Chasing Shadows

S. E. Sinkhorn

They committed her again.

Kay’s seventy-two-hour hold ends today. She called me to come get her. I guess the doc put her on suicide watch, but now that she’s sober they decided she’s not a risk. I wish they’d just fix her already.

Her parents tried to tell me she was away for spring break. At her cousin’s place or something. I knew better. You don’t send someone to the beach when they’ve been scratching their arms open to get the bugs out. Not even in their family.

The ward is decorated in disinfectant and ice. I’m glad I’m not here for an exam. The metal tables they use would probably freeze-burn my ass.

The nurse’s assistant behind the counter is only a year or two older than I am. Cartoon rabbits chase each other across her scrubs. I look around for the on-duty nurse, but she must be attending to people who actually need her.

Bunny Girl is staring at her computer screen and ignoring me. I lean forward over the desk to see what she’s doing. Spider Solitaire. Just the person I want to be the gatekeeper to the sick and the crazy.

“You can’t lean over the counter.” She doesn’t even look at me when she says it. Her voice is wishing it were anywhere else.

I don’t lean back. “Community service hours or what?”

Now she looks at me, pulling her eyes away from the two of spades. “Are you here to see someone?”

“Kaitlin Sugiyama called me to pick her up.”

Bunny’s eyebrows knit together as she pulls out Kay’s file. “Are you her sister?”

“Yeah. Identical twin, actually.” I indicate my freckles and strawberry blond hair.

“Look, smartass, her file says only a parent or guardian can pick her up. She can’t leave with you.”

“Oh.” Typical Kay, forgetting little details like the fact that we’re not related.

Typical me, taking everything she says at face value.

“You can go out and see her if you want. I think she’s in the Courtyard. Sign in.” Bunny slaps a neon green clipboard down in front of me and goes back to her card game.

I grab a pencil and start writing “Becky,” but it looks ridiculous in this iodine-smelling hallway. The eraser is crap. It leaves a gray smudge in place of my nickname. I write “Rebecca” over the blur, but you can barely see. The gray swallows it up.

I take a visitor’s pass out of the basket and go to the locked door. The handle feels oily in my hand. Gross. I give Bunny a full minute before I try to get her attention. “Holding this door up is awesome for my upper body strength, but I’d like to actually go in, if you don’t mind.”

She makes a noise like I just asked her to fetch me a sparkling water, but hits the button to buzz me in anyway. An old guy on the other side jumps at the sound, looking around like he’s expecting something to eat him. I ignore him and walk past.

The Courtyard is this enclosed area in the middle of the psych unit. It’s open-air so the patients can get rained on if they want. There are concrete walls and concrete benches and concrete planters with little splashes of ferns and flowers. I think it’s supposed to make them feel free or close to nature or whatever.

The on-duty nurse is just outside the door, watching the patients slowly collapse in on themselves. She’s got a Nurse Ratched thing about her, all big-busted and severe, but when I ask for Kay, she calls me “honey” and tells me she’s out back with the smokers. Her voice is tired and sad, but not cruel. I tell her about the pain-in-the-assistant, and she sighs and goes back inside.

I watch the patients for a little while. A few are wandering around in nothing but their hospital gowns. I catch a glimpse of ass cheek and look away. The guy to my left is pulling his hair out and eating it.

I decide to keep going through to the back after a woman with foul breath asks me if I bleed green. Four visits in three years and the ones that ask me about blood still freak me out.

Two attendants stand outside the door like pillars holding up an archway. The back lot is a lot like the Courtyard. More flowers, more concrete. There’s a court where a basketball game’s going, though several of the players obviously don’t know the rules.

Kay’s sitting on a bench, watching the game and pulling on an herbal cigarette. Real cigarettes are where she draws the line. Acid and coke are fantastic, but she doesn’t want lung cancer when she’s fifty. I walk toward her. My shoes slap the court.

I see us at tennis practice. She serves, I return.

I hear her voice on the phone, sobbing and screaming and begging me to make the bugs go away.

She doesn’t look at me when I sit down beside her. Just blows the smoke out and watches it meld with the air. The black hoodie she’s wearing reeks of plastic cherries. The sleeves are rolled up to her elbows to let the bandages breathe.

“I see they’re letting you have lighters and drawstrings again,” I say.

She pulls her hood up to show me the drawstring’s been removed. “The cute one over there gave me a light.” Flick, flick. Ash falls on her leg and I brush it away for her.

The patient she points out looks like a guy we used to know.

We were sneaking into a rated R movie for the first time. The usher caught us, but Kay flirted and laughed. She told him she was eighteen. He knew she was lying, but he didn’t care. They slept together for two months. He was twenty-two. She was thirteen.

The purple in her hair is growing out. It leaves her roots bare and black, making her look like some sort of reverse tie-dyed skunk. She’s leaning back against the bench with her legs stretched out, looking at the world with hooded eyes. Even when she’s coked out and institutionalized, she still looks like a moon goddess from one of those crazy video games with the CGI people. I kind of hate her.

We sit a while and watch the other smokers talk to the ghosts in their exhale. I almost ask why she called when she knew I couldn’t take her home, but I know. She wanted to see if I’d come.

“How’d you get here, Becks?”

“I drove.”

“You can drive now?”

“You know I can. Turned sixteen two weeks ago. You were at the party.” For five minutes.

