Nowadays Shelby sleeps most of the time, dreaming of the way it used to be, back when she didn’t think about anything, when the whole world was blue and shining, a globe no more complicated than a Christmas ball. Her diagnosis is major depression. She also has anxiety, survivor’s guilt, and post-traumatic stress. She was in the ER for only one night after the accident, but she had a three-month stay in the psych hospital soon afterward. She had stopped talking. She refused to eat. Then came the moment when she sat in the shower with a razor in her hands. She was so cold but that didn’t stop her. She cut across her wrist, where the vein was blue. Her blood was so bright. She heard the door open and her mother cry out, and she felt how cold it was when the water was turned off. Her mother was screaming for her father to call an ambulance, but she didn’t leave Shelby. She crouched beside Shelby on the shower floor and tied a towel around her wrist to stanch the flow of blood. “It’s okay, baby,” Shelby’s mom said. Someone was sobbing. Shelby’s mother wrapped herself around Shelby’s shivering, naked body.
At the hospital nobody visited except her mother. Nobody phoned. Nobody missed her. Rumors had begun in town. She was crazy. It was all her fault. She was bad luck and should be avoided at all costs. Girls who had been friends with Helene and Shelby decided they had lost both friends. It was easier that way. What was gone was gone.
A week passed, and then two, and soon Shelby stopped counting. She was disappearing inch by inch, vanishing into thin air, and then one day a postcard arrived. The nurse at the desk called Shelby’s name during mail call.
“Wake up, kiddo,” the nurse shouted when Shelby didn’t respond. Shelby was in the TV lounge dozing from the meds they gave her and listening to a talk show her mother liked featuring a group of women who argued about politics and gossiped about famous people.
“Shelby Richmond.” The nurse sounded more annoyed than usual. “Get your ass over here.”
Shelby went over to the desk, convinced it was a mistake.
“Take it,” the nurse said, so Shelby did. “Thank you,” the nurse said sarcastically, since Shelby still wasn’t talking. She hadn’t said a word since she woke up in the hospital the morning after the accident.
On the front of the postcard there was a delicate ink sketch of a family: a mother, a father, and a daughter. But the daughter had tape over her mouth, heavy packing tape. Shelby recognized herself as the girl who couldn’t speak. Her wrists and heart were painted red. Shelby hadn’t expected anyone else to know how she felt, but clearly someone did. There was no return address, no signature, only a scrawled message: Say something.
Shelby wondered if it was a message from a higher power, even though she didn’t believe in such things. She kept the postcard under her pillow. It felt precious to her. She kept it there until the linens were changed while she was in group therapy saying nothing, and while she was out of her room an aide threw it away. Shelby searched through the garbage cans in a panic until she found it. It was perfect, not folded or torn, and she accepted that as a sign as well. Now that she’s back home she’s wised up. She’s started speaking again, a few mouthfuls of words at a time, but mostly she retreats to the basement, which has become her lair, a wolf’s den, the only place she wants to be. She cuts herself in places no one can see. The soles of her feet. Her inner thigh.
Her single bed is beside boxes of books from her childhood: Andrew Lang’s fairy tales and the Misty of Chincoteague series, which turned her into a horse fanatic. She pleaded with her mom to take her to Virginia to see the wild horses in the book until Sue Richmond finally gave in and they spent the weekend scouring the dunes for the ponies that lived on the beach. Shelby can remember how happy she was, though the weather was gloomy and the horses ran from them. She thinks it may have been the happiest time of her life.
The doctors and her parents can call her condition whatever they wish; Shelby knows what’s wrong with her. She is paying her penance. She is stopping her life, matching her breathing so that it has become a counterpart of the slow intake of air of a girl in a coma. She looks at her postcard every night to remind herself of what they’ll do to her if she allows people to know how damaged she is and takes to silence again. They’ll lock her up and then she’ll disappear for good.
She hasn’t seen Helene since the night of the accident. Once, Helene’s dad, Mr. Boyd, who had always liked Shelby, sent a box of candy on her birthday, but she felt too guilty to open it and tossed it in the trash, uneaten. She’s never wanted to see the hospital bed that has been set up in Helene’s bedroom. In some sense she and Helene are still living identical lives, just as they did in high school. Shelby hasn’t even bought new clothes since it happened; she still wears the same boots she was wearing that night, a wad of newspaper stuck inside the right one because the heel is tearing away.
Of course there are differences. Helene’s hair has not been cut since the accident, while Shelby shaved her head the day she came home from the psych ward. She’s kept it that way so that when she does venture as far as the 7-Eleven for magazines and snacks, people treat her gently, as though she were a cancer patient. Whenever someone whispers, That’s the girl who was driving when Helene had the accident, it’s even worse than if she’d had cancer. The way they look at her. They all have big eyes like in those velvet paintings. They both pity her and blame her. She and Helene were always together. Two peas in a pod. Pretty girls who glided through without a care. How can she go on living after she’s ruined her best friend’s life? They cluck at the skinny, bald girl in big boots. They think she wants compassion, but all she wants is to be left alone. Shelby only goes out after dark, her hat pulled down low. She wears gloves, scarves, and a fat down jacket that makes her shapeless and anonymous. And still, everybody knows.
Shelby and Helene are no longer alike. Shelby’s eyes register images; she eats, poorly, all junk food, but it’s not the feeding tube Helene survives on. Shelby walks, she talks, she goes down to Main Street once or twice a month—on the bus—no more driving for her, that’s for damn sure—to buy weed from a guy they barely knew in high school, Ben Mink. Ben is lanky and tall, with long hair he ties back, sometimes with a shoelace when he can’t find a rubber band. He’s geeky and smart. In high school, Shelby and Helene didn’t know he was alive. They were in the popular crowd of achievers, planning their college visits, going to parties on Friday nights. He hadn’t run with the same crowd—Ben didn’t have a crowd. He used to amble around with a book under his arm, usually something by Philip K. Dick or Kurt Vonnegut. He went on a Shirley Jackson kick, reading all of her books in a twenty-four-hour period, which landed him with a prescription for Prozac. Life was beautiful, everyone knew that, but it was also bitter and bleak and unfair as hell and where did that leave a person? On the outs with the rest of the world. Someone who sat alone in the cafeteria, reading, escaping from his hometown simply by turning the page. Helene joked he was related to werewolves, because he had a scruffy beard even then. Shelby and Helene both had a fear of wolves, for one was said to have escaped from a cage in someone’s basement and it had never been caught. Run, Helene would say when they walked through the woods, vowing that she heard howling.