I moved here from the east side. Never had problems in school before. It was fun, actually. I enjoyed it. Putting numbers together to make equations. Playing the viola in the school orchestra. I was never popular. But no one bothered me.
I don’t know what I did to make them hate me. Actually I don’t think it was anything. There’s something wrong with those girls. The hate is in them. It has to get out somehow. It got out through me.
I’m going to school online now. It’s fine. I have a new phone number. I never have to see Connie again.
Transcript of interview with patient: October 19, 2016
Trinity Jackson: That’s a hard question. Do I have to answer?
Dr. Miranda Underwood: We can come back to it later, if you want.
TJ: Are you going to plug me into the machine again?
MU: We don’t have to if it makes you uncomfortable.
(pt. shakes head)
Jessica Jackson (pt. mother): She doesn’t like her head being touched. After what happened.
TJ: I can speak for myself.
JJ: Isn’t there another way you can do what you need to?
MU: We won’t use anything unless you want us to, Trinity.
I don’t like being here. I want to go home.
Akron is stupid. This therapy is stupid. Everything is stupid.
I fold my arms and lock myself together. Our session is over. We are leaving this dirty strip mall and we are going back home.
My mom won’t look at me. Part of me is upset by that. Another part of me doesn’t give a shit. Connie Cranston has hardened me, made my skin tougher with every one of her bullshit texts. My skull is repairing itself, too.
So I play with one long spiraling curl and stare out the window.
Once I hit the kitchen, I go straight to the fridge. I hate this big, stupid house. My dad got a new job, and my mom wanted this: a ceiling that goes up two floors. Shiny silver appliances. More space than we will ever need. Whole rooms sit empty right now because we don’t have enough furniture. I’m sure she’ll fill them in due time. My mother loves to spend money. Her hobbies are spending money and getting all up in my business.
Speaking of which.
"What are you doing?" she asks me. She’s talking about my food scavenging.
"Why do you care?" She doesn’t buy anything good anymore, not since everything happened. I grab a bag of shredded cheese - the most fattening thing I can find. I want to be fat just because she hates it so much.
"Do we have to have this discussion again?" She steps in front of me. Her cloying perfume washes between us. She doesn’t smell like she used to, not when I was a kid. She used to be a good mom, a loving mom. Now she’s middle-aged Barbie. Her hair is flat and blonde, her lipstick that so-called magic stuff that never wears off.
My mom needs a hobby. Or a job.
She gets in my face. "You cannot keep eating like this. It is a coping mechanism. You need to keep going to treatment."
"I went, didn’t I?" I scoop a handful of cheese into my mouth. It isn’t pretty, or tasty. Feels like a ball of wax and salt. I chew defiantly.
She swoops in and snags the bag like some avenging eagle. The only sound missing is a caw of triumph.
"Whatever," I mumble through the cheese. I skulk back to my room.
I am a mage, too. Supermage likes to spec out differently so we can bring different abilities to the party. She is fire today, and I am frost. I like seeing the bolts of ice land their targets. I like seeing the ogres fall to the virtual ground. I imagine they fall with a heaving thump, dust settling around them.
It’s dark out now, and the screen is my only light. My stomach rumbles, but I don’t care enough to leave my task, and I don’t want whatever rabbit food my mom has waiting downstairs.
You ok, Pixel? Leahy types.
They know about what happened. Everyone in my guild does. They’re my only friends, and I had to tell them. Otherwise, I would have let the shame grow inside me like a cancer, eating me alive, starting with my heart.
We just worry about you. This from Supermage.
I know. It’s okay.
I charge into a group of mobs without thinking, not caring that my squishy armor won’t protect me. It’s not like this is a dungeon, anyway, and I have a lot of icy anger to expel. I shoot ice everywhere, jumping as I do, and I let the ogres attack and bash me down until I don’t have any hit points left.
I’ll rez you, Leahy says. He’s a priest. His toon is named after a priest he had when he was a kid. Clever. Leahy was an altar boy or something.
What was that all about? Supermage hangs back. She doesn’t want to have to go back and repair her armor.
I don’t know, I type. I guess I thought I could beat them all by myself.
MU: So why doesn’t Connie Cranston like you?
TJ: I don’t like that question.
MU: Can you say why not?
