“Ruthie, I can’t thank you enough,” Wendy said. She was all smiles as she started stabbing at the ramen. A spatula was her weapon of choice. She claimed to have gotten it from the supermarket with her employee discount, but it looked used to me.
I’d only just watched her turn on the stove, and breaking ramen apart before the water started to boil seemed pointless. To be fair, the humidity of the Georgia summer had soaked through every wall in the house—I wouldn’t have been surprised if she told me that the water was already warm.
“The supermarket’s the only place I’ve been in months, but look at me now—making dinner reservations! Mama would be so proud of how you’re coming along.”
Wendy’s cheeks must’ve ached from so much grinning. The longer she talked with those yellowed teeth clacking together, the less I was able to focus. It wasn’t entirely her fault. The voices were especially distracting today. So far, I’d counted three. There was one in my right temple, another near my left ear, and a grumble coming from my shadow.
The ones in my head were quoting Alice in Wonderland. Wendy and I had stayed up late last night so she could finish reading it to me. I especially liked the ending, when we discovered all of it was make-believe.
Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast!
A new voice. I tilted my head as I stood in the bowed kitchen doorway, listening for the echo. It sounded like the Queen of Hearts had set up her throne inside my right temple. Wendy was trying to teach me how to tell where my voices were coming from, whether they were inside or out. She said she learned it from this book she kept locked up, a book with a bright blue cover that I wasn’t allowed to read. I couldn’t read it either way, but Wendy didn’t seem to care.
“Those headphones helping at all?” Wendy asked, cockling chapped lips. She was referring to the soft pink ones around my neck, a gift she’d given me for getting better. I’d taken them off to try and focus on her when I first came into the kitchen. Now I was itching to put them back on, but my nails were bitten to the beds. They wouldn’t be any good at scratching.
I don’t want to go among mad people.
Inside voice, near my left ear.
Oh, you can’t help that; we’re all mad here.
Wendy’s voice broke through, interrupting my lilted whispers.
“Ruthie, c’mon now. I see your eyes getting all glazed like they do. Mama told me never to leave you when you were going nuts, and I’m not about to let her down—but Ruthie, I’m asking you to do one thing. One thing for me, Ruthie. It’s not that much.”
I had to make things right for Wendy. Blinking, I turned to her with nausea boiling like stew in my stomach. Wendy was still standing next to the stove, greasy forehead creased with concern. Bubbles rolled in the pot of ramen beside her, but she wasn’t taking her eyes off of me. Sweat gathered under my headphones, forging a tickling path down my spine.
“How ‘bout you do one of those grounding exercises I taught you—remember those? Five, four, three, two, one. While you’re working on it, I’ll make you a glass of lemonade,” Wendy said, offering me a somber half-smile as she turned to get the pitcher from the far counter.
I knew each step of this exercise like the way I knew how to get down our staircase without the wood creaking under my feet. Both of these things were important to Wendy, and so they were important to me.
First step: five things you see.
Ramen was boiling on the stove as Wendy reached for the spatula. Above her, the boards nailed over the kitchen windows had curtains drawn over them. I thought it looked homier that way, especially since those curtains were cut from the tablecloth used at our mother’s funeral reception. Under the nearby cabinets was a box of rat poison, taunting me from the counter with the lemonade pitcher resting beside it.
Four things you can feel.
My shirt clung to my skin in the humidity, the stench of its unwashed fabric mingling with my own odor. Wendy kept telling me to shower, but I was too scared of getting pulled down the drain. Sweat slithered down my spine like a garter snake. The skin on my hands was starting to prune. As I stepped toward Wendy, something tickled the back of my arm. I turned, but no one was there.
“If you don’t say it out loud, I can’t tell what step you’re on,” Wendy teased, grabbing a glass out of the overhead cabinet. From where I stood, I saw a sweat stain in the armpit of her plaid shirt that stretched a mile wide.
Three things you hear.
The hiss of bubbles coming to a rapid boil, knuckles popping in my ear. I winced, pressing my hands against my head. The inside voices were the loudest things of all. Right now, they were whispering the Mock Turtle’s song.
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?
I almost wanted to, but it would worry Wendy. She was pouring me a glass of lemonade now, oblivious to the box of rat poison beside the pitcher. When she crossed the kitchen and passed the drink to me in an agitated fashion, I noticed the powder hadn’t dissolved. White lurked along the edges of the glass.
