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A Little Water and Sunshine

This author is a recipient

of the Sigma Tau Delta Award

Sigma Tau Delta Awarde

Lexi Birks

is the author of Diary of Her Disappearance (2015) and Elimination (2016), along with shorter works of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. She is a senior at St. Ambrose University, earning a BA in English and a minor in Art. You can visit authorlexibirks on Facebook for updates on her latest work.

If Jovie had known the brownies were this good, she would have threatened to kill herself years ago. The nurse watched them eat. Each portion of food was sectioned off on their Styrofoam plates, and today, Jovie had asked for a cheeseburger, applesauce, and a brownie for lunch. The other girls, whose names she was only beginning to remember, used their plastic sporks to nudge strands of noodles around, their faces puckered in disgust. She dug right in, undeterred by the circumstances she’d found herself in. Maybe the meds the other girls were on were stronger and messed with their appetite. If she had to guess, a couple of them had eating disorders.

Jovie felt somewhat out of place, notably older than the others. She was at the end of her junior year of high school, while the girls ranged from twelve to fifteen. Age was the least distinguishing factor, really. This morning everyone introduced themselves by way of explaining how they tried to off themselves. Guilt set in as Jovie realized someone else might have needed a bed here more than her; she didn’t attempt anything. But she’d wanted to. She thought of how she could have done it if she had no support system, or how many people she would have destroyed in her absence.

When Jovie got to the brownie, lightly dusted with powdered sugar, a little life came back to her turquoise eyes. She decided then that she would order the brownie for every meal for the rest of her stay. After she finished her food, she tossed the tray and looked longingly in the direction of her room. They had a half hour of free time before their next activity, and she desperately needed a nap after last night’s debacle.

“You can read if you’d like. There’s a shelf over there” — the nurse motioned to the lame excuse of a bookcase haphazardly stacked with tattered children’s books — “or we have some notebooks if you’d like to journal for a bit.”

“Can I take a nap?”

The nurse pressed her lips together and tilted her head. “We really discourage naps,” she said with a hint of pity.

Right. Because sleeping was a way to escape.

Without missing a beat, the nurse said, “I think we have some yoga mats. Exercise can be a good way to get more energy.”

Jovie sighed, then realized it may have come across as aggressive. “I guess I could journal.”

The nurse retrieved a notebook and one of those tiny pencils they hand out when you play mini golf. Jovie furrowed her eyebrows at it.

“This is all we have since you’re not allowed to have pencils with the metal pieces on them.”

Jovie stifled a laugh. Seriously? She thought the blinds without strings in their rooms were bad enough. Or the contraband items like drawstring pants and hoodies, and belts. The rules were established for a reason though. At some point, someone had used them as weapons for self-harm. Their phones and personal items had to stay with their parents once they were checked in. They were completely cut off from the outside world, and she itched to check the messages that might have been waiting for her. Or not waiting for her. She wished she knew if he cared she was hurting, or if her friends had realized where she was and if anyone else knew where she was. If any of them actually cared.

Jovie gratefully accepted the notebook and retreated to the chair in her room. It rocked, which was soothing, and she wrote about last night.

Like many days recently, Jovie was mid-break-down, struggling to keep the air flowing as she gasped between sobs. Her parents, bless their hearts, tried uselessly to get her to speak, to tell them what was going on. How could she tell her parents that the idea of waking up each day physically pained her to think about? How the only future she saw was one of pain and loss and loneliness? Or how the hole inside her couldn’t be filled by friends and family because they were not enough, even though they supported her endlessly and loved her unconditionally? She couldn’t. She just couldn’t.

Instead, after hours of sobbing, she finally choked out, “I don’t want to live anymore.”

Jovie saw the moment their hearts broke, like a guitar string snapping off the neck, the resounding cry of metal slicing the air between them. As if she didn’t hate herself enough.

“Did he do something? Did he hurt you?” They referred to her ex-boyfriend.

Jovie shook her head vigorously. “No, it’s not that. It’s just—everything. I can’t do it.”

After a while, they connected eyes, coming to some kind of resolution. “Do we need to take you to the hospital?” her mom asked dejectedly.

The waterworks stopped as a salty glaze slowly formed over her eyes. Blue rivulets of hair clung to her chest, matted down by smeared mascara and dried traces of tears. Was that an option? she asked herself. What good could it do?

Jovie shrugged in response, not having a better plan. So off they went. The drive was a blur, but once they got to the hospital, they immediately had her change into a gown, ass bare for the world to see. She asked if that was really necessary, to which they offered her an additional gown to hide her backside and a bundle of tan socks. Upon closer inspection, Jovie noticed a pattern of rubber pieces glued to the soles of the feet. Later, she learned grippy socks took the fun out of everything. Didn’t they understand running at full speed and letting yourself slide down the hospital hallway would be a great way to pass the time? Clearly, they had dull imaginations.

When it was well after 10 p.m., a bed finally freed up at a nearby hospital with adolescent psychiatric accommodations. They escorted Jovie, exposed chicken legs and all, to the ambulance. She climbed into the back, which was a bit extreme, and the EMTs said her parents could follow behind them. One of the two EMTs stayed in the back with Jovie and made small talk on the long drive which was surely racking up a great medical bill for her parents to take care of. The EMT asked her about school and work, and what she liked to do in her free time. She told him what she used to enjoy, knowing he probably didn’t care to hear that her favorite thing to do nowadays was sleep.