“Huh.” Flick. Pull. Blow. A familiar prickle pushes behind my eyes and I will it away. I don’t cry about it anymore. I tug on my earring until the feeling’s gone.

There’s another scratch on her leg, just visible beneath the cuff of her capris.

I picture our old playground, where we hung upside-down on the bars. Kay told me our friend Donna was fat because she started putting loose change into a cut on her leg and couldn’t stop. I asked why she didn’t clink when she walked.

Finally, she looks at me, smirking with a secret. “I have to tell you about the guy in the room next to me. He’s crazy. I mean, you know, everyone in here is crazy, but I’m talking seriously crazy. He drew a face on the wall with his own crap just so he’d have someone to yell at whenever they left him alone too long.”

“Come on, Kay. You’re staying in the women’s ward. They’re not keeping any men in there.” It comes out sharper than I meant it to. I’m not in the mood for her stories today.

I almost want her to get pissed off at me, to tell me to screw off and never talk to her again. To cut me loose. But all she does is laugh. “Fine, whatever, dude.”

The smile fades into the silence. She chews on her thumbnail and drops her hand back into her lap. There’s a speck of blue nail polish on her lip. I don’t tell her.

She skipped the second grade. Mrs. Sugiyama thought it was a bad idea, but her dad was too proud. His daughter was brilliant, and it made him look good. He didn’t see the freaked out seven-year old that walked into my classroom and spent the next period drawing mice in the margins of her notebook. I showed her the cats on mine and we traded phone numbers.

I sigh. “What happened?”

“Oh, you know. Poor little surgeon’s daughter couldn’t handle the pressure of being a genius. Started getting hit on too young by the wrong men. Deep-seated daddy issues. Searching for control in chaos.”

That’s not what I meant, and she knows it. “Your shrink give you that laundry list?”

“Sure did.” The cigarette is done. She puts it out and tosses it into a rosebush. “But you know what the real problem is?”

“Enlighten me.”

“Maybe I’m just tired of being your shadow.”

I snort so hard that a wandering attendant looks over and raises an eyebrow at me. “My shadow?”

“Yep. Perfect Becky Dillon’s shadow. Quiet, smart, tennis ace Becky’s shadow.”

My mind skips. I stare at my best friend in all her smashed-out glory, and all I can see is her beauty, her brilliance, her charisma. Every guy we’ve ever known wrapped around her little finger. Our teachers all fawning over her. The storybook existence she’s been chipping away at since we turned twelve.

I think of all the guys that never asked me out. My divorced parents screaming at each other in the foyer. My screw-up older sister.

I’m the shadow. I’ve never blamed her for it. That’s just how it is. I open my mouth, but my tongue won’t cooperate, so I look away. Take in all the broken minds around us. I’m no better. Just quieter about my defects.

“Look, I’m sorry.” Kay pulls her knee up under her chin and stares at the ground. “I’m not trying to be a bitch. I know you didn’t do it on purpose. You couldn’t have known.”

“Known what?” I’m still clueless.

“That you’d be the one to outgrow me.” Her bandages are clean, but I know she’s bleeding somewhere. “It’s not your fault. I know I’m full of shit.”

“You’re not—”

“Dude, please. I don’t get pissed when you call me on my bullshit because I know it is what it is. But I swear, if you try to tell me everything’s fine and we’re still best friends and I’m the same person you’ve always known, I’ll know you’re a liar and I’ll pop you in the mouth.”

There’s a water fountain dripping behind us. Dripdrop. Dripdrop. Each drop is hitting the ground like a crash.

For a second, we’re kids running through the sprinklers. Kay’s hair is an oil slick down her back. We fall onto the grass and laugh at the sun.

“What now, Kay? We’re broken? That’s it?” My throat hurts.

“Nah, Becks. I’m the one who’s broken. You’ve been trying to put me back together again, but the pieces won’t fit anymore.”

I know she’s right. My breath pulls on my heart. “What do you want me to do now? Walk away?”

She takes my hand. Traces the lines of my palm with her chipped nails. “I have to fix myself. You do a lot for me, but you can’t do this. I don’t know how long it’s going to take. Maybe years. Maybe never.”

The fountain dripdropdrips some more.

I stand up. The ground pulses beneath my flip-flops and Kay lets go of my hand. I let it fall. “You didn’t call me to come and get you, did you?”

“Nope.” She pulls out another cigarette and looks around for the patient with the lighter, but he’s nowhere in sight. “I called to give you your out.”

I try to nod, but all I can do is dip my head. A half-hour ago, I was hoping for this exact thing. Now my stomach’s full of pins.

Kay sees it. “It’s cool, you know. This really wasn’t your fault. You didn’t do anything except be you.”

We look at each other and I don’t know her. We’re meeting for the first time. “Call me when you’re not a belligerent asshole anymore, all right?”

Her laughter peals and fades like wind chimes. “Sure, dude. Sure.”

The sickly clean of the inner hallway slaps me in the face after the flowers and ash of the lot. I lean my forehead against the wall and hold my breath. When I’m solid, I make for the exit.

Bunny Girl stabs me with her eyes as I walk by. I guess Nurse Un-Ratched had a talk with her.

It’s okay.

I deserve it.


Beautiful and lyrical writing and an interesting emotional study of the two characters had me fascinated.
—Holly Black, 2010 Katherine Paterson Prize Judge

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