My mother drove us north for seventy-five miles until we arrived at New Horizons Mental Health Center located on the outskirts of Abilene.
My mother stopped at the gate to speak with one of the security officers in order to be allowed entrance. Half of my trepidation came at suspecting I was next and my mother had conned me into walking in under my own authority just so I could be dragged to the back, injected with drugs, and locked away.
My mother signed us in at the front desk and we were each given visitor passes that we stuck to our clothes over our hearts. By the time a dull-eyed nurse came and escorted us outside to a patio, the heat had peaked and the afternoon sun was fading with a cool pre-dusk breeze. I walked away from my mother and sat on a bench facing the windows and doors all caged in by bars and wires, where countless boys and girls were guarded under strict lock and key.
I turned away from that horror, for that was exactly what it was to me. I waited for the doctor to come by staring away from the main compound and down the sloping yard, through the barbed wire fence, and into open pasture where remnants of dying bluebonnets could be seen stretching for miles.
I turned back to locate my mother and saw she was speaking with the doctor. My sister came out a few minutes later in a sad state of lethargy. I stayed sitting on the bench, my hands clasped together between my knees. My mother went to hug Dawn but the daughter flinched and drew back. Then they embraced and, as they did, Dawn looked at me with wild, animal eyes filled with the tears of sufferance and loss. Shame was upon me then because I knew whether I liked it or not I had somehow become an accomplice in that sordid affair, despite my ignorance of my parents’ sins against Dawn or my powerlessness to save her.
My sister left my mother and walked down the slope to be alone. My mother came to be with me, the doctor standing by her side. The doctor said something to her, or she said something to me, but I was lost to them, drowning in my own thoughts unable to reconcile the fantasy of the home I had believed and the naked truth of how my family really was.
‘Doctor,’ I said, ‘may I speak to my sister alone for a moment.’
The doctor said nothing but turned to my sister wandering near the electric fence curled over with barbed wire.
Ginny spoke instead, ‘I’m not sure that’s a good idea.’
I looked to the doctor and waited for a professional response.
‘I don’t see what harm it can do,’ he said. ‘Take your time. We’ll be here when you finish.’
I joined my sister at the bottom of the slope beneath an oak tree and she pounced on me, clinging to me as if we were floating at sea and she could no longer swim. I held her close and heard her cry into my shoulder. She had never done that before. My arms closed around her.
My darling sister told me of the other girls in her wing of the ward. One had slashed her wrists with broken glass from a flower vase. Another drooled and mumbled off in a corner and in her hands she fiddled with a dead mouse. One girl, a real whack-o, would take her stuffed monkey at night and stick its tail between its legs and have sex with the fabricated penis.
Of all the girls locked up, Dawn thought it damn funny to be there with them and that if she were not crazy when she had first entered the asylum she would be insane by the time she left.
Having listened to the sound of Dawn’s calm, sincere voice, I believed every word. I did not say much, but let her talk of her daily routines of pill-taking and counseling sessions. I kept my head down and listened to more about her lunatic roommates as we walked around the grounds. Just before we parted she slipped me a note and tucked it into my front pocket.
‘Read it when you get home,’ she said. ‘And I love you little brother.’
That was the first time she had told me that she loved me and I did not want to leave my only sister as we held each other for our final good-bye. She must’ve half-believed, as we held each other, that I could sneak her away with me. It would be months before I saw my sister again in the casket.
On the drive back home, Ginny made every effort to speak to me but I stayed silent, not wanting to share anything with anyone.
Dawn’s note was not a letter but a poem, one of many she mailed me throughout the remaining months before her suicide five months later. She drank her milk, five glasses full, with bleach.
Here’s what I can remember of the poem she gave me that day:
Far below the surface
I’m swimming in a sea.
Churning waves are tossed
By a mad storm. Invisible creatures
Surround me. In the dark
Void all around, one might be afraid,
Yet there is total peace I feel,
Blind to the bottom
And too far from the top.
In Darwin Mother’s backyard for the last Saturday of the summer, I asked her about love and trust and her Thalia hanging in the den.
‘What happened?’ I asked.
‘It’s not easy,’ Darwin Mother said, her eyes lifting her line of sight above the oaks shaded by dusk. ‘It’s not easy to give the best parts of your soul to the people of this world.’
And I still don’t know what happened to Thalia or Dawn or if I had meant what had happened to the one or both. Not really. It somehow all seemed to belong to the same sort of monster, and I wasn’t looking for any particular answer anyway.
C.G Fewston is an international writer/university professor who currently holds a post as Visiting Fellow in the English department at City University of Hong Kong. Fewston earned an M.A. in Literature with honors from Stony Brook University, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Fictionfrom Southern New Hampshire University.