***SUBJECT TO CHANGE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED**

 

Prologue

 

There was an elephant on my chest and it was doing the samba. 

I turned up the music, ignoring the harsh way my breaths were falling from my lips. I ignored the clank of empty bottles from the passenger footwell. Ignored the check engine light on my dash that had been on for twelve months. Ignored the flashing of my phone, my mother’s face glaring at me from the screen. 

Instead, I drove down the quiet back street of my middle class neighborhood. I chewed my lip incessantly, but I enjoyed the way it puffed up. I enjoyed the way it stung and the slight metallic taste of blood. I told my parents that I was going to my friend Alison’s house, but we hadn’t been friends in two years. They didn’t know that, how could they. I was an adult. I went to college. The need to police my friends ended when I became an adult. Alison had gotten a boyfriend in freshman year. She had a life, or maybe I’d stopped talking to her. I can’t remember. Everything blurred together. 

I watched the people stroll down the sidewalk, their dogs on long leads, frowning as they jogged, or glared at their phone. Were they happy? Is that what it looked like? Did they wake up in the morning and want to shower, want to go to school or work, want to talk to other people and eat breakfast, and make plans? 

I dragged my eyes back to the road. The Petersons lived right at the end of this block. I knew it was their house because I dated their son in Senior year. Lost my virginity to him in a truly uninspiring way. He got accepted into Harvard. He was a good guy. Beige. Safe. The Peterson’s as a whole were unremarkable. The only exceptional thing about them was the magnolia tree in their front yard. It was huge, bigger than it had any right to be in this climate. It must have been thirty feet high. It was in full bloom, and it was something bright and magnificent in a world where it didn’t have any fucking right to be so exceptional. 

It was in the front of a freaking box house, architecturally designed to be devoid of personality. I could relate to the house, but that fucking tree taunted me. It had no right. None. 

Suddenly, my chest felt looser, but my blood had turned hot. Scalding. It chased away the bone deep chill. No, a chill would insinuate I felt something underneath this cloak of numbness. 

I felt nothing. Nothing except this rage now. 

I pressed my foot further to the floor, my shitty middle of the range card revving loudly but it was a high, tinny sound. I unclipped my belt, letting it whip back up to where it belonged, safe and secure. 

I pointed my car at that magnolia tree, and I grinned. It felt wrong on my face, foreign, as if my face had somehow morphed, my cheeks pressing up toward my eyes. I reached down to turn the music up as loud as it would go, and slammed my foot until the pedal hit the floorboards. 

I mounted the curb, my car flying high as it hit the outer branches of the magnolia tree before slamming into the trunk. 

My head slammed into the steering wheel, bouncing off to hit the side window, as the front of my car crumpled in slow motion. 

The last thing I saw before everything went black was a downpour of perfectly waxy magnolia blooms. 

Good. Now we were both ugly and dead.  

 

The neck brace ruined the lines of my responsible white blouse. My head wound ached. The Judge’s eyes saw too much. My mother sobbed softly into her linen handkerchief behind me. 

“Aviva. It’s the opinion of the doctors who admitted you that you require treatment in an inpatient setting. That you pose a significant danger, not only to yourself, but to the wider community.” He looked at the paperwork in front of him. “Looking at the police reports, I have to agree. Your blood alcohol level was twice what it should be. You had amphetamines and prescription drugs in your system. If anyone else was involved, if you’d hit a pedestrian, you’d be going to jail right now. Do you understand?” 

I nod. I never wanted to hurt anyone else. 

The Judge gives me a look that is part jaded, part desperately sad. I knew the look. “The Peterson’s are generously not seeking any remuneration or pressing any charges for the property damage you caused. But I don’t believe you’ll be so lucky next time. And Aviva, there will be a next time. Until you get the help you need, there will always be a next time. I am committing you to a mental health facility for ninety days. At your parents request, I am happy for you to undertake this involuntary treatment at a private facility.” The judge took a deep breath, her eyes filled to the brim with a compassion I couldn't comprehend her still feeling after sitting in this courtroom for days on end. “I know this feels all-encompassing. That you’re drowning every time you take a breath. But believe me, you just have to wake up every morning, put one foot in front of the other, until one day you look back at this moment right now and realize it was the life-buoy you needed. I’m throwing you a life preserver, Aviva, and I need you to grab it with both hands.” 

The rest was a blur as the case wrapped up, and my parents stood beside me, my father’s hand on my shoulder and my mother gripping my fingers so tightly like she could feel me slipping away. It wasn’t their fault, but I knew they wouldn’t believe me if I told them that. They’d still blame themselves. That's just what parents do. 

