I tread gingerly across the cold wood panels, 114 pounds shifting from one foot to another with each step. I touch the light switch for the kitchen and tiptoe inside. As I had anticipated, my twice-daily snack arrangement is on the counter – a protein bar (350 calories) and a peanut butter and Nutella sandwich (600 calories) with a milkshake (550 calories). Five years ago, I would have loved it, but now it's yet another thing to avoid. To make sure that no one was going to creep up on me again, I sit down in front of the sandwich and pretend to take a bite. As soon as I can tell that no one is looking, I carefully walk to the garbage and throw it in quickly and quietly as possible. The milkshake, too, goes down the disposal in the sink. I return to my seat and start to gnaw on the chocolate protein bar, picking at the faded but still angry scabs that mar my arms. I try not to eat the little chocolate chips embedded here and there in the granola, because, as everyone knows, they add an extra 150 calories. It even says it on the wrapping. Why would you say the caloric value of the chocolate on a nutrition bar for people who just escaped from—
No. I won't go back to that place. Nightmares are scary in real life, and they're just as bad when you're recalling them.
With bitten-off nails, I pull the chocolate chips and peanut butter chunks from the bar, trying to leave it as plain as possible. When I finish extracting them, I stick it back in my mouth and chew. Chew, chew, chew, trying not to think about how many calories I'm consuming. While I'm gnawing away, I notice a thick manila file on the kitchen island a few feet away from me. I stop eating and look at it cautiously, noticing that there is a container of salty pistachios on top of it. Mom. I step over to the island.
The folder must be an inch thick. I open it quietly, as to not alert attention. The first page inside is blank except for a logo stamped across it.
Deep Springs Rehabilitation Center.
My blood runs cold.
I freeze. Suddenly, an avalanche of horrors come flooding through my head. Sugar drips. Therapy. Eyes watching everything, everywhere, every hour of every day. The prospect of turning the page terrifies me, but my eyes won't move. I rustle the pages, turning to the next one. It's even more of a shock than the first.
Walker, Amelia Miranda. Age: 16. Residence: 304 Pine Street, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Height: 5'8”. Day of checkin: May 1, 2011. Day of checkout: June 1, 2011. Weight at checkin: 93 lbs. Weight at checkout: 114 lbs. Measurements: 28-23-29. Weight percentile at checkin: 5%.
They spelled out everything about me on that one page. With those words, I feel more vulnerable than I had even when they wheeled me into the facility in the first place. I instinctively pull my shirt sleeves down to hide my skin, my arms. It's an old habit I've maintained even after I went and even after I left. I don't like people seeing me. I don't like people seeing the scars. I chew at a nail, then decide to turn the page again, to face the other twisted information they had written down.
Food & Medical, the heading reads. I scan the page with glassy eyes. It's a listing of my daily medication and food that I had to take for the two weeks that I was locked inside the prison. Depression pills, twice daily. Scar cream to be spread on my arms and the inside of my elbows, so my skin wouldn't be permanently marked. They made some fuss about that. I remember when my mother dragged me in, half-unconscious, and yanked my sleeves up, exposing me. Everyone saw the dried blood and the scabs. They saw the bones, too. They brought her in to a conference room and she didn't come out for thirty minutes. The look she gave me when she did is one I will never forget.
Details about bed rest. How many hours I supposedly spent in bed. More instructions. A constant sugar drip. And the food. Only now do I see how I gained 21 pounds in a month. 700 calories for breakfast, 700 calories for lunch, 700 calories for dinner. 300-calorie snacks twice a day. People monitoring you every waking minute to make sure you couldn't pull any of your old tricks. I tried everything. I tried placing it under the table. I tried running to the bathroom and spitting it out. But there was always someone watching. They say that rehabilitation is supposed to make you feel comforted, but all I ever felt was fear.
And I feel fear now. I am not afraid of bugs or spiders or silly things that people usually think of when phobias are brought to mind. There is one thing I am afraid of above all else: being noticed. Ever since I was young, I was always the shy one, terrified of being called on by the teacher or being picked for a gym team. Now, I'm petrified. I didn't realize how much they knew. I hate the feeling of being exposed. And I'm horrified that my mother was looking at this. We were supposed to be a team. No secrets. Even Jane and Jeremy. Have they been thumbing through this too?
