I awoke in a sweat to blinding fluorescents shining down on me, expecting to be greeted by the brilliant array of the vibrant colors of the mountain forest. The serene viridian blue of the lake, golden sunlight filtering through the leaves, warm and soft and sweet, gleaming dew on yellowing grass.
Blinking, I registered the scene before me. A crimson cross. Pale sheets. Tortured blue eyes… no. It can’t be… But it was. Sitting in a plush leather chair next to my hospital bed was my mom. The one and only, cold, emotionless Mae Paxton.
Her clear voice rang out in the room, clipped and robotic, with each syllable precisely enunciated. A doctor examined her clipboard intently in the corner, thoughtfully tapping a pencil to her lips. Chestnut brown hair cascaded over her broad shoulders, falling over her wide eyes. As she spoke to my mother, she impatiently pushed rogue strands away from her lips.
I quickly closed my eyes, forcing my racing heart to fall into a steady thrumming rhythm and my gasps of breath to slow. Letting my lips drop into a soft “o,” I let my face go slack, imaging what I might look like as I was asleep. My ears were poised, listening intently for the voices.
“She’s surprisingly well nourished, Mrs. Paxton. Most runaway patients return scrawny and malnourished… but she’s actually healthier than before she left.” The doctor said in her high, silvery voice. Forcing back a smug smile at this, I dared a peek at the room and saw the doctor standing above me scrutinizingly, tendrils of her silky hair hanging so close to my face I could almost feel the wispy strands tickling my cheek.
“Honestly, Mrs. Paxton? She looks radiant. Positively glowing! Rosy cheeks, light tan, muscled? Based on the original pictures you gave me, it was safe to say she was depressed or an anorexic, before the… ahem.” She cleared her throat awkwardly, backing away from my bedside so that I could no longer see her sharp cheekbones and angular features. I didn’t need to see her face to know.
It was an awkward topic, certainly. I had runaway by choice. Obviously, the woman must have thought Mae was ashamed, though I would have bet a fortune that she hadn’t felt ashamed. No. She hadn’t felt anything at all.
“From her relaxed posture, you can plainly see the healthy glow that simply wasn’t there before the-” she hesitated again before continuing.
“Incident. The pictures show a thin, anguished girl. Now? Well, she is the epitome of a healthy teenage girl.” I knew exactly what she was talking about. It was the reflection that had tormented me for years, before I had run.
Severely gaunt and pale, seeming both sad and wistful at the same time. Deep chocolate eyes with a melancholy glimmer, an ever-present spark of pain cleverly concealed by a curtain of lashes. Cropped blonde hair that just barely grazed my shoulders. A defiant set to my jaw that made all my teachers instantly dub me as a “rebel.”
But I knew what I was then, and what I was now. I was a crimson feather before I left, hanging onto the thread by the bird that was society. Clinging to normalcy, yet always yearning, craving the daring life of the forest, the sweet freedom of a bright blue sky and shimmering lake water.
Then, I had run away, the brash crimson feather leaping from the wing of everything it had ever known, spiraling in a gleeful dance through the sky. Free to be its own. Alive. Spontaneous. Glorious liberty. Above all? Happiness.
Now, I had finally crashed to the ground, breaking against the glimmering emerald grass. My ride was over, and yet I knew I could never return to the bird from which I had came. There was nothing left. I was nothing. Just a streaked red feather shattered against the grass, letting the blades conceal the downy fluff and vibrant color. I was not just a runaway girl returned home. I was the feather lying in a field, my grand dance on the wind over.
Two weeks later…
Sitting down in the plush velvet chair, I gave my new counselor a once-over. I was equally nervous and irritated. This was my first time going to a therapist after my escape, and naturally, I had no clue what to say.
How could you explain a feeling? The warm, golden glow of happiness or the surge of adrenaline when I climb a tree, spear a fish? The pure serenity of lake water lapping against the shining shore, the fiery glow of a sunset over the mountains? The awe of standing at the edge of the soaring purple peaks that protrude from the earth like arrowheads, that feeling of something bigger than you? Bigger than life itself?
Shifting nervously, I held her gaze. Those scrutinizing jade eyes analyzed me carefully, like I was a bubbling vial in a science experiment. Averting my gaze, I looked down at my slim fingers, wringing them awkwardly.
Peering up through my lashes, I saw that she was still staring at me with those piercing eyes that cut through the tension like an arrow puncturing a tree. Is she a robot? Will she ever ask a-
“Hello. My name is Emilia Pavledes, and I am your therapist,” she blurted abruptly, her stern voice echoing in the almost-empty room. A tall, lanky potted plant stood in the corner next to a flower pot spilling over with wilting petunias. Still surprised at the sudden, jerky introduction, I grunted in response before muttering,
“I’m Kate. But you already know that, don’t you?” I asked petulantly. Anger and irritation blossomed in my chest, knowing that she had a lifetime of files outlining every detail of my life. Not one of them knew anything about me, the real me.