TJ: You make it sound like it was my fault. Like I did something wrong. I don’t need Connie to like me. I never cared what she thought of me.
MU: I apologize. Let me rephrase. Do you know why you were targeted? Why her attention was on you?
(pt. shakes head) TJ: Not a clue. And like I said, I don’t care. I never want to see her face again.
MU: What would you do if you saw it?
(head shaking continues)
TJ: You don’t want to know, doc.
There are parts of me that still ache. My jaw. One tooth in the back left side of my mouth. The skid marks and bruises on my legs. Connie Cranston beat me hard. Whether I deserved it or not, she wanted me to suffer.
And so I am. So after all this, she got what she wanted after all. That’s what burns me to my core. I’ll never know if she’s being punished the way she should be. But I know I’m being punished. Oh, I am.
"We can do the vagus nerve stimulation without touching your head." My doctor’s voice is soothing, gentle, and I try to let myself go with it, but I can’t. I can hardly focus on what she’s saying. It sounds like nonsense. "The vagus nerve is located in the base of the spine. I’ve got another machine."
"Let’s do it," my mother says, all too eagerly. I wish she wasn’t here. That goes without saying.
Dr. Miranda looks at me. I shake my head. I can’t make words. Time is stopped here. The past is gone and the future hasn’t happened yet. I see four empty walls. My mother. She is my voice, but she doesn’t say what’s in my head.
"I don’t think..." Miranda starts, but then a blue light comes on by her computer. She jumps. "I’ll be right back."
We are alone then, my mother and me. I frown. Turn my face to stare at the wall and strategize on how to evade her.
"Why don’t you do it. It can’t hurt anything."
I study the whorls of paint on the wall. This flat surface should be smooth. But we are in a strip mall basement. I shouldn’t expect perfection.
"Please, Trinity. Just try it."
The paint is definitely a hack job. The design is too random to be intentional. Maybe Dr. Miranda will ask me what I see in the splotches.
"Are you listening?"
A butterfly. A cloud. Lots of clouds.
"Trinity!" She is in my face, her hands on my shoulders, and I am rocking back and forth in quick time like she is trying to rattle my brain free from my skull. I push her off, from instinct, and she stumbles back. Her heel catches, and for a flash her white face is the devil’s. Connie Cranston’s, everything I loathe. My mother shrieks.
The door opens.
I pivot my head just far enough to see a new doctor. She is white, too, like they all are. But this one is older, greyer. More wrinkly.
She is put together, though. Her clothes aren’t cheap. Not that Dr. Miranda’s are, but this lady doesn’t shop at the Gap. I think all of it is bullshit. I just wear my dad’s T-shirts with leggings every day. Who cares, I’m not even going to real school now.
"Trinity Jackson." This new woman sounds satisfied, saying my name. Like she’s caught a canary. All her attention is on me. My mother doesn’t like this. I can already tell as she wobbles back to her feet.
"Helen Lake," she says. As if I should know who she is.
Dr. Miranda supplies, "Dr. Lake is MindTech’s founder."
"Oh." Big deal. This moment is probably supposed to be meaningful.
Helen Lake pulls up a chair so she is sitting right in my way. I have no choice but to examine her now - the rough patches of her skin, the watery blue eyes. Shakily draw eyeliner. Her mascara hangs on her lashes like dirt. I can tell this woman has a lot of things she doesn’t want, and vice versa.
"What if I told you," she begins, "that you can forget everything that happened to you?"
I hate the way she is sitting. It’s like she’s crouching to look into a child’s eyes. She speaks slowly, deliberately. As if I don’t understand the gift she wants to give me. As if she is my benevolent protector. Dr. Miranda shifts uncomfortably behind us. I can hear her clothes - probably bought from the Gap. Or H&M. Her blouse whispers when she moves.
My mother, as always, must jump in to fill the silence. "That sounds amazing." She is nearly jubilant. The cure to her illness - Broken-Daughter-itis. "What - how - is it possible?"
Dr. Lake nods. "Absolutely. It’s a new treatment, and I have complete confidence that it can help Trinity."
"So what?" I feel disembodied, as if the process of separating me has already begun. "I just forget the whole last year of school? Like it never happened?"
"Is that what you want?"
I grumble. I don’t like it when people answer questions with questions. I am quiet.