But something was broken inside me. 

People buzzed around me like flies in the wide halls of the Court building, and a nice looking police officer with a soft face was murmuring reassurances to my parents that I would be fine. That was audacious of him, if not an outright lie. But I was glad he could give them something that I couldn’t right now. Assurances that I was going to be okay. 

I was put in the back of a police car, and I let my eyes drift to my parents as they cried on the sidewalk. I watched them get smaller and smaller, and saw the moment my mom collapsed into my father’s arms. 

Guilt washed over me. I was a failure, really. I couldn’t even die right. It was all cry for help bullshit, at least that's what they told me. They were wrong, but I’d fucked it up too. The policeman thankfully didn’t try to talk to me, didn’t give me any reassuring words. He just drove quietly out of the city and I stared blankly out the window. The houses became more sparse, the trees thicker, until we rolled through a set of heavy wrought iron gates. 

The sign on the gate said the ‘Heath Buckley Center’. It had manicured gardens, and artificially planted woods at the edges that carefully obscured the fences. The illusion of freedom. The policeman drove down the long, gravelled driveaway, and I was kind of glad that this was an unmarked police car. And the cop was in plain clothes. Felt less like the first time I was delivered to a mental health ward. 

The cop climbs out and opens the rear door for me. He gives me another one of those smiles that doesn’t quite reach his eyes, and tilts his head for me to get out. I’m probably the most docile person he’s had in the back of the police car because I do what I’m told, pulling my backpack out after me. Everything is supplied, apparently, but my parents packed me a few things they thought I’d need. 

I didn’t need anything, especially not the stuffed toy cat I’ve had on my bed since I was five, and three battered paperbacks. But it made them feel better, and I was enough of an emotional blackhole that I could let them have this comfort. The cop held opened the front door for me, and I stepped into the foyer. A plain woman bustled over, smiling politely at me and beaming at the cop. 

I looked over my shoulder at him, and I guess he was kind of handsome in a plain, moon face kind of way. So was she. They’d have plain, round-face, average looking kids. The cop grinned back. 

“Hey, Peaches. Got another Invol for you. This is Aviva. She’s a good kid.” 

I tilted my head at the smiling woman. She had orange blond hair that kind of resembled the fruit. “Peaches? Is that a nickname?” 

The woman shook her head, gently taking my bag from me. “Nope, just my parents being optimistic that I’d keep my blindingly red hair, I guess.” She points to a little door. “Come on, we’ll get the initial paperwork done, and then I’ll take you to your room. Dave, there's cupcakes in the break room if you want to have a coffee before you leave?” 

There was a desperate hopefulness in her voice and I let it wash over me. But I felt nothing for their budding romance. Not giddy excitement or embarrassment for Peaches or jealousy. Nothing.

I signed my name on a bunch of paper, I was officially an adult and just because I was here involuntarily, it didn’t make me medically incompetant, go figure. After signing and initialling six hundred pieces of paper, Peaches went through my backpack, searching for contraband or anything I could finish myself off with I guess. 

Giving it a tick of approval, she led me from the office with a calm efficiency. Peaches was a little bit like a balm. Her nonchalance was refreshing. She didn’t look at me like I was a waste of potential, or like I was broken, or like I was some tragic statistic. She just shooed me along like she’d seen a million girls just like me. There was something reassuring in that. 

She used her ID Card to go through a locked set of doors. It opened into a short hallway, and then another set of doors opened into a bright, sunny room filled with recliners and bookcases, a huge TV, and dozens of round tables. 

“This is the common room. You’re welcome to come here and relax at any time.” 

I looked around at the other inhabitants of the room. They ranged in ages, from a gray haired old man to a few middle aged women, to a guy who had to be my age, or maybe a year or two older. His eyes watched me closely, the look in his eyes predatory. 

A shiver ran down my spine. I dragged my eyes away, but watched him out of the corner of my eye. He was cruelly beautiful, his lips full and twisted in a cruel expression. It was like he was appraising my weaknesses in that fifteen second stroll across the Common Room, and he’d pinpointed every single one. 

When I looked back over my shoulder, his cruel pout had formed into a grin, and if it was possible, that scared me more. When the double doors slid shut behind us, I almost sagged with relief.

My heart thudded, and I realized it was out of fear. I frowned, unsure if I should be happy I felt something, or if I should run away screaming.

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