Chris Tepedino, “Neat”

    The blocks slid between her soft white hands. They were hard, made out of plastic, and like many of the other toys in the lounge they were the only thing of color. The block in her right hand was blue, deep blue like the depths of the ocean. The block in her left hand was red, fire truck red, an unnatural bold red that left no room for softer shades. She slid them up the wire, over the arch, and into a right-hand turn. They were racing, she decided. She pursed her lips and blew her breath out, pressing the air against the blue block, urging it to go on. She never liked the color red.

    Amy.

    She looked up and saw the nurse stooping over her holding a brown plastic tray. A white sheet covered the top of it and on the white sheet rested two familiar white objects—the white plastic cup, half full of translucent water that revealed the cup’s inner white ridges running around the circumference, and a single oblong pill, also white, stamped with the letter W on its side. She smiled at the nurse. It was the one with the auburn hair and she liked this one. The nurse took the time to smile at her and say things in a very soothing voice, like it all was going to be okay, and even though she knew it was going to be okay, she appreciated it nonetheless. Some of the others, they needed to know too.

    She picked up the pill between her thumb and index finger and placed it on the flat of her tongue. Then came the water—gulp, splash. It tickled her throat as it went down, and then it had settled in the pit of her stomach.

    Thank you, Amy.

    She returned to the blocks. She had come up with names for the blocks. One was Speed Racer and the other Mark Twain and even though she had forgotten where these names came from she thought they sounded cool nonetheless. And racers needed to sound cool. No names like Bob or Joe. They needed names that spoke of lightning and tight turns and daredevil speeds.

    Amy, did you hear me?

    Her psych asked this in an excitable voice. In his office, she sat on the floor rather than the chair. She liked the floor and its carpet with circles of color that went round and round until they closed on a yellow core. Yellow, like the sun. He always kept to the chair next to the desk and he always wore glasses and he always wore this large lab coat even though she knew he never did lab work. He had nurses for that. He had a clipboard too and sometimes when she said stuff and other times when she didn’t he would scribble something down. She wished sometimes she could tell him how wrong he was—about everything. But they were here to get her voice back and she didn’t really have the heart to disappoint them.

    One day, her psychiatrist thought she couldn’t hear her so he placed his clipboard in her lap and folded her hands over its edges so that it wouldn’t fall. Black scribbles. Her eyes traced the page in the slow meanderings of a teleprompter, registering letters and loops and dots and crosses, seeing all the individual signs.

    See there?

    But she couldn’t. Human language had lost all meaning to her. The letters were just shapes, and the shapes just representations of something larger than themselves, like the ‘o’ that resembled the sun and the T that resembled the poles with electrical wires.

    They gave her letter blocks, the kind of shapes sketched into their sides, well-carved. She found them beautiful and ran them through her hands and over her fingertips. Their rough edges graced her skin and the fine ridges etched into the reddish-white skin of her fingertips. She placed the blocks first on top of each other like a wayward pillar. Then she placed the blocks in geometric shapes—triangles, then rectangles, then an octagon. The doctors, including her own, watched her from the corner, their eyes peering over clipboards. She did not understand what they wanted of her. Finally, she settled on color combinations and created a series of red blocks, and then a series of blue blocks, and a series of green. They were arranged like the lines of notebook paper, neatly stacked one above the other.

    She continues the pattern then.

    She looked up and the doctors were muttering to each other. She decided she did not like being watched, even for games like color blocks, and so she refused to pick up another block the entire session.

    She did not speak to the nurse. She did not speak to the Mathematician. She did not speak to the small furry rodents she saw sometimes in the bathroom. She did not speak when her mother came and held her hands and pleaded for her to say something, just one thing, please, or when her father sat in stoic stillness, his own hands clasped together. At night she spoke, but only to him and only in a way that he could understand.

    Amy, I want you to know that you’re doing very well. We’re making a lot of progress here.

    Here you go, Amy, it’s that time. Remember to swallow both.

    Amy—

    She woke in the middle of the night. They slept four to a room in twin bunk beds and hers was nearest to the plastic window that overlooked the courtyard and docking bay. She heard the click-clack of the orderly making her rounds, peering in open doorways, checking to see who was being naughty or nice. As the footsteps faded away down the hallway, she leaned back against the bubble mattress and the goose feather pillow they provide for in-patients in D-Ward. She blinked twice and as her eyes watered, the shapes on the ceiling shifted and twisted and turned and melded into a fine menagerie of shadow and light. She waited patiently for the shifting to cease, as she knew it always would, as it always had since the beginning. She had been excited the first few times but now waited with impatience. He always liked to show off.