"We can work selectively. I can draw up papers for you, Mrs. Jackson. A quote, a full treatment plan, and follow-up care. With options."
My mother nods vigorously. Dr. Lake stands up, wheels, strides out of the room.
I wonder if it is possible to have a near-death experience without being dead. Or, I suppose, near death. Because I feel like I am rising from my body, up and away from this place, and I am seeing everything from the ceiling: this girl on the chair, this too-eager mother, this defeated therapist. A triangle of pain.
We are in the car, and she is chattering on. "Expensive - but so worth it. A revolution of modern medicine. Best in the country. Possibly the world." I am catching only keywords. My online school told me to listen for those, so if I were taking notes, that’s what I would write on my paper.
A reboot. Hard reset. Revert to factory settings. Could it work?
Would I remember my guild? I lose my breath for a second, when I think of them. Would anyone else care?
They couldn’t, they wouldn’t send me back to school. Even if I didn’t remember, Connie would. Cold fear is in my spine, worming its way all through my nerves. I’d rather they put me in witness protection. Give me a new name. At least I’d still be Pixel. That was the only part of me the bullies couldn’t steal.
"I’m doing it," my mother says.
We are home. She throws the gearshift into park with a flourish. "Your father will understand the expense. It’s for your health. It’s not like we are buying a spa week in Italy." She giggles. "Although that sounds fun to me. Think we can talk him into it?"
I kick my door open and climb out and away. As far away as I can get.
My group is killing things again. We really need a tank so we can do dungeons. The quests are fun, but I’m ready for more. I want to lose myself in a six-hour raid, to annihilate Trinity, to be reborn as Pixel. It sounds a little dramatic. But it makes sense in my messed-up head.
It’s not that I don’t want to live. There are things I like about living: nature. The sky. My guild. Eating (sometimes). I like coffee, kind of. I like the smell.
I just - don’t want to be myself. Don’t want to be this. Don’t like this combination of genes. I’m certain all the bad parts of me are from my mother. Well, there may be some kind of awful hidden inside my dad. He must have buried so much of himself in order to live with her. I feel sick thinking about it.
See, the problem with this whole memory thing is that after all of it, I’d still be me. I don’t get to trade myself in for a new model. Inevitably, some other horrible thing will happen, and is she going to keep erasing me, starting over until she gets the daughter she always wanted?
I don’t know, muses Leahy. I’d have to check the laws in your state. Rights of minors and all that.
I’m in Ohio. Akron.
I’ll look into it, Leahy types. In the dark, I smile. Just a little. Someone has my back.
I’ve decided that while I figure this all out, I’m not coming out of my room.
I hate her so much I can barely contain it. I want to burst with rage every time she knocks on the door, calling out with her simpering voice. "Trinity! We miss you!" or "Trinity! Dinner’s ready! Join us!" So many exclamation points. I’ll never be that excited again, for the rest of my life. However long it ends up being.
If I’m not online, I’m under the covers. I’ve given up on school. I’ll just fail. I don’t care, anyway. My future is a blur of nothing. I can’t picture it.
I stop eating. There’s nothing good in the house. And I’ve started to like that empty feeling in my stomach. It gnaws nicely. I feel powerful, not needing food anymore.
I don’t change my clothes. I become one with the bed, with the comforter over my head, and I mark time only by the hours I spend online, which is whenever I don’t feel like sleeping.
I’d like to fade away. I imagine how happy Connie Cranston is going to be when she finds out.
Transcript: November 2, 2016
MU: Can we try the vagus nerve stimulation again? I promise I won’t go near your head.
(patient does not reply)
MU: Trinity, what’s wrong?
TJ: I don’t want her here.
JJ: Dr. Underwood. I’m so concerned. She’s not eating. She hasn’t showered. You can probably smell it. Her hair’s a rat’s nest.
MU: I understand this is difficult for you, Mrs. Jackson.
JJ: Please, call me Jessica.
MU: Mrs. Jackson, I’d like to talk with Trinity alone.
JJ: I’m her mother. I have the right to accompany her at all times.
MU: Please. I’ll call you back in soon.
JJ: She’s a minor.
MU: You’ll have access to all the transcripts.
JJ: (sighing) I’ll be right outside. (Patient’s mother leaves.)
TJ: She’s listening.
