Sometimes they get scared like Declan Sheehan did, but a lot of them just blurt out questions. Delilah wasn’t the first kid to ask me if I was an alien. Kids have asked me if I was wearing a Halloween costume. They’ve asked me if my face got melted. Sometimes they just blurt out, “What happened to you?”
But the best thing about kids, especially little kids, is they adjust to anything. There are adults who have been coming here for the entire three years I’ve worked here and still give me looks of disgust or pity, whereas all the regular kids now treat me just like any other adult. They accept things and move on.
“Are you enjoying that book?” I ask Delilah.
“Uh huh.” She crinkles her little upturned nose. “I hate my freckles. I don’t know why anyone would want to have them.”
Delilah does admittedly have a lot of freckles. They pour down her nose and dot her cheeks, chin and forehead. But they suit her. She is a beautiful girl. When I was seven, I would have given anything to have skin like Delilah’s. Freckles, moles, zits—anything would have been preferable to the reality.
“I like your freckles,” I tell Delilah.
Her cheeks flush. Her skin is pale and a window to her emotions. “Sophie?” she says.
She’s staring intently at my face. I know what she wants to ask. She’s dying to know. Nobody is more honest than children, and many of them will ask me outright. Miss Sophie, why is your skin like that? What is wrong with your nose? Where are your ears?
If they ask, I always answer honestly. But they have to ask. Call it shame or pride, but I won’t volunteer the information.
Delilah, however, is mature beyond her years. She’s too shy to ask, so she just drops her head and mumbles, “Did you put aside the My Weird School books for me?”
“Of course I did.”
She rewards me with a beautiful smile that doesn’t look anything like a grimace.
After the little girl picks out a few new books, I help her check out all her selections, then send her out in the hallway, where the rest of her family has been quarantined. The mother flashes me a grateful look, and I have to bite my lip to keep myself from apologizing on Carrie’s behalf.
When I get back into the room, there are no sounds of children talking or laughing. Carrie must be happy.
“Sophie?” Carrie says to me as I slip into the seat next to hers. She doesn’t look up from her phone as she says my name.
“We need to have a talk.” This time she raises her eyes. “Later.”
That sounded ominous.
“What about?” I ask.
She narrows her eyes at me. “We’ll discuss it later.”
I know Carrie doesn’t have the ability to fire me (because if she did, I’d be long gone), but this doesn’t sound good. I sit there for a moment, my stomach churning. What have I done? I’m never late. I haven’t been shirking on any of my responsibilities. I haven’t been running in the library or eating snacks. What could we possibly need to have “a talk” about?
I settle back in my uncomfortable wooden chair and try not to think about it.
To be continued....