After Phoenix and I fought and then made up, I didn’t see him for a few days. It was partly that I was busy, but mostly it was because I was still hurt, and scared of being yelled at. I also figured he might need a break from me. He hadn’t been completely off-base saying I smothered him. We’d been spending almost every day together for weeks.
However on Saturday, the day of Marshall’s funeral, I knew I needed see him, whether he wanted me around or not. So that afternoon I popped my earbuds in and strode down the dusty trail out of The Heights.
When I passed the park, I saw Lucy, Ricky, and Trinity in the back at the horseshoe pits, but Phoenix wasn’t with them. I circled around the block to their house so I wouldn’t have to pass them by. I didn’t much feel like talking to them if I didn’t have to.
When I knocked on the door, Shiva and Cooper barked and pushed their noses under the front blinds, but no one answered. I could hear the TV on, and figured Phoenix was there but didn’t want to talk to me. I slumped out the gate and headed for the park.
Lucy and Trinity gave me an identical, unfathomable smile as I walked up and sat next to them. Ricky’s bare, tattooed belly hung over his jeans as he played a solitary game of horseshoes.
“What did he say?” Lucy asked me.
“He didn’t answer,” I said. “Can I bum a cigarette?”
She handed me one. “He’s on a rampage,” she said as I lit it. “He tore his room all up. Look.” She took out her phone, tapped at the screen, then handed it to me.
I looked at it. “Holy Jesus,” I said. It was a picture of Phoenix’ room, the bedframe in splinters, the tables and shelves overturned.
“I’m gonna make Social Services pay for that shit,” Lucy said. “I ain’t paying for it. Brand new bed.”
“Fucksticks,” I muttered, still staring at the photo, my heart collapsing. What emotional state did he have to be in to do that sort of thing?
“It was during the last prayer of the service that he lost it,” Trinity said, sucking on a bottle of Miller Lite. “He did real good up until that. I don’t remember what they said in that last prayer, but it really upset him.”
“He went into the bathroom at the church, and wouldn’t come out for half an hour,” Lucy said as I finally handed her back her phone. “We were the last ones there. Then we went to my parents’ house and he locked himself in the bathroom there, too. His grandpa yelled at him, all pissed off. He doesn’t want him over there anymore, because he’ll never leave.”
“On the way home, I knew he was going to be real bad, because he started laughing hysterically,” Trinity said. “You always know when he’s going to lose it, because of that laugh.”
I hugged myself. I knew that laugh, alright. All three of us smoked in silence, watching Ricky toss the horseshoes.
“We should go check on him,” Lucy said, stubbing out her cigarette. “He had a knife when we left.”
I hugged myself harder. “What?” I squinted at her; she didn’t look that concerned. I couldn’t imagine Phoenix hurting himself, or anyone else, but I’d never seen him at the destroying-things stage. What if he slashed himself up?
We walked back over to the house. The dogs bounded to the door and jumped on us, but all was otherwise silent except for Return of the King playing on the TV.
My heart pounded in my ears as Lucy crept over and peeked through the glass door into Phoenix’s room. Then she grinned and gave us the thumbs-up. “He’s putting it all back together,” she whispered.
I let out a breath. Lucy motioned us to the door and we tiptoed out, so as not to disrupt him.
When they went back to the house later for beer money, I followed them again. When we got there, Phoenix was on the porch with his shirt off, watching me with slitted eyes and a strange smile.
“You cleaned it up?” Lucy asked.
“Yeah,” Phoenix said. “I mean, when I woke up it was all…I mean, there was shit all over, but I fixed it.”
“You got to stop destroying shit, Phee,” Lucy said.
She and Trinity went in the house, but I stayed out on the porch with him. He continued to watch me with that odd smile. “What’s wrong with you?” he asked.
“A lot of things. What’s wrong with you?”
“You don’t like me, for one.”
“If I don’t like you, then why am I here?”
He looked away from me and muttered something I couldn’t hear.
Lucy and Trinity emerged, hefting large, studded purses over their shoulders. Trinity’s dye-blonde hair was newly combed and she smelled like a fresh coat of perfume.
“Where are you going?” Phoenix asked.
“To the store for some beer,” Lucy replied.
“I want a beer.”
“Nuh uh, no way,” Lucy said. “Not when you’re in this mood.”