“I like art, I’m in speech club, band, choir, and track.” In reality, she used to draw, she had quit speech club, she played through band robotically, and she had dropped out of choir and track.

“Cool! My sister graduates this year. She likes art too. Do you know Hailey Stocker?”

Jovie feigned excitement to keep the conversation going but couldn’t help but notice the creeping shame and embarrassment crawling over her exposed skin, the strange way he talked as if this was an everyday occurrence, how completely careless the driver was as he scrolled through social media pages.

She could see the headline now: “Suicidal girl fatally killed in an ambulance ride. Driver suspected of texting and driving.” She shrugged. If it was my time to go, so be it.

Unfortunately, they arrived intact and the EMTs stood awkwardly with her inside the emergency entrance, waiting for a nurse to show her the way. The receptionist stupidly asked, “How are you today?”

“Well, I’m here.”

She blanched and her lips popped into an “O” shape. She stayed silent and averted her eyes until finally Jovie and her parents were met by a nurse. She led them down dark hallways, past the adult psychiatric wing, and through a set of double doors that granted entrance with the nurse’s badge. Long assessments ensued after getting her settled into a hospital room masquerading as a bedroom. A twin-size bed and rocking chair stood as the only furniture, and one door, slightly propped open, led to a toilet, sink, and a glassless mirror.

“Jovie. Like joy,” the psychiatrist commented thoughtfully from the chair. “I’m going to list some symptoms, and you can say that it is not a concern, a mild concern, moderate concern, or severe concern.” She rattled off items on her questionnaire, to which Jovie muttered despondently.

“I don’t feel anything. I just want to sleep.”

“I know it’s late. I’m sorry. But I want to talk to you now so we can get you the help you need.”

Jovie tugged the thin white blanket over her legs, pulled her knees up to her chest. The psychiatrist—she was told she could call her Dr. J—looked apologetic, more compassionate than the nurses or the ER doctor she first spoke with. She had short brown locks and gracefully embraced her grays.

“What do you think is causing your distress?” she urged.

Jovie stopped writing and stared at the words. Why was she this sad, this broken?

For three days, she worked on the answer through group activities and discussions. The exterior brick walls of the hospital enclosed a small garden area, furnished with green picnic tables, wooden benches, and prickly shrubbery. As the sun shone down on their vitamin D-deprived skin, the social worker, Peter, encouraged them to lay out their issues, traumas, pressures, and stressors. Some of them revealed stories that even Jovie had a hard time swallowing. When it was her turn to divulge, she still omitted some of the truth, ashamed of the reason behind her suffering.

“I’m scared I’ll be alone forever. That people” —he— “will keep leaving me.” That I’ll never find another person who will accept me. “Because I’m not happy enough, or easygoing.” He said it was my fault I was depressed. “I’m scared I’ll never be whole again.”

Jovie knew this wasn’t the only cause of her depression and anxiety, but the breakup certainly hadn’t helped her state of mind. Her ex was the only person she had gone to with her problems, the only person she had spoken the entire truth to about her trauma. It was no wonder he couldn’t handle her anymore. She was a burden. But her turmoil was far more deeply rooted than their two-year relationship.

Peter counseled all of them in a soothing, relaxed manner, his khakied ankle casually propped up on his opposite knee. He gave them worksheets and talked them down from their bridges of anxiety.

At mealtimes, Jovie ordered brownies, and during their free time, she took the nurse up on her offer of the yoga mat. Jovie led the girls through a yoga routine each night, pulling different exercises from memory. The others seemed to enjoy it, and something pulled at Jovie’s cheeks, making the corners of her mouth twitch up. Though highly uncoordinated, the girls giggled as they tumbled like toddlers doing summersaults, their laughter a foreign sound bouncing off the hallways that connected their rooms.

On the last day, Dr. J, the nurse, and Peter agreed that Jovie had made significant improvement. From their observations, she was ready to make a safety plan and start their outpatient program. Their assessment must have expressed that she was no longer in danger of harming herself. If she had to be honest, though, she knew a few short days wasn’t enough to heal her. She was terrified that as soon as she left the hospital, the same fears and anxiety would flood back and drown her again. She craved her phone and what may (or may not) be waiting for her.

Jovie had left with so many unknowns. Just because she had escaped to a place with brownies at every meal and had worked on her mental health didn’t mean she would return to a magically fixed reality. It was probably worse than she had left it because now she would have to explain things to her friends, to her ex-boyfriend, to her boss. She took a deep breath and practiced the mindfulness skills she’d learned. She planted her feet on the ground, felt the grooves of the cotton blanket beneath her fingertips, noticed the way the mattress dipped slightly from her body, how her identification bracelet rubbed on her skin, and itched on her wrist. She listened distantly to the sounds of passing cars outside the window, footsteps in the hallway, and the rolling clatter of the nurse’s cart. Jovie allowed any invading thoughts to pass, reminding herself that they were neither good nor bad, just to acknowledge them, accept them, and set them free.

She opened her eyes just as there was a knock at her door. “Ready to go?”

Jovie smiled at her parents, grateful for their presence and support. She gathered the pot of flowers that had been delivered to her from her boss and nuzzled them into the crook of her elbow. As she stood, she nodded. “Let’s go.”

She had never been good at keeping plants alive. Then again, she hadn’t been great at keeping herself alive. She wanted this plant to be different. She would water it, keep it in the sunlight, and give it the maintenance and nourishment it needed to not only survive but bloom.

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