    When he came to her that first night, using the shadows to shape-shift against the ceiling, she had been exhilarated, tingly all over. Her nipples grew hard and she felt a familiar wetness between her legs. She had whispered that first night, small quiet whispers that asked him his name, his origin, who he was and what he wanted with her. He did not speak and slowly it dawned on her that she was not to speak either, that to speak was to spoil the occasion with clunky words, that feelings and visuals, all represented with color and shape, were the finest modes of communication between two people from different worlds.

    So she did not speak, at least not in words. But she dressed for him in vibrant shades of red and blue and yellow, and then in different textures like cotton and wool and even simple lingerie. He was pleased, she knew. He was pleased she could communicate to him so freely without inhibition. She existed from dusk till dawn.

    Her friends noticed first. And then her teachers, and then her parents. Then she was taken to the doctor. The doctor examined her throat and found it healthy. He recommended a therapist, and the therapist recommended a psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist recommended the hospital. That was how she ended up waiting for him while lying on a bubble mattress against a goose feather pillow, on a bed that overlooked a plastic window which gazed on the front lawn and the docking bay for the people too incoherent to walk themselves through the sliding double doors.

    What are you staring at, Amy?

    She spoke in colors, she spoke in light, she spoke in texture, she spoke in sight.

    They did not agree. They talked to her plainly about her progress and her prognosis. They used scientific words like catatonic and dissociated. They told her that patients usually got better by now, that what they had been trying did not work, did not seem to solve the problem. They took her to a small room with a contraption that looked like a pod astronauts slept in. They gave her a test, two tests, measured her weight and height, analyzed her blood, blood pressure, heart rate, hearing capacity, reflexes. They thwacked her knee with a rubber triangle to see how hard she could kick. They strapped a band around her upper arm, sealed it with Velcro, and pumped it with air to measure the strength of her blood. If they missed a test, she did not know it.

    Does that hurt?

    You’re doing very good.

    Don’t be nervous—this is perfectly safe.

    The room, she noted, was white, white, white—the very hospital color of sterile. White was bleach. White was peroxide. White stole away all the reds and blues and greens and yellows of the world. The doctor’s instruments were black, black, black, and she wondered what he would say to all of this binary dualism, of the white walls and the black stethoscope, the white floors and the black blood pressure monitor. She longed for a green or a red and wished she had worn a more vibrant ensemble, just to allow some life into a cold room, but they had stripped her of her clothes anyway and had placed on her a white hospital gown with small blue marks crisscrossing down the fabric.

    She noticed stirrings in herself unlike the tingling of arousal or anticipation. She noticed the purple of anxiety and the blue of sadness and the green of innocence, all rolled into a fine jumble of colors she could display on her body for him.

    They strapped her into the chair.

    They injected her with a yellow serum.

    They placed electrodes onto her forehead.

    They told her the following happened, though she would not remember much ever again. They told her that they ran an electric current through her brain, to restart it like a computer, and that when the electric current ran through her frontal lobe, her toes curled just slightly, as if she barely felt anything at all. They say her eyelids fluttered, as if she was dreaming, and her mouth parted, as if she was moaning, and that as all the circuits in her brain rewired and refocused, her hands clenched so that her nails dug into her palms. They say all this but she was not there.

    For the next few days, her brain was foggy. She said nothing to her fellow patients and nothing to her doctor and nothing to her parents or her mother who held her hands and spoke in a low, urgent voice asking can you hear me, Amy.

    Can you hear me?

    The first night, she waited, but he did not return.

    The second night, the foreboding grew in her heart.

    The third night she knew he was gone, had found another mate, one who could fulfill his desires more clearly than her. She knew that he would never return and that her chance to find true love had fallen away.

    Are you there, Amy?

    When they handed her the lettered blocks, she formed a word.

Chris Tepedino is a fiction writer living in Memphis, TN. His other stories have appeared in Fusion Fragment, Yesteryear Fiction, and SNM Horror Magazine. He likes fish and is an avid speculative fiction reader.

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