“I’m fine,” he said. “It would probably calm me down, actually. Can I at least come with you?”
“Whatever,” Lucy said.
“Just let me put on some real clothes,” he said, then whirled around and disappeared into his room.
“You’d better hurry up, Phee,” Lucy called after him as he shut the door.
Lucy pulled out another cigarette, and Trinity chattered tipsily about her underwear, pulling down her cutoffs to show them to me. I got a flash of her smooth, china-doll pale belly above the lacy waistband, and I found myself thinking that this family was the genetic equivalent of siren song.
When Phoenix didn’t come back out in a couple minutes, Lucy and Trinity left. I stayed and waited, sitting on the steps and staring at the clouds glowing orange and pink on the western horizon.
When he finally emerged a few minutes later, he was carrying his bb gun and an empty King Cobra bottle. He gave me the briefest of glances and was down the steps and out the gate before I could even stand up.
He stalked towards the river bed. I had to run to catch up, and when I drew level with him he stared fixedly at the ground, refusing to meet my eyes. I felt a pang of sick hurt, but I ignored it. I wouldn’t give up that easy. Not today.
“Can I shoot at the bottle with you?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “No. And if you’re gonna fuck me with my mama, I’m gonna hit you with the butt of my gun.”
He said it in a bubba voice, but I knew he wasn’t entirely joking; he wouldn’t hit me, but he was really mad. Sometimes I could get him out of these moods by playing the joke out with him, involving him in a sort of stream-of-consciousness skit until I got him to laugh. But then he turned towards me, and I got a look into the deep pits of his eyes. My flippant response died on my lips, killed by a wave of hopelessness.
“Do you want to fuck me with my mom?” he repeated slowly, raising his eyebrows.
My mouth went dry. “What? No. I mean, I don’t even know how that would work.”
“What do you think I mean?” he asked. “If you want that, you can just get the fuck off me. I don’t want to fuck my mom.”
I pressed my lips together. “Fine,” I said. If he meant to throw my drunken antics in my face and call me old, then so be it. He was just as guilty as I was. I spun on my heel, heading back to The Heights.
“Yeah, go home to your husband,” he hissed.
I didn’t look back. I didn’t want him to see me crying. I texted Lucy to tell her where he’d gone, and went home.
Later that night, I texted her again, asking if he’d come back, and if he was feeling better. “Yes, and yes,” she replied, and I heaved a sigh of relief.
But I still nursed my hurt. I felt like an utter fuckup. I felt like I had no business being on this planet.
He didn’t come to church the next day, and I didn’t go to see him. It wasn’t until Monday afternoon that my concern won out over my pride and I texted Lucy again, asking how he was doing.
“ Real bad,” she replied. “I had to call the Sheriff last night. He’s at mental health.”
The words hit me like a physical blow. I stared at them, struggling to breathe. “What??” I typed out, my hands trembling.
She called me a few minutes later and told me the story. He’d gotten really agitated. He’d had the knife out again. “He always forgets that I can call the Sheriff on him,” she said. “But I guess I showed him. Now he won’t sign the waiver, though, so I can’t talk to them about how he’s doing, and I can’t keep them from medicating him.”
I stood there, shaking, then asked if I could come over. She said yes. I stopped and got her some beer and cigarettes, then sat on her porch while she pulled weeds in the garden. “I tried to go visit him today,” she said, “but he ran me off after five minutes. Pounding on the table, telling me I’d ruined his life.”
“I want to go visit him,” I said. If only I’d come over on Sunday…if only I hadn’t been so self-centered….
She gave me a sharp look. “I wouldn’t. You’re not family, so if he flips out on you, they could get a restraining order against you. If they keep you a mile away from him, you couldn’t even be in your own house.”
She continued to pull weeds while I put together everything I knew of the law, which was quite a bit. I swiftly came to the conclusion that she was lying, or just full of shit in general. A restraining order like that would stand up in court about as well as a drunken Gumby. I could see why she didn’t want me to visit him, though, and she was right: I’d probably just make him worse. You’re just some creepy old lady who’s been smothering him. He doesn’t want to see you.