I gnash my teeth together, trying to ignore the painful pangs of hunger in my stomach and the nervousness growing in the back of my mind. I flip to the next page. I breathe in, not wanting to read it, but continuing nonetheless. It's a review of the psychiatric sessions. I scan the page quickly, and check the next few, seeing that there are about thirty more. I return to the first. Every word I said is written down, verbatim, on the creamy white paper. There are comments here and there in the margins, but for the most part, every single word in my conversations in those sessions is recounted. I want to throw up. I almost do. Talking about myself for hours on end was excruciating. As I reread what I said, I feel a chill in my scalp.
“Jane was the one who found me. I was—sleeping. I was supposed to go to my art class, but, um, I was late, and my mother sent her up to get me. And she tried to wake me up, but I—I was unconscious. Janie, um, threw the cover off and started to pull my, um, arm… and she saw.”
“Um, nothing. I mean—the blood—the blood. My mother said there were, um, a couple of scabs. I still have them. But no one had ever seen—me. I mean, how small I was. It's winter, you know? I always wore—these big sweatshirts. And loose pants, too. No one ever—no one ever saw. Everyone knew I was skinny, I guess, but nobody ever really saw any of my—of my skin.”
“Can I see the scabs?”
“Who told you about this?”
Amelia looks away. She looks embarrassed. Is she shy? Must remember to ask her mother.
“It was…Jeremy. My older brother.”
“Do you feel guilty about what happened?”
“Yes. I don't—I don't think it was fair for Janie to see…see that. She's just, um, nine, you know? I wish she hadn't found me. She's too—too young.”
The handwriting got worse and worse until I could barely read anything on the page. I ground my teeth. Janie. My little sister. I wasn't awake when she found me, but it's as if I can remember everything through Jeremy's words. I can't talk to my mother about anything anymore. He understands.
I want to keep reading, to see what else they stole from me. I turn another page, and another, until I get to the very end of the notes from the psychologist. She's written a bit about me – what she thinks of me, how I've improved. The page is titled with her name, Ina Dover. I didn't like her. She pried too much. I shudder.
Amelia seems to have made a lot of progress. We discussed her self-image and it looks like she has a more positive view of herself now. I think it was hard for her at the beginning of our sessions to talk, but she appears to be fine with discussing her problems now. I took a look look at her medical records from this clinic and it says that she's gained 21 pounds. That's really fantastic. Not many people recover that fast, or that well. I think she is free of her demons and very ready to return back to her life.
I laugh. I hear the vitriol in my laugh and am somewhat shocked at it. I've never hated anyone. Except for Ina. She was always too nice, too annoying, too positive. Every time she looked at me, I felt like she was burning into my eyes and looking at my soul. I couldn't stand it. I couldn't stand being picked apart without even saying anything. I could always hide from everyone. Nobody ever noticed me – except for her.
I feel like I am turning sour. Growing uneasy because of the papers in the folder, I quickly pass over the rest, barely stopping to read any more. When I'm done with it and am about to close it up, hopefully never seeing it again, I notice a photograph; it's the last thing in the folder. I pick it up and examine it as best as I can without my glasses. It's of a tiny, tired-looking person standing against a white wall in shorts and a t-shirt. She has reddish-blonde hair that would be nice if it didn't look like straw. Dark purple half-moons mark the skin underneath her eyes, and she's pale as a ghost. I can see every bone in her arms and legs, and apparently she hasn't slept or eaten for days. Her lips are cracked and bloated, and she looks like she's been punched in the mouth. There are long, purple-black scars lining her arms, and one particularly reddish mark on the inside of her elbow. Her eyes are empty and dead.
I am somewhat alarmed. I never would have thought that I could look at a picture of myself without recognizing it, but never before have I seen a picture like this. This was me only three weeks ago? I pinch myself. I pinch the new fat on my thighs, around my wrists to make sure that it's there. I glance at the shrinking scabs on my arm to check that they're going away. Do I still look like that?
I am suddenly aware of the protein bar I've been holding in my hand. Don't be that girl again, Amelia. You need food. Eat it.
I walk to the trash can and let it fall in. You weigh 114. You could stand to lose a few pounds.
There are footsteps, and I panic. I scramble back to the table and realize I've thrown everything away, so I instead throw the refrigerator door open and stick my head inside. The chill rolls over my skin.
“Cautiously, I remove my upper half from the fridge and peep out. “Yes, Mom?” Her eyes are suspicious.
“Dad and I were thinking… that we could go to the lake? It – might be fun. Like it was before… everything. We haven't gone in a while, and Jane's really been wanting to. What do you think?”
