Vivian, Natalie, and Allison were still there, only now they were facing me. Before I could run away completely, Vivian winked and said, See you soon.
And I did. A few days later during a matinee of Jersey Boys my mother dragged me to during one of her rare instances of attentiveness. When she ducked out a minute before intermission to secure a prime spot at the lobby bar, Vivian took her place. The house lights rose, and there she was, once again in the white dress.
This show sucks, she said.
I didn’t dare look at her. I stayed frozen in my seat, eyes fixed to the distant stage in front of me. Vivian remained where she was, a white blur on the edge of my vision.
You’re not real. My voice was a murmur, pitched low so that no one else could hear it. You don’t exist.
Come on, Em. You and I both know you don’t believe that.
Why are you doing this?
You know exactly why.
Vivian didn’t sound angry when she said it. There was no accusation in her voice. If anything, she sounded sad. So desperately sad that a sob rose in my throat. I croaked it out through trembling lips, tears stinging the corners of my eyes.
Spare me the tears, Vivian said. We both know they’re not real.
Then she was gone. I waited a full five minutes before summoning the courage to leave my seat and go to the ladies’ room. I spent the second act hiding in a stall. After the show, I told my mother I wasn’t feeling well. She was too buzzed on overpriced vodka tonics to realize I was lying.
The girls appeared frequently after that. I saw Natalie standing on the opposite side of the street as I walked to school. Allison stared at me across the cafeteria one day at lunch. All three roamed the lingerie department at Macy’s as I tried to pick out a bra to accommodate my suddenly blossoming frame. I never said a word about it to anyone. I feared that no one would believe me.
It could have gone on like that for months if I hadn’t woken up one night to find Vivian sitting on the edge of my bed.
I’m curious, Em, she said. Did you really think you could get away with it?
I woke my parents with my screaming. They burst into my room to find me cowering under the covers, completely alone. I spent the rest of the night explaining that I kept seeing the girls, that they were haunting me, that I feared they wanted to do me harm. I talked for hours, most of what I said incoherent even to myself. My parents dismissed it as a vividly bad dream. I knew otherwise.
After that, I refused to leave the apartment. I skipped school. Feigned illness. Spent three days locked in my room, unwilling to shower or let a toothbrush touch my filmed-over teeth. My parents had no choice but to take me to a psychiatrist, who declared that the sightings of the girls were in fact hallucinations.
I was officially diagnosed with schizophreniform disorder, a kissing cousin to schizophrenia itself. The doctor made it clear that what happened at Camp Nightingale didn’t cause the disorder. That particular chemical imbalance had always been there, lightly percolating in the recesses of my brain. All the girls’ disappearance did was set it free like lava bursting forth from a long-dormant volcano.
The doctor also stressed that schizophreniform disorder was mostly temporary. He said those who suffered from it usually got better with the right treatment. Which is how I came to spend six months in a mental-health facility that specialized in treating teenage girls.
The place was clean, comfortable, professional. There was no raving insanity on display. No Girl, Interrupted–style drama. It was just a bunch of girls my age trying their best to get better. And I did, thanks to a combination of therapy, medication, and old-fashioned patience.
That hospital was where I first started painting. Art therapy, it was called. They set me down in front of a blank canvas, stuck a brush in my hand, and told me to paint my feelings. I sliced the canvas with a streak of blue. The instructor, a spindly woman with gray hair and a gentle demeanor, took the canvas away, replaced it with a fresh one, and said, Paint what you see, Emma.
I painted the girls.
Vivian, Natalie, Allison.
In that order.
It was far different from my later efforts. Rough and childish and awful. The girls in the painting bore no resemblance to their real-life counterparts. They were black squiggles protruding from triangular dresses. But I knew who they were, which was enough to help me heal.
Six months later, I was released, although I still had to take an antipsychotic and go to therapy once a week. The meds lasted another five years. The therapy continues to this day. It helps, although not as much as the sessions at the mental hospital with the kind, infinitely patient Dr. Shively. On my last day there, she presented me with a charm bracelet. Dangling from it were three delicate birds.
Consider it a talisman, she said as she clasped it around my wrist. Never underestimate the power of positive thinking. If you ever experience another hallucination, I want you to touch this bracelet and tell yourself that what you’re seeing isn’t real, that it has no power over you, that you’re stronger than everyone realizes.
Instead of returning to my old prep school, my parents sent me to the nearest public one. I made friends. I got serious about art. I started to thrive.
I never saw the girls again.
Except in my paintings.
I had thought that information was private. That it was my secret to bear. Yet somehow Franny was able to find out. I’m not surprised. I suppose her kind of money can open a lot of doors. Now she and Theo stare at me, curiosity dancing in their eyes, likely wondering if I’m capable of snapping at any moment.