“The psychiatrist says he’s the first true case of demonic possession he’s ever seen,” Lucy continued, taking a long drag of her cigarette and yanking at a particularly stubborn ream of pigweed. “He always does this shit, like he’ll say, ‘I love you, mom,’ then his voice changes and gets all satanic and he’s like, ‘I’m gonna kill you, you bitch.’”
“Huh,” I said. My stomach turned over, and I clutched my knees.
“I went to the church elders about it. They were going to do an exorcism, but when I came home, he’d looked in the mirror and seen what we were talking about, and he was like, ‘If you think I’m gonna let you do that shit to me, just see if I don’t burn that church down and kill all of you.’ Let me tell you, schizophrenia and sociopath don’t mix, and you add demonic possession on top of that, it’s scary. And he’s so strong, all that running and working out. You read about those schizophrenics that kill their families, they’re all really strong, like him.”
Sweat was dripping into my eyes, and my stomach had gone way south.
“And now they want to put him on that medication,” she said, tossing another weed into the growing pile. “It’ll just make him worse if it don’t kill him.”
I stood up quickly. “I’ve gotta go. Please text me to tell me how the 72-hour hearing goes.”
“I will,” she called after me as I scampered out the gate.
I stumbled down the road and into the park, where I laid face down in the shady grass, breathing steadily. Sociopath? Demonic possession? Not Phoenix. Not the sweet, funny boy I knew. He’d loved Marsahall so much that he’d hurled his dresser into the wall trying to deal with his death, and even then he hadn’t attacked or threatened anybody. Lucy had one of the most amazing sons on the face of the planet, and she thought he was a monster.
Poor Phoenix. He had nobody. His mom thought he was a demon-possessed sociopathic killer, the rest of his family wanted nothing to do with him, and I’d proved to be no sort of friend at all.
It was a half hour before I could stand up and make it home, and I spent the next two days curled up in bed.
I waited all day Wednesday, but Tracy never called or texted me to say how the hearing went. On Thursday, I went over to the house and found Trinity there, so doped up that her eyes were grey. When I asked what was going on with her brother, she shrugged. “My mom’s there visiting him. She’ll be back in about half an hour.”
I swallowed, squaring my shoulders. “I want to visit him, too.”
Her eyes slid out of my gaze, but she just shrugged again.
“Where is he at?”
“He’s in SLO. It’s that street where….” She made an angle with her fingers. “You know where…shit, I don’t know. You’ll have to ask my mom.”
I thanked her and left. When I got home, I got on my computer and started calling hotline numbers.
I was finally directed to a small facility in downtown SLO. I called them. No, they couldn’t tell me if someone was there unless they’d signed a waiver, and I knew Phoenix hadn’t. The guy told me when visiting hours were, but suggested I call the patient phone first, to ask the person for permission to come.
I called it. No one answered, and I pictured a room full of Phoenixes staring intently at the ringing phone, some of them muttering to themselves, a couple of them poking it with sticks, and one guy in the corner screaming, “I’m not here! I’m not here!”
I sighed and hung up, hiding my face in my hands.
Ten minutes later I called again, and this time someone picked up.
“Hello?” I could hardly hear the guy, because the line buzzed so badly. I wondered if one of the inmates had been chewing on the cord.
“Is Phoenix there?” I asked.
“Who? Shit, this phone sucks.”
“Phoenix? Just a minute.”
There was a silence; all I could hear was the line humming and the pounding of my heart. Then there was a thump and rustle as someone came on the line.
I couldn’t believe it. It was his voice. “Phoenix? This is Liz.”
“Hey,” he said. “You know, I asked for the vegan meals here, and they gave me a Gardenburger. They’re pretty good, actually.”
I laughed. “I know, they’re not so bad, right?”
“Yeah, they’re really okay.”
I laughed again. I couldn’t help myself. I was so glad. “Phoenix, can I come visit you tomorrow?”
“What, really? Yeah, okay, but my mom isn’t coming tomorrow.”
“I’ll be there,” I said. “I want to see you.”
“Do what you want,” he said. “Wait, I mean, are you going to come by yourself?”
“Oh, totally. Visiting hours are from one to three.”
After I hung up, I jumped up and down, giggling. The weight had suddenly lifted from me, and I felt light and dizzy. He was okay. He was eating. And he seemed to want to see me. Maybe I didn’t just make him feel worse.
