Zoe glances up from her book as she hears the outside door slam. “Oh good, she’s finally gone,” she sighs. She stands and stretches, then cautiously opens the door to her room. Silence greets her. She steps out and starts slowly down the hall, her footsteps echoing around her in the big, empty house. “Mom?” she calls. No answer. A smile crosses her face. Her mother really is gone, at least for a while. Zoe knows that she won’t be back for a while, at least not until she has had a few drinks at the local bar. Maybe she won’t be home at all that night. Zoe shakes her head, not sure whether to be pleased or angry. Settling for neither, she sighs and crosses into the living room, stepping carefully on the pristine, cream-colored carpet, and sinks into the leather sofa with a plop. She giggles, knowing that her mother would scream bloody murder if she saw her flopping on the furniture. Grabbing the remote and putting her feet up on the shiny surface of the coffee table, she clicks the TV on and flips to her favorite show.
After a while, Zoe’s stomach begins to grumble. With something a bit like surprise, she realizes that she hasn’t eaten anything all day. She glances at the clock on the VCR, glowing bright green at her. 6:45, it reads. “Gosh!” she exclaims to no one. She hadn’t realized how late it had gotten already. Standing up slowly, she walks into the kitchen and pulls open the refrigerator door, then sticks her head inside. She blinks as she realizes how bare the wire shelves are. She reaches in and pulls out a Tupperware container, lifts the lid, and recoils in disgust as the odor wafts over her. “Whooo!” comes her surprised exhalation. “God, this must be half a year old.” A grimace on her face, she tosses the entire container into the trash, and searches the shelves again. Moldy cheese, a carton of milk with just the dregs left, a half-empty jar of jam, and a heel of bread are all that populate the cold wasteland. “Shit,” she curses, and slams the door, hard. She should have known; after all, her mother hasn’t been shopping for a month. She spent the grocery money on a new dress so she could go to a fancy restaurant with her new boyfriend, Todd, or as Zoe likes to call him, Turd. Her anger rising, Zoe turns with a jerk and pulls open the cupboard doors. Greeted by a stale box of cereal and a bunch of empty space, she growls in frustration and kicks the door closed. “What the fuck am I supposed to eat?!” she screeches into the air, her words echoing in the vastness of the uncarpeted room. “I hate this house,” she thinks for the thousandth time, looking around at the expensive furniture and the sparkling wood floors, the oriental rugs and the costly paintings that line the walls. Her father’s house hadn’t looked like this. It had felt like home. But here, oh boy, this big, expensive house where nothing could be touched or used or lived with...it felt like a museum, a display for outsiders, for the “public.” Always pristine, hardly lived-in. Never comfortable. Zoe heaves a sigh and walks down the hallway.
Entering her room, Zoe smiles. She looks with satisfaction at the piles of clothes and art supplies, her collections of rocks and seashells, feathers and oddly-shaped twigs. This is her place, her sanctuary. Her mother refuses even to pass the doorway, citing it as a “disgusting , embarrassing mess” and insisting that Zoe keep the door closed at all times. Zoe doesn’t mind, in fact she prefers it that way. No one can bother her here. Walking to her shelves, she reaches under an old shirt and pulls out a box filled with candy, her private stash. She grabs a chocolate bar and grins. Her mouth waters in anticipation. Flopping on her back on the bed, she peels open the wrapper and breaks off a piece of the chocolate, popping it into her mouth. Her smile spreads from ear to ear and her eyes close in bliss as she delights in the rich, smooth flavor. Bit by bit she savors it, letting it melt in her mouth, swirling it around on her tongue until the bar is gone. She crumples the wrapper with a contented sigh and tosses it blindly in the direction of her wastebasket, then leans back on her pillows and closes her eyes.
After a while a thought begins to grow in her mind. You shouldn’t have done that. “No,” she says out loud, “don’t be silly. You hadn’t eaten all day, silly girl. You needed food of some sort.” The thought persists. A sort of fog begins to come over her. You shouldn’t have done that. Zoe frowns. The calories, you fool! Think of the calories... She sits up, her feeling of contentment fragmenting. “But I needed to eat...” she whispers, her voice trailing off. You’ll get fat! You’ll get fat, you stupid idiot! How could you?! You ate CHOCOLATE!!!! You MORON! “No,” she says, shaking her head, “No.” Her vision blurs. Her heart starts to pound. “Oh god...” she breathes, “not again. Please not again.” She grabs her old, love-worn teddy bear from the end of her bed and clutches it to her chest, burying her face in it, rocking back and forth, talking to herself. “You’re safe, you’re safe. Calm down. Nothing’s going to hurt you.” Tears come to her eyes. “No! I can’t cry!” she says firmly, clutching the bear tighter. “ I can’t cry. Not now...” The unspoken words: not ever. Ha, you’re such a moron. You can’t even keep from crying. Look at you, you baby! You’ll never be good enough. Fat slob!! Gasping for air, Zoe heaves herself off of the bed and runs towards the bathroom. “Have to make it stop, have to make it stop...” Tears stream down her cheeks. Dropping the bear, she slams the door behind her and locks it, then throws herself to the floor in front of the toilet and lifts the seat violently. She jams the first two fingers of her right hand down her throat, scraping the knuckles against her teeth in her panic. Get it out, get it out, the voice in her brain screams. Get rid if it! She gags and retches, bending almost double over the toilet bowl. Nothing comes up. She pushes her fingers deeper, jams them violently against the back of her throat. She retches again, and a dribble of saliva splashes into the water. “I can’t...” she keens. She slams the back of her throat with her fingers over and over again, retching, but nothing will come up. GET IT OUT YOU ASSHOLE!!! screams the voice. ‘I can’t!” she shrieks. “I can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t...” She begins rocking on her knees, smashing her head into the toilet tank to the rhythm of her cries. Harder and harder she pounds, trying to drown out the voice, trying to make it go away. The porcelain tank rocks and shakes with the violence of her blows, and then the top finally cracks in the center, slicing into Zoe’s forehead. She shrieks in pain as the blood begins to flow, but does not stop banging her head. The jagged edge of the porcelain tears her skin again and again. Dizziness threatens to engulf her. She pitches sideways, collapsing onto the floor, and begins to sob. Failure! Fucking failure!!!!! the voice screams. Her vision goes black.
She wakes up a few hours later, disoriented, unable to remember why she is lying on the floor or how she came to be there. She notices that her vision is funny. She can’t open her right eye, for some reason...confused, she reaches a hand up to her face. Pain blossoms like stars before her eyes, and she gasps. She pulls herself to her knees, noticing how her body aches. Reaching up she takes a firm grip on the sink and stands slowly, shakily. She looks in the mirror above the sink and her breath stops cold. She can barely recognