No one has touched me in 264 days.
Sometimes I think the loneliness inside of me is going to explode through my skin and sometimes I’m not sure if crying or screaming or laughing through the hysteria will solve anything at all. Sometimes I’m so desperate to touch to be touched to feel that I’m almost certain I’m going to fall off a cliff in an alternate universe where no one will ever be able to find me.
It doesn’t seem impossible.
I’ve been screaming for years and no one has ever heard me.
“Aren’t you hungry?” His voice is lower now, a little worried now.
I’ve been starving for 264 days. “No.” The word is little more than a broken breath as it escapes my lips and I turn and I shouldn’t but I do and he’s staring at me. Studying me. His lips are only barely parted, his limbs limp at his side, his lashes blinking back confusion.
Something punches me in the stomach.
His eyes. Something about his eyes.
It’s not him not him not him not him not him.
I close the world away. Lock it up. Turn the key so tight.
Blackness buries me in its folds.
My eyes break open. 2 shattered windows filling my mouth with glass.
“What is it?” His voice is a failed attempt at flatness, an anxious attempt at apathy.
I focus on the transparent square wedged between me and my freedom. I want to smash this concrete world into oblivion. I want to be bigger, better, stronger.
I want to be angry angry angry.
I want to be the bird that flies away.
“What are you writing?” Cellmate speaks again.
These words are vomit.
This shaky pen is my esophagus.
This sheet of paper is my porcelain bowl.
“Why won’t you answer me?” He’s too close too close too close.
No one is ever close enough.
I suck in my breath and wait for him to walk away like everyone else in my life. My eyes are focused on the window and the promise of what could be. The promise of something grander, something greater, some reason for the madness building in my bones, some explanation for my inability to do anything without ruining everything. There will be a bird. It will be white with streaks of gold like a crown atop its head. It will fly. There will be a bird. It will be—
“You can’t touch me,” I whisper. I’m lying, is what I don’t tell him. He can touch me, is what I’ll never tell him. Please touch me, is what I want to tell him.
But things happen when people touch me. Strange things. Bad things.
I can’t remember the warmth of any kind of embrace. My arms ache from the inescapable ice of isolation. My own mother couldn’t hold me in her arms. My father couldn’t warm my frozen hands. I live in a world of nothing.
You will forget me.
Cellmate jumps to his feet.
It’s time to shower.
The door opens to an abyss.
There’s no color, no light, no promise of anything but horror on the other side. No words. No direction. Just an open door that means the same thing every time.
Cellmate has questions.
“What the hell?” He looks from me to the illusion of escape. “They’re letting us out?”
They’ll never let us out. “It’s time to shower.”
“Shower?” His voice loses inflection but it’s still threaded with curiosity.
“We don’t have much time,” I tell him. “We have to hurry.”
“Wait, what?” He reaches for my arm but I pull away. “But there’s no light—we can’t even see where we’re going—”
“Quickly.” I focus my eyes on the floor. “Take the hem of my shirt.”
“What are you talking about—”
An alarm sounds in the distance. A buzzing hums closer by the second. Soon the entire cell is vibrating with the warning and the door is slipping back into place. I grab his shirt and pull him into the blackness beside me. “Don’t. Say. Anything.”
“Nothing,” I hiss. I tug on his shirt and command him to follow me as I feel my way through the maze of the mental institution. It’s a home, a center for troubled youth, for neglected children from broken families, a safe house for the psychologically disturbed. It’s a prison. They feed us nothing and our eyes never see each other except in the rare bursts of light that steal their way through cracks of glass they pretend are windows. Nights are punctured by screams and heaving sobs, wails and tortured cries, the sounds of flesh and bone breaking by force or choice I’ll never know. I spent the first 3 months in the company of my own stench. No one ever told me where the bathrooms and showers were located. No one ever told me how the system worked. No one speaks to you unless they’re delivering bad news. No one touches you ever at all. Boys and girls never find each other.
Never but yesterday.
It can’t be coincidence.
My eyes begin to readjust in the artificial cloak of night. My fingers feel their way through the rough corridors, and Cellmate doesn’t say a word. I’m almost proud of him. He’s nearly a foot taller than me, his body hard and solid with the muscle and strength of someone close to my age. The world has not yet broken him. Such freedom in ignorance.
I tug on his shirt a little harder to keep him from speaking. We’ve not yet cleared the corridors. I feel oddly protective of him, this person who could probably break me with 2 fingers. He doesn’t realize how his ignorance makes him vulnerable. He doesn’t realize that they might kill him for no reason at all.