The next day, I was excited and nervous. “This is going to be a trip,” I told Mari as we took our morning walk. “I can’t wait to see what that place is like.”
She gave me a sidewise look, smirking.
“He sounded really happy,” I continued. “I hope he still is. I hope he doesn’t freak out on me.”
I almost didn’t care if he did, as long as I got to see him.
I left a half hour before I needed to, so I could find the place and find parking. But I hadn’t even made it the two miles to the 41 before my phone started to ring.
I looked at the screen, and my stomach turned sour. It was Lucy.
I pulled onto the shoulder and picked it up. “Hello?”
“Hey,” she said. “I talked to Phoenix. He’s got some idea in his head that you’re coming down there to visit him.”
I clutched the phone. “Yeah, I am.”
“Well, he said…I wanted to make sure to tell you not to do that.”
“He’s…I mean, I could barely understand what he was talking about. He’s really riled up right now. This medication they have him on, it’s horrible. You need to just leave him alone. If they can’t get him stabilized, they’re never going to let him out.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat. “Oh…okay. I mean, he seemed fine yesterday, but, you know, I knew it was luck of the draw whether he’d be okay today.”
“You need to just leave him alone,” she repeated.
“I won’t go,” I said, my voice thick. “But what did they say at the hearing? When is he getting out?”
“A couple days, if they can get him stabilized enough to go into the care home.”
“A couple days? And he’s not coming back with you, he’s going to a care home?”
“He’s got some idea that they’re going to put him in one of those places. I don’t know, I can’t understand a word he says.”
I assured Lucy again that I wouldn’t go see him. Then I turned the car around and drove home.
Even though it was ninety degrees outside, I parked and sat in the sweltering cabin of my car, staring at the cyclamen growing in the clay pots beside my driveway. I wasn’t thinking at all. My mind was completely blank, and I couldn’t move. It was about twenty minutes before I could make myself go into the house.
For the rest of the day, almost every single one of my friends told me that I should have gone to visit Phoenix anyway. “It’s not him,” Mari said, “It’s his mom. She’s lying, trying to get you not to go.” That sentiment was echoed by a half-dozen others.
But they didn’t understand. They didn’t know the whole story. They hadn’t been there when he’d called me creepy. Phoenix had always been conflicted about our relationship, and I hadn’t helped matters much by acting like a drunk idiot. It was entirely possible that he didn’t want me to come, and that I would just make him worse if I did.
I felt horrible. I was suffocating in doubt and self-recrimination. I tried to distract myself by a punishing run on the elliptical, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Phoenix, no matter how long I ran.
I needed to immerse myself in writing, but I was too preoccupied to start drafting a new novel. The only thing I had to do were revisions on Justin’s Book. Even though it hurt really bad to put myself in that world, I did it anyway. To my surprise, it felt strangely right. Justin was speaking to me really clearly now, the bizarre twists and turns of his mind comfortable and familiar.
I got to the part where Justin’s mom yells at him after he asks to go to San Francisco with Mina, to meet with the art gallery owner about his drawings.
“Justin, this Mina girl…I just don’t think she’s good for you. She may or may not have good intentions, I don’t know, but you’re just going to end up getting hurt with all these plans she has for you. She doesn’t know how you are yet.”
I read that passage over and over. I knew that most of my friends thought Lucy was like Justin’s mom: trying to isolate Phoenix from the one person who wanted to make his life better. They thought I was a little like Mina, a do-gooder attempting to help the schizo kid out of the kindness of her heart.
What they didn’t know is that I was actually a lot more like Liria. I was too fucked up to help Phoenix, because I needed saving myself. But Phoenix wasn’t Justin, and our relationship wasn’t really like Justin and Liria’s. Phoenix didn’t have the resources to save me, and so I was just a burden to him. I was just some creepy old lady who was adding more complications to his already complicated life.
The words on the screen blurred as tears filled my eyes. I thought of all those long walks and days in the park together, climbing trees and pelting each other with dandelions and almond shells, playing one-on-one basketball in the pitch dark and animated games of chess in the pouring rain. It hasn’t been all bad, I told myself, but I wasn’t really sure. Phoenix’s mind didn’t work like most people’s. It was entirely possible that my transgressions eclipsed all the good times we’d had. I had no idea what he really thought of me.