“C’mon, Ruthie; the clock’s ticking. I’m gonna get angry with you if I can’t get to the restaurant on time, and you know how I get when I’m angry.” Wendy’s cheeks were already bloated with rage, so pink that I’d bet they were hot to the touch.
Two things you smell.
Rat poison, thick and garlicky. The kitchen reeked of it. I couldn’t believe I had only just noticed. When I held the glass to my lips, I could’ve sworn the lemonade smelled like it too.
Did Wendy want to poison me?
That was a silly question. Of course she wanted to. I was ruining her night. I was the one in the way of the life she wanted. She asked me to do one thing for her, and I couldn’t. I couldn’t stop the voices, either. I’d never known my world without them.
Last step, Ruthie. One thing you can taste.
I tilted my head back and took a sip of lemonade. The poison tickled at first, hazy and cold as it slipped down the back of my throat. It wasn’t long before it started burning in the pit of my stomach.
You’re entirely bonkers.
I don’t remember falling, but I will never forget how loud Wendy shrieked. The poison weakened my knees, tugging me down through the kitchen tiles like they were made of quicksand. My head hit the floor before the rest of me, and my ears were still ringing from the voices.
But I’ll tell you a secret.
I slapped my head over and over and over, the taste of grout bleeding into my mouth. My throat ached from the hums I made to silence them. Wendy cried with me as I tore at my headphones, the cord tangled like a noose around my neck. It kept cutting into my skin until my vision sang to black.
All the best people are.
“You ruined it!”
I’d never seen Wendy scream like this before, even though she got mad at me on the regular. She’d cornered me in my room, pounding the spatula against the wall like she wished it were my body.
“All I asked for was one night, and you’ve just gone and messed it up again. I can’t do this—I can’t keep my promise to Mama no more. I’m leaving till you can speak to me like a real person.”
Wendy’s face always puffed up when she cried like this. Her cheeks swelled like pink balloons and her eyes went bloodshot. She backed all the way out of my room with her spatula held at the ready like I was some kind of monster. Then she took her sweet time with the locks on the outside of my bedroom door. There was an array of chains and deadlocks that she’d installed to keep me safe.
Most people might worry that they would be forgotten, locked inside forever, but not me. Wendy never forgot. She came every morning, right after breakfast was ready, and freed me.
This was the first night that I was scared she might want to forget.
A few hours later, I was lying awake under this comforter that Wendy had picked out for me when I was six. It was speckled with gaudy pink flowers and hadn’t seen the inside of a washing machine in years. I could only guess how long it’d been since she locked me in my room.
Above me, the light flickered on. I bolted upright in my bed, hands already trembling as my pillows yawned and begged me to come back to sleep. I didn’t see my mother right away. My eyes were still adjusting to the brightness. As she came closer, I noticed that her black hair was as tangled as it’d been during the open casket. She wore the blue-checkered dress that Wendy had picked for her to be buried in. The fabric rustled with every step she took.
My mother sat on the edge of my bed, weight shifting the mattress. Before she started talking, she took a deep breath. I heard the air whistle as it went into her lungs.
“Ruthie, I’ve got to tell you something. I’ve been listening to Wendy, and she’sright. You’re letting her down, honey. You’re always going to be sick, and she’s always going to have to take care of you. It breaks my heart to see the two of you like this. Really, it does.”
It never took long for me to start crying, and this was no exception. For once, this emotion wasn’t accompanied by a swirling, sickening panic. Instead, it was joined by dread pressing down where my headphones were resting. The weight made my shoulders slouch.
“And I know, baby–I know it hurts–but you’ve got to let Wendy go. She needs to be free of you. Of us. You did your best, and it just… it just wasn’t good enough. It never will be. The whole thing is absolutely hopeless.”
She paused, glancing at me.
“You know what you have to do.”
And then she was gone.
I was still crying. The lightbulb flickered again as the locks on the outside of my bedroom door began to click. I heard the clinking of chains alongside the slow, sultry thud of each deadlock. When the door swung open, I half-expected to see Wendy on the other side.
All that greeted me was an empty hallway.
The speed limit was 45, but the cars passing me had to be going at least 15 over. I was walking on the grassy stretch between asphalt and a line of Georgia sweetgum trees. Wendy’s headphones made the world sound like it was underwater, like me and everything else were drowning in unison. The sound of car engines was numbed, and the branches beating against one another in a gust of wind were no louder than blades of grass doing the same.