MU: Do you feel like you can talk now? Want to try something to relax you?
(pt. shakes head)
MU: I’m worried. Look - Helen’s not here. Your mother’s outside. Can you be honest with me? What happened?
TJ: I don’t want to do the brain thing. The memory wipe.
MU: You don’t have to.
TJ: Even if she signs the papers?
MU: It’s your body, Trinity. You have agency over it. Just because she gives permission doesn’t mean you do.
TJ: You have to promise me.
MU: I need to make sure you’re safe. Yes. I promise. We won’t touch your memories without your permission.
MU: You’re not going to harm yourself.
TJ: They’ve already harmed me more than I ever could.
MU: I need a yes or no answer. Are you safe, Trinity?
I am floating.
There is a pleasant, warm fog surrounding me. Holding me in place. So while I float, I don’t move. I don’t want to float away.
"What images do you see?" Dr. Underwood is talking to me, questioning me. I like her. I feel safe with her. When she is with me, I let my guard down some. Not entirely - never entirely. I may never trust another human person again. Only dwarves, elves, and gnomes from now on.
"Colors," I say. Splashes of prismatic light. The dark is lifting by degrees. I am unaware how long that will last. I expect that dark door to slam back down at any moment.
"What do you feel?"
"Nothing," I say. This is not a lie. It feels so good to feel nothing.
"What do you remember?"
I remember everything. I always did. Yet I still feel nothing. I am light, I am part of the air. And I can tell her then, Miranda. I can tell her all of it.
Jake - his name’s Jake. The most boring, generic high school boy name there is. An apt moniker for a boring, generic high school boy who thinks he’s hot shit. Who thinks he can make things happen at the flick of his fingers.
The sad thing is that he did. He posted some bullshit on his Facebook page. Or Tumblr. I don’t even know. I don’t do social media.
Basically it called me out. Said that I liked him. Something stupid like New girl wants my ass, I don’t want anything to do with her dirty shit though.
Our lockers were next to each other. So his last name must have started with J. I don’t remember.
I always kept to myself. Hell, I was only there for a couple months before I left.
I don’t know how they got my number. I only had the phone for dealing with my mother, and for emergencies. It’s not like I have a lot of people to talk with. So when I started getting texts - I read them at first.
You bitch, you leave Jake alone. Stop bothering him.
I texted back. I don’t know what you’re talking about.
I shouldn’t have engaged. It only fanned the flames. You know all too well. You’re a piece of shit. You should kill yourself. Every day. Relentless.
I stopped texting back.
These girls knew what they were doing. They were professionals. They’d done this before. I could see the ghosts of all the girls before imprinted on their faces. Those blank, ugly stares. Connie’s was the worst of all. She might have been pretty, the way the world likes a teenage girl: tan, blonde. A cheerleader. The girl my mom surely wanted to be when she was young.
So when I turned my phone off for good, drowned it in the river behind the school, they came after my body.
One girl sat behind me in social studies. She started with a piece of paper, ripping it up and sprinkling the shreds through my hair. Then it was water, just a little bit at a time, torturing me with cold drips on the back of my neck. So subtle that the teacher didn’t notice, and I wasn’t about to tell anyone.
Then it was in the bathroom. Used tampons thrown over the stall door. My name written in feces before me when I sat down. I stopped going - waited until I got home.
Then the social studies girl flicked a pocketknife across the small part of my shoulder that was showing above my T-shirt. That tender place in the hollow near my collarbone. I covered the wound with a hoodie, wore it even when the temperature spiked, because Northeast Ohio can’t ever figure out what season it wants to be in.
I frustrated them. I eluded them. Because none of it ever had to do with me, anyway. And it ended with the back of my head slammed into a wall, my body on the ground, bruising as they kicked and punched me, and I didn’t fight back because it would have to stop eventually. It did - teachers came, police came, I went to the hospital with a piece of my soul broken away.
I need you to go away, I think, buried in a tangle of blankets, my head pounding.
I’ve gotten this notion in my head, a kernel of an idea - that I can get out if she leaves. Breathe some air outside of the stale place that is my room. I am unsure if this is a trick, a ploy - a way for her to tease me out. So I don’t move until I hear the car start. Then I go to the window, peek between the blind and the glass, to see her monstrous Honda Pilot backing out of the driveway.