The problem was that Phoenix wasn’t one of my characters, and our lives weren’t a story. I couldn’t write him out of this situation. Even in my books, I didn’t feel like I had much control over the plot, but real life was even worse. At least in my books, I had a pretty good idea of what my characters’ motivations were, but my perspective as a human being was too limited to know exactly what was going on in people’s heads in the real world.
I tried to meditate, to clear my head and gain objectivity. I tried to talk to Invisible Friend Jesus about this situation. But he just sat there, smiling benignly and telling me not to worry so much. It didn’t make sense. I didn’t trust his voice anymore. I didn’t trust that he wasn’t just another one of my characters, inserted into my life story as a plot device.
I closed Justin’s Book and started reading through all of the Tinkerbell anecdotes, hoping for illumination that way, but the only person whose feelings and motives were entirely clear to me were my own.
My motivations weren’t what other people thought they were. Most people assumed I was trying to help Phoenix, some thought I just wanted to fuck him, and yet another person had expressed the opinion that I was exploiting Phoenix to create drama, for story fodder. The last person had barely escaped a true Tinkerbell beat-down, and was the first person in decades that I’d held a grudge against for more than two hours.
None of those things were the truth. The reason I’d felt drawn to Phoenix in the first place, and the reason I’d felt compelled to write Justin’s Book, was a lot deeper, a lot scarier.
In the course of my long and sordid life, I’ve had quite a few episodes of psychosis. It isn’t something I tell people, because people tend to not understand that sort of thing. Most folks are scared of psychotics. They think we’re likely to snap and start murdering people at any moment. But that’s not true.
I wrote out one of my delusional episodes– the one on my twenty-seventh birthday – because it was drug induced, and so seemed relatively safe to tell people about. But not all of them had been drug-induced.
Most notable was the time right after I’d had Juniper. I was in pain from an injury I’d received in childbirth, and horribly sleep-deprived. Bill was working nights, so I was alone most of the time as he slept all day. And my brain started to go really weird.
Juniper was one of those babies that needed to be held constantly. She wouldn’t go in the swing, wouldn’t let me put her down even to do dishes or take a bath. So I kept her in the sling or the Snuggie most of the time, carrying her with me everywhere.
I started to have really clear visions of tripping and falling while I was carrying her. I would see her head crack open. I would see her face smash. I would see it over and over and over and over again, a grotesque scene on an infinite loop in my head, and I couldn’t stop it.
Then, when I took a bath with her, I would see myself holding herself under water. I would see the terrified look on her little face, feel her struggle, watch the bubbles of her last breath rising from her tiny mouth. And I was terrified that that vision would somehow take me over, that I’d feel compelled to actually do that.
These visions wouldn’t stop, and I was scared to death to tell anyone. One time haltingly tried to discuss it with Bill; I told him I was frightened I’d accidentally hurt the baby, because I was seeing these things in my head. He’d very firmly told me to stop talking about things like that, and I’d never brought it up again. I knew he was right. If I talked about things like that, they were going to come and take my baby away.
It got worse before it got better. I started to believe that what clothes I put on her would determine her future. If I picked the wrong onesie, she might end up a serial killer or fascist dictator. When she’d babble and smash her toys on the ground, I thought she was trying to communicate something of dire importance, which I was too ignorant to understand. Eventually, I convinced Bill that it would be a good idea if we moved back to Yakima, so that I could be around my parents. They would keep an eye on me, and make sure I didn’t do anything wrong.
I never did actually want to hurt Juniper, and after a while, I got better. The Darkness stopped pressing on me so much, and I was able to catch my breath, and heave a sigh of relief that I’d been able to regain the blessing of sanity.
But the Darkness still lurks in my mind, waiting to swallow me up. Every so often, I feel myself on the brink of it. It’s a feeling like I’m very small and all alone, a pathetic spark of consciousness in an endless void; that I’m living a brief, meaningless dream before being swallowed up for good. Sometimes I think that none of this is real, and I’m going to wake up and figure out what’s really going on. I feel like everyone else knows what’s real, and they’re all watching me closely to see how long it will take me to get the joke. During those times, everything people around me say and do seems to fall into this delusion, their words and actions little clues and sinister metaphors, all of them clunking into place like pieces of a frightening puzzle only I can see. But those feelings are brief and fleeting now. I’m a sane person. And I thank God for that.