I think about throwing up, and wanting to run. The lake means swimming, and swimming means a bathing suit. Memories of horror from summers ago stream through my mind. Extra pounds of fat around my stomach, my arms, my calves. Always a little more than everyone else. “Why don't you go up a size? I think that's a bit too tight on you!” The patronizing voices of every salesperson at every store makes me feel sick even now. But I think of Jane, and my father, and the pleading look on my mother's face. And I say yes.
Mom brightens up. “Great! We can only go for today, but we can go back if you have fun. Change into a bathing suit. I'm sure you still have one around somewhere. And then just wear a big shirt and shorts on top.”
I choke and nod, slinking off to my room with my tail between my legs. I notice my phone buzz in my back pocket. I had forgotten it was there. 27 missed calls – 3 from Isabelle, 24 from Taylor. What happened to Taylor? I haven't spoken to her in days. Weeks. Months, even. I miss her.
I change into some old black bathing suit carefully, taking care to not pull at scabs already picked at. I look at myself in the mirror on my wall, covered for so long by a white sheet. I hate what I see. I rarely hate, but I hate the reflection staring blankly back at me. I can barely look at the pudgy bits on my legs and angles. Forget the angry swipes of red all over my arms; those make me cringe even more. I can't wear anything long-sleeve because they'll notice. And then they'll bring me back again, and I can't have that. A month was enough.
My father pokes his head into my room from the hallway. “Ready?”
I gulp down an objection and squeak out approval. He takes me by the hand and leads me to the front hall, where Jane and Mom are already waiting with a bright yellow beach bag. I'm not partial to the color.
“How did you pack so quick?” I ask.
“We've had this ready for a while. We'd been waiting to ask you. We just—never knew when you'd be ready to go again.” Jane nods in agreement, although I'm sure she has no idea what they mean. “Come on, let's go. We don't want to get there after noon.”
I make sure to leave behind them, dragging an umbrella and hiding my tired eyes behind a pair of dark glasses. I ram the bag, the umbrella and a striped chair into the trunk, throwing myself against them to make it fit. Evidently my body slams don't make too much of a difference, but I hop up and pull down the trunk door anyway. I scurry into the car and settle into my seat next to Jane. She still uses a car seat, even at age 7. My parents think it's annoying, but I think it's endearing. My mother speaks, jerking me out of my thoughts.
“Do you remember it, Amelia? Look, there's Jer, and you. And Jane. But she's tiny there.”
I hadn't realized she was talking to me, showing me old pictures. I take the one she's holding. I feel my heart drop. Six years ago. I was ten, Jeremy was twelve, Janie was barely one. We stand (or in Jane's case, sit) at the edge of Lake Justice, the warm water lapping our feet. Jeremy was so tall and skinny, and Jane was tiny. I shiver when I observe my old self. At ten, I was fat. I suddenly recall the doctor's patronizing words every six months during checkups. You have a healthy weight! Some people just have a little more skin. We're all laughing. I can't remember the last time I was as happy as I am there. That vaguely bothers me. I am jealous of that girl. I feel like I don't even know her, let alone am the same person. I want to be able to laugh, to smile, to play with my little sister like she's the most important person in the world. I want to care about nothing.
But I know I can't go back to that now. There's always going to be that shadow over my shoulder. I unconsciously scratch my arm in the old place.
I give the picture back to my mother and refuse when she tries to give me more. I can hear a small trace of sorrow in her voice, but I ignore it and nod off.
The lake is just as I remember it. Water tinged slightly green, the smell of trees everywhere. I am apprehensive. Suddenly I regret giving my consent for this trip. Dad motions to me and I trip over my feet to get outside, pulling up the trunk. The chair tumbles out and lands on top of me. I fall to the ground. It feels like my arm is about to snap.
“Come on, Amelia! The water's warm!” My mother beckons me over to her, three feet into the lake. I can't take off the shirt and shorts. I won't.
“If you're wearing a bathing suit, you should just take off the coverups. They'll weigh you down,” my dad says. I shake my head. He gives me the I-don't-trust-you look, and I can't say no.
They see the bones, I know it. The ribs have just started to stick out again. The rings are still under my eyes. I want to retreat into a hole.
Mom's eyes get larger than I've ever seen them. She comes out of the water, unable to take her eyes away from me. She walks to my father, whispers something in his ear, and picks up the umbrella I've dropped in the sand. She grabs my arm with her other hand and pulls me to the car.
“Where are we going? Mom? What are you doing?” I hear Jane's protests behind me.
“Deep Springs, Amelia. Again.”
Age 15, Grade 10
The Dalton School