I bet she’s going to that pretentious foodie all-natural market, and she’ll come home with supposedly-healthy vegan garbage. There won’t even be cheese in the house anymore.
I am still watching the driveway. I don’t trust her.
An old car putters in and shudders to a stop. I don’t recognize the make or model. It’s rusty, unreliable, doesn’t belong in this neighborhood. I hesitate.
A tall woman emerges. She’s wearing a heavy fur coat, or it might be faux-fur, and her blonde curls are cut as if she came from the same era as her car. She has block heels on.
You just missed her, I think. This woman must be here to sell something to my mother. Makeup or a timeshare. Too late. Your visit is poorly timed.
There’s a knock. The doorbell doesn’t go off. Instead, I hear a soft ping from my phone - the new one.
I came to visit, reads the text, from Leahy’s number. I’m outside.
I poke my head out again. She waves, cheerily, her face wide and open. She sees me.
I hurry downstairs and fling open the heavy door, the knocker clattering. No one comes in this way - there’s a garage entrance - but Leahy wouldn’t know that. Leahy, or whoever this person is that he sent here.
"Pixel, it’s me," she says, a little breathless, and I recognize my friend’s voice. I swallow, studying the curve of her neck, and I see the outline of her Adam’s apple traced there.
"Oh," I say. "Come in."
Leahy and I sit on the couch. The TV is on, but we’re not watching it.
I can’t bring myself to call her anything other than her character’s name, although she tells me to call her Billie. "It’s the name I chose," she says, blithely, combing long fingers through her curls. "I felt like it fit me."
I’ve never had a guest before, especially a guest I didn’t expect, so I don’t know what to say or do. "Do you want something to drink?" I am unable to come up with anything more hospitable, considering I have lived in the dark for days. I am like a kitten opening her eyes to the light, blinking and squinting.
"Do you have any bottled water? It was a long ride." Leahy - Billie - has shed her coat, and she is fanning her red chest. Her deep neckline leaves the skin there exposed. She is flushed. I see a hint of cleavage.
I run to the fridge and bring back two cold Deer Parks. Billie embraces hers, rolling it onto her chest before holding it to her cheek. She opens it and drinks. I try not to listen to her enthusiastic gulping.
I’m happy she came. And a little creeped out. She didn’t ask me first, and I’m realizing how little I know about her.
"So... what’s up?" I stutter.
"I should be asking you." She pats my knee. "We’ve been worried."
I look down. There isn’t much I can say in reply.
"The guild sent me, since I live the closest. Pittsburgh. I can get back and forth in a day. I’m sure your parents won’t be happy I’m here, so I won’t stay long." Billie clears her throat. "But I..." She can’t speak - her throat is closed. She sucks on her water bottle again.
"Oh, Leahy." I sigh. "I’m fine. You guys don’t need to worry."
"We don’t need to, but we do." She blinks away her tears. They run down the crags and crannies of her face. She must be older than my mom. "You don’t know it, but I think of you all the time."
I feel a lump in my throat. I can sense the dam is breaking. Billie needs me to deal with her demons. My heart is cracking on fault lines.
"I can’t bear another young person going through it." She makes a noise, somewhere between a honk and a sob.
I put my hand to the back of my head, where a knot has formed. "Did they..." God, I hate talking. This would be so much easier if we were on chat. "Did they hurt you?"
She doesn’t have to say what happened. She has a faraway look, the slightest of nods. I see in her the little boy she was, and I am suddenly terrified - for her, for me, for all of us misfits.
I hug Leahy. Her arms are big, and I disappear in them. She smells of fruit, a clean raspberry scent in her hair. We squeeze each other because neither of us is good at talking.
Keys rustle in the lock. "Shit." I pull away. "We need a cover. It’s my mom."
Leahy - Billie - draws herself up. "I got this." She stands, grabs her fur from the back of the couch. "I’m good at healing, remember?"
"We really need a tank," I mutter.
"You should roll a warrior."
"I’ll think about it."
My mom struggles through the front door, her arms laden with plastic bags. "Whose car is in the drive? I couldn’t get into the garage." She stops short as Billie shoots forward, grabbing the bags from her hands. "Hello, um, do we know you?"