Psychosis is an incredibly lonely thing. Sanity is, for the most part, just as much of a delusion as psychosis, but it’s a shared delusion. Crazy people are alone in their little worlds, solitary in their beliefs. And, when you’re fumbling around in the Darkness and your hand reaches out and suddenly finds someone, it’s very, very hard to let go.
When a delusion is shared, it’s actually real. But, if it’s not shared, if that hand you’ve grasped dissolves into nothingness, you’re back to wandering alone in the dark.
The day after I was supposed to visit Phoenix, I still hadn’t figured out what I should do. Eric and I had our first marriage counseling session that day, and it’s telling that the experience was an emotional relief for me, because for almost an hour I was thinking about something else.
I didn’t know how I wanted my story with Phoenix to end, but I knew what ending I didn’t want: one where I sent him off the deep end by forcing my company on him. I supposed the story with the best character arc would be one where Tinkerbell learned not to cling to her obsessions, to be more self-reliant; one where she didn’t call him, and just let Phoenix go so both of them could get on with their lives.
But it would be out of character for Tinkerbell to learn that lesson in this case. I cared too much. Around noon, I called the patient phone again.
It was picked up on the fourth ring, the line buzzing and crackling. “Bueno?”
“Bueno,” I said. “Está Phoenix?”
“Si, soy yo.”
“No, you’re not him. Phoenix.”
“Si, Phoenix. Soy yo.”
I hung up. Fifteen minutes later, I called back and got the same guy, still insisting he was Phoenix. I threw my phone down and hid my head in my hands.
I still couldn’t let it go. I needed some sort of closure. If he was going into a group home, I might never see him again. Finally, I got out a paper and pen.
Phoenix, I wrote,
Your mom said I shouldn’t visit you, so I didn’t. But I miss you. You’re one of the best people I’ve ever met.
I’m really sorry I act like an idiot when I’m drunk.
I’m going to Seattle tomorrow, and I’m afraid when I get back you’ll be living somewhere else and I’ll never see you again. Please call me, even if it’s just to yell at me. I want to hear your voice, and know you’re okay.
I gave him my phone number. Then I stuffed the letter in an envelope, addressed it to the institution, and walked down to drop it in the mailbox at the post office.
After the flap on the mail slot clunked closed, I went home and tried to forget. I’ve done all I can, I told myself. There’s nothing else I can do.
The next day was Palm Sunday, and I went down to church. Pastor had asked me to play guitar and sing one of the hymns, and it felt really good to channel my energy and emotion into something unambiguously positive.
At the end of the service, Pastor performed a ceremony of washing people’s hands (which is easier than feet – we’re Methodists, don’t ask us to bend down and unlace our sensible shoes). While she washed mine, she told me what a special person I was for taking the time to befriend people who others tend to shun. I smiled and hung my head.
Then, as I went back to my pew, the front door of the church opened. In came Phoenix, thin and hollow-eyed, his chin covered with a week’s growth of scraggly beard. I stood frozen, my mouth literally hanging open. He grinned at me as he sat down.
I hopped over and scooted in next to him. “You’re back,” I whispered hysterically under cover of the congregation trying to sing the next hymn.
“You’re still here,” he said. “I was worried you’d be gone. I don’t know what I’d do if you were gone. I’d die, probably.”
“Your mom told me not to visit you, which is why I didn’t come.”
He scowled, but he didn’t look surprised. “Thank you for calling me, though. It made me feel comfortable.”
After the service, we went to the park. I gave him my guitar and he played me a song he’d written, which was actually pretty good, even though he wouldn’t sing above a whisper. Then I played him one of mine. When I looked up at the end, I caught him watching me with the little smile he got when I was doing something he really liked. It reminded me of the way my Invisible Friend Jesus smiles at me.
“I missed you,” he said.
“I missed you, too.”
He plucked at the grass. “I’m sorry I said mean things to you. Sometimes I feel certain ways and it’s hard to find my, you know, to act virtuously even in the face of things you don’t understand.”
“It’s alright, Phoenix.”
“When are you going to Seattle?”
“You’re coming back, right?”
He smiled boyishly, and everything was once again right in my little world.