I pulled the headphones back down to my shoulders, breaking the surface. Everything grew louder, voices included.
Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.
This one was an inside voice. I tilted my head to listen as I walked. It sounded like it was coming from right between my eyes.Wendy would only let me watch the Wizard of Oz when I was having one of my better days. She’d made the mistake once of playing it when my voices were too loud. I thought I was melting alongside the Wicked Witch, and it took her hours to coax me off of the floor.
I walked along the painted white line now, arms stretched out like a scarecrow.
I haven’t got a brain, only straw.
What would you do with a brain if you had one?
Up ahead, the bridge became visible in the darkness. I could see the silhouettes of the railings as cars drove over it, how motionless the water of Flint River was beneath. Sticks and leaves bobbed on the surface, formed into masses of debris from the slow current.
Come along Dorothy. You don’t want any of those apples.
“I used to hate bridges,” my mother said. “I held my breath every time we drove across them. Do you remember that?”
She was walking beside me, her footsteps rustling in the grass. I hadn’t noticed her there before. Then again, I hadn’t looked.
“I suppose you don’t. You and Wendy both jumped off it once, back when you were younger. Nearly gave me a heart attack.”
Of course I remembered. That was the July I turned twelve, back when I was all legs and knobby knees. The voices were with me in those days then, too. For some reason or another, they’d chosen that day to give me a much-needed break.
Whenever we went down to the river, Mama always parked the car right off the bridge so she wouldn’t have to drive across. Even though we lived close enough to walk, she wanted the car there so she could sit, trunk wide open with her legs dangling out into the grass while we played on the bridge. Wendy liked to leap off of it, arms spread like she was flying. I preferred to watch, holding my breath in the space between when her body hit the water and came back up to break the surface.
We could never agree on which part was more fun.
“Alright, Ruthie–it’s time to jump,” Wendy called from up ahead, swinging one leg over the railing. I watched as her foot reached the other side, bare toes curled around the bars.
“N-no,” I said, making it to her just as she settled herself neatly on the other side of the railing. I could tell she didn’t like what I was saying; her cheeks were already turning pink. “I c-can’t.”
“You always promise me stuff like this and then quit, and I’m done tired of it. I want you to jump. That’ll make me proud of you.” Wendy grabbed my shoulders, her own balance wavering. Her fingers pressed so deep into my skin, it felt like she was touching bone. “Don’t you want me to be proud?”
I nodded hesitantly.
“Alright then; on the count of three.”
I glanced over at my mother to save me, but she wasn’t paying attention. She’d just lit a cigarette, the smoke curling out of the trunk of the car and into the summer air.
“One,” Wendy said, letting go of me. I swung one leg over, my whole body shaking. The river loomed below, much further down than it had looked from the other side of the rail.
I joined Wendy on the other side, back pressed against the railing as she turned around to face the water with me. She held out one hand, and I watched it waver for a moment before I took it.
Wendy yanked me down with her, sending the two of us flying. My screams didn’t stop until I lost my voice halfway down, and my mouth didn’t slam shut until I’d already gulped a mouthful of river. I only broke the surface because Wendy came back to get me.
By the time we reached shore, Mama was waiting for us. I remember how flushed her face was, how curdled and black the blood looked as it boiled beneath her skin. She scolded Wendy, whacked her backside, and made her teach me how to swim the rest of the afternoon.
Mama said it was because she didn’t want me to drown.
Wendy said it was because Mama didn’t want to leave the car and save me.
We never went back to the river, whether by choice or circumstance. After Mama died later that summer, neither of us were much in the mood to go swimming.
It was Mama’s voice that brought me back to reality. I hadn’t noticed how tightly I’d been clenching my teeth together, but her words didn’t bring me any reason to relax.
“It’s okay to be nervous, Ruthie. You won’t get hurt when you hit the water, if that’s what you’re concerned about. It’s staying under that’s the issue. Don’t worry, though. If you float up, I’ll hold you down.”
A place where there isn’t any trouble. Do you suppose there is such a place, Toto?
We continued in silence. With every crunching footstep my mother made beside me, my heart did a somersault in my chest.
If I run, I may fall down and break myself.
This voice was inside my head too, echoing from my left temple.
But could you not be mended?
Oh yes; but one is never so pretty after being mended, you know.