"Oh, I was only leaving." Billie has affected a ridiculous, completely non-Pittsburghean accent. Well, I’ve never been there, so I have no idea how they talk there, but I’m pretty sure. "I was here for a beauty consult with your daughter." She grins, showing even white teeth.
My mother looks between us. This is a joke, as I still smell. I can’t remember my last shower.
"I’m going to make her gorgeous." Billie splays her hands in the air, like firecrackers in the sky. "You’ll see, Mom. She’ll be the daughter you always wanted." She winks at me.
"So you’re leaving now?" I get up, pushing past my mom, who stands like a confused gargoyle, hanging in midair. "I’ll walk you out."
"I’ll leave a catalog!" Billie sings.
I return after walking my friend out. I’m not sure if my guild has met whatever achievement they were after, but I’ll grant them some points.
"What was that all about?" My mother is opening cabinets, placing items in their designated spots, restoring order.
I shrug. "Traveling sales lady."
"Are you going to look at the catalog?" She turns from her task, her face bright and open.
"I might." I turn to go up the stairs. "I’m going to take a shower."
My watch tells me where to go now. Some of my friends have been getting those new chip implants, the ones that get embedded into the back of your neck. "It’s like having a phone with you all the time!" they enthuse. But I still don’t like anyone to touch my head. And besides, what are they going to do when their chips need upgrades? I don’t want anyone downloading software into my brain. I’m not a computer.
So I stick with my good old smartwatch. It doesn’t let me down. And besides, I remember a lot about this area. The landmarks, especially. Fairlawn hasn’t changed that much since I left.
The dirty strip mall is still there, although it doesn’t seem as bad as before. The bricks have received a clean white wash, and the doors are automatic now. They swoosh as I step through them, and a gentle chime rings. The lobby has been updated with modern furniture, and there is the slight scent of vanilla in the air.
A young, attractive man greets me. "Welcome to MindTech," he says, softly. "How may we grow your mind today?"
"Is Dr. Underwood still here?"
The man grimaces, ever so slightly. "She’s quite busy, you know."
"I don’t, actually. I’ve been away for a while. She was my therapist when I was in high school."
"Oh." The young man brightens. "She hasn’t taken patients in years. She’d love to see you." He presses a button, then enters a few commands on his touchscreen. Minutes later, Dr. Underwood appears, whooshing through the new double doors to the basement. She looks the same, maybe a little older. Still wearing Gap clothes. Some things don’t change.
"Trinity!" She rushes to me, almost close enough for a hug, but she doesn’t go that far. She beckons me through, and we descend the stairs, where she ushers me into a small, cluttered office. "So sorry. I’m organizing. That time of year. Pick up the pieces, start again."
"So what’s new? It’s been so long." Dr. Underwood leans over her desk, her chin on her elbows. "Did you... oh, I can’t even ask you." She colors, her pale skin going from paper-white to rosy in an instant. "We don’t do much of that treatment anymore."
"I didn’t do it. Don’t worry." I pause. "You helped me stand up to my mom and Helen. I came to tell you how grateful I was. Still am."
She sits back in her chair and laughs, lightly. "I don’t remember. Funny, our brains, what they do."
I look around. So many books and medical journals are piled up around her. A picture of a grinning little girl is framed beside her touchscreen. I may never see this place again. This will be the last of it, the last stake in the soil of the memories, the tracks that Connie Cranston left on me. "I’m living in Pittsburgh, with my friend. I started school at Pitt this semester."
"Home for Thanksgiving break?" She twists her lip. "Just don’t become a Steelers fan, mmmkay?"
"I can handle that directive."
Dr. Underwood turns serious, leans forward again. "Please tell me you’re okay. The last time I saw you, I wasn’t sure."
I say nothing. I am thinking of my mother. Billie got her selling makeup. She won a trip to Cancun, and she’s there with my dad right now. I’m house-sitting. It’s the only way I can stand to be here, in that empty museum.
Damn. This isn’t the last of it. The memories haven’t gone. They’re duller, less painful, but they’re still there.
"I’m glad you came to see me."
"I wanted to thank you." I stand. Quest completed.
Dr. Underwood looks relieved, happy. "You’re always welcome."
I am thinking about heading back, firing up my gaming laptop, logging in like old times. She shows me out, and with a last wave, I return to my car.