I’ve decided not to be afraid of him. I’ve decided his actions are more immature than genuinely threatening. He looks so familiar so familiar so familiar to me. I once knew a boy with the same blue eyes and my memories won’t let me hate him.
Perhaps I’d like a friend.
6 more feet until the wall goes from rough to smooth and then we make a right. 2 feet of empty space before we reach a wooden door with a broken handle and a handful of splinters. 3 heartbeats to make certain we’re alone. 1 foot forward to edge the door inward. 1 soft creak and the crack widens to reveal nothing but what I imagine this space to look like. “This way,” I whisper.
I tug him toward the row of showers and scavenge the floor for any bits of soap lodged in the drain. I find 2 pieces, one twice as big as the other. “Open your hand,” I tell the darkness. “It’s slimy. But don’t drop it. There isn’t much soap and we got lucky today.”
He says nothing for a few seconds and I begin to worry.
“Are you still there?” I wonder if this was the trap. If this was the plan. If perhaps he was sent to kill me under the cover of darkness in this small space. I never really knew what they were going to do to me in the asylum, I never knew if they thought locking me up would be good enough but I always thought they might kill me. It always seemed like a viable option.
I can’t say I wouldn’t deserve it.
But I’m in here for something I never meant to do and no one seems to care that it was an accident.
My parents never tried to help me.
I hear no showers running and my heart stops in place. This particular room is rarely full, but there are usually others, if only 1 or 2. I’ve come to realize that the asylum’s residents are either legitimately insane and can’t find their way to the showers, or they simply don’t care.
I swallow hard.
“What’s your name?” His voice splits the air and my stream of consciousness in one movement. I can feel him breathing much closer than he was before. My heart is racing and I don’t know why but I can’t control it. “Why won’t you tell me your name?”
“Is your hand open?” I ask, my mouth dry, my voice hoarse.
He inches forward and I’m almost scared to breathe. His fingers graze the starchy fabric of the only outfit I’ll ever own and I manage to exhale. As long as he’s not touching my skin. As long as he’s not touching my skin. As long as he’s not touching my skin. This seems to be the secret.
My thin T-shirt has been washed in the harsh water of this building so many times it feels like a burlap sack against my skin. I drop the bigger piece of soap into his hand and tiptoe backward. “I’m going to turn the shower on for you,” I explain, anxious not to raise my voice lest others should hear me.
“What do I do with my clothes?” His body is still too close to mine.
I blink 1,000 times in the blackness. “You have to take them off.”
He laughs something that sounds like an amused breath. “No, I know. I meant what do I do with them while I shower?”
“Try not to get them wet.”
He takes a deep breath. “How much time do we have?”
“Jesus, why didn’t you say somethi—”
I turn on his shower at the same time I turn on my own and his complaints drown under the broken bullets of the barely functioning spigots.
My movements are mechanical. I’ve done this so many times I’ve already memorized the most efficient methods of scrubbing, rinsing, and rationing soap for my body as well as my hair. There are no towels, so the trick is trying not to soak any part of your body with too much water. If you do you’ll never dry properly and you’ll spend the next week nearly dying of pneumonia. I would know.
In exactly 90 seconds I’ve wrung my hair and I’m slipping back into my tattered outfit. My tennis shoes are the only things I own that are still in fairly good condition. We don’t do much walking around here.
Cellmate follows suit almost immediately. I’m pleased that he learns quickly.
“Take the hem of my shirt,” I instruct him. “We have to hurry.”
His fingers skim the small of my back for a slow moment and I have to bite my lip to stifle the intensity. I nearly stop in place. No one ever puts their hands anywhere near my body.
I have to hurry forward so his fingers will fall back. He stumbles to catch up.
When we’re finally trapped in the familiar 4 walls of claustrophobia, Cellmate won’t stop staring at me.
I curl into myself in the corner. He still has my bed, my blanket, my pillow. I forgive him his ignorance, but perhaps it’s too soon to be friends. Perhaps I was too hasty in helping him. Perhaps he really is only here to make me miserable. But if I don’t stay warm I will get sick. My hair is too wet and the blanket I usually wrap it in is still on his side of the room. Maybe I’m still afraid of him.
I breathe in too sharply, look up too quickly in the dull light of the day. Cellmate has draped 2 blankets over my shoulders.
“I’m sorry I’m such an asshole,” he whispers to the wall. He doesn’t touch me and I’m disappointed happy he doesn’t. I wish he would. He shouldn’t. No one should ever touch me.
“I’m Adam,” he says slowly. He backs away from me until he’s cleared the room. He uses one hand to push my bed frame back to my side of the space.