She didn’t react to this, simply tinkered with her hair, running her fingers through the locks of thick brown hair that hung in loose ringlets around her face. Fury rocketed through my heart at her stupid nonchalance, and I tensed, every nerve in my body alight with raw anger. At her. At the situation. At life.
“Well, you know nothing about me. Or nature. You must have stacks on stacks of files detailing every little thing I’ve ever done, analyzing why I ran away from every possible perspective. But guess what your stupid, fancy papers can’t tell you?” I regarded her furiously, waiting for a response. Wanting desperately to hear what dumb, insane explanation they had for such a simple thing.
A dark feeling twisted my gut, taking the pain and churning it into a black, awful hatred that I knew only the woods could heal. I wanted this woman to be wrong. I wanted her to respond so badly, just so that I could correct her and retort, confirm her incompetence and quit these meaningless sessions.
She simply stared at me cooly, raising a thin eyebrow. I glared at her and our eyes locked for a few agonizing seconds. She sized up me. I sized up her. Her muscles were toned beneath a thin silk dress, but she was supermodel thin, waist almost nonexistent, lost beneath the silver fabric.
I could take her. I could escape, right here, right now… I thought dubiously, glancing over at the window that was just behind me, a few feet away. Trees swayed beyond the thin glass pane, taunting me with their tantalizing closeness. But today was not the day to attempt escape (not that I wouldn’t make the jump, I had done crazier things before). The tensions were too high.
Apparently realizing I wasn’t going to budge, she sighed. I perched on the edge of my seat, widening my eyes with mock-anticipation.
“I think there are four reasons. One, your father’s death. It torments you, darkens your soul to think of all the memories you had with him that were so happy and bright only to be wiped away by a menace you never knew he struggled with. Drugs,” Dr. Emilia stated matter-of-factly, a satisfied smirk playing on her thin lips.
My smug smile fell, and my mouth set into a grim line. Had she really inferred all of that from those dumb government files? Seeing the effect this had on me, her grin widened, revealing slightly-yellowed incisors and a set of perfectly straight teeth lined up in neat rows.
“Do you want me to continue?” I opened my mouth to say a snarky response, but before I could utter a word, she rushed ahead, still using that firm, matter-of-fact tone.
“Two, your mother’s coldness. You see all the people at school, see their parents volunteer at school events. Happy, loving, sweet. Then you see your own mother. Cold, blank. So numbed by grief of a death that you had moved on from long ago. Your father. You understand the pain, but can’t tolerate her coping method.” Her grin didn’t change, but I could see the gleam of satisfaction in her emerald eyes as she analyzed me, my startled expression.
This time, she didn’t need to ask. It was written all across my face.
“Three. Being ostracized. You never did fit in, did you? Did you?” She asked insistently, not harshly, in a soft tone like someone coaxing an animal out of a corner. I shook my head, muttering a half-hearted, “no”, almost too stunned to speak.
“You understand pain and suffering that no one your age can fathom, have no tolerance for the petty high-school drama and relationships. That can’t possibly feel good,” She twirled a strand of hair around her finger, seeming to contemplate this. I sneered at her. How lucky are you, I thought venomously, I bet you were just a pretty little princess in high school.
“Four, you just love the woods. It is the only place that you don’t have to be judged or separated from the group. A place of peace, serenity. A place where, perhaps, you can forget your worries? Evade the pain that plagues you every time you see your mother. You physically cringe every time she enters a room with you. You fold over at her icy touch.”
Averting my eyes, I stared over at the windows, watching the breeze ruffle the leaves. Seeing the weak sunlight cast shadows across the lawn, extending its golden fingers to paint the leaves in brilliant color, like a golden brush dragged across a dark canvas.
Trying to remember, I realized that the therapist was eerily correct. Now that I thought about it, I remembered Mae’s hand squeezing mine before I entered the room and how I had cringed, not from the perpetual coldness of her hands, no. Because I knew the support she was trying so hard to convey wasn’t real.
“That’s why you ran away.” The snarky comments didn’t come to me anymore. I couldn’t look at her. Silence fell over the room like a dark cloth, and I stared out the window with unseeing eyes, blankly fixating on a distant tree.
My cheeks flushed with shame as I remembered my raw anger, how eager I’d been to correct her, how I believed wholeheartedly that this counseling session was meaningless and stupid.
I had believed that she knew nothing about me. But it seemed that Emilia Pavledes knew more about myself than I did.