I faltered, arms coming down to my sides from where they had been suspended. Pins and needles prickled at my elbows.
“Don’t get distracted,” my mother snapped from beside me. She snatched my arm, grinding her nails into my skin. My heart did another one of those somersaults. “You can’t go back now. Wendy knows you’re gone, and she doesn’t care. If she did, she would’ve found you by now.”
Fear kept my mouth sealed shut until we reached the bridge.
The only thing that separated the road from the Flint River was a barrier that measured just over my knees. A line of raised cement alongside the fence was the only place we could walk. It measured no wider than a balance beam. My mother let me take the high ground so we didn’t have to walk single file as she clung to my arm.
The King of Beasts shouldn’t be a coward.
“You’ve got to do this, Ruthie,” my mother said. She let go of me once we’d reached the middle of the bridge, her nails leaving red marks on my skin. “Think of how many times you’ve disappointed Wendy, how many times you’ve failed her. I couldn’t live with myself if I were you. Knowing how good you had it growing up, how ungrateful you are for all of it.”
She was getting angry now, veins popping beneath her pale skin.
“Wendy did everything for you after I died. She’s tucked you in and kissed your forehead more times than I can count. And what have you done for her? Pushed her away when she tried to be there for you? Made her cancel dinner plans because you had an episode? You’re exhausting, Ruthie. She’s tired of you. I was, too. Why else would I have killed myself?”
I froze, tears smarting in my eyes.
“You didn’t know? Oh, Ruthie. It’s a pity Wendy never told you the truth. She’s only ever helped you because she doesn’t want your blood on her hands. She thinks my death is her fault, because she wasn’t a good enough daughter–but we both know it wasn’t her who was the problem.”
Now I was crying so hard, I couldn’t keep it quiet.
“You’re a burden, Ruthie. Always have been, always will be. When was the last time Wendy even told you that she loved you?”
My sobs were starting to sound more like screams.
“That’s enough!” My mother was growing short-tempered, expectant. She grabbed at my arm again, forcing me back against the metal rail. “Jump off the damn bridge already!”
“No!” I cried, pushing her away as I sank to the ground. I felt her hands grab at my shoulders, fingers cold where they should’ve been warm. “I w-want home. I need Wendy. I n-need—”
And that’s when she pushed me over the edge.
It was cold for once. I didn’t register it until the current started tickling at my calves, minnows darting around the swollen skin. My upper body was tangled in a mass of soaked debris, my brittle arms caught between the branches. Liberating myself from the mess of sticks and leaves wasn’t nearly as hard as pulling myself onto the riverbank. That took every bit of my remaining strength. A long while later, I managed to sit up in the sand. By then, the skin on my hands was pruned and my wet clothes clung to me, cleaner than they’d been in a long time.
Some of it came back to me in flashes as I started to wring out the edge of my shirt. I knew I’d fallen a great distance, that I’d landed in the river and must’ve bobbed back to the surface. The current was evidently strong enough to carry the debris, which must’ve held me in its clutches until it came to rest on the shore. No one else was there to help me, besides the water and branches. No Wendy, no Mama.
Sitting on the bank of Flint River, I rubbed my hands against my arm as if the friction might lift the morning cold. My knees were trembling. To steady them, I tried stretching them out. My heels dug deep into the sand with every stretch, grinding itchy grains into my socks. A few attempts at standing were in vain, but there wasn’t any hurry to leave. I was waiting for the voices to come back. They’d tell me what to do. Even if it was nonsense, I’d listen.
At the very least, I hoped they would know the way back home.
As I was waiting, the sun peering out from behind the morning haze, I noticed my pink headphones on the sand nearby. They were mangled from last night, cord knotted beyond repair. I crawled toward them and dusted off some of the sand before putting them back on. Then I waited, half-expecting for the Queen of Hearts to start singing.
When she didn’t, I got up and started walking toward the road.
Emma Snyder is a writer, a crisis counselor, a member of the LGBTQ+ community, and the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Tabula Rasa Review. She is dedicated to writing about mental illness and healing until she or the character feels better; either or. You can find her work in The Emerson Review, Abstract Elephant Magazine, Periphery, The Magazine, The Abbey Review, and Furrow Magazine.
This work was first published in Furrow Magazine, Volume 21, Spring 2020, and subsequently reprinted by Periphery Magazine, Volume 58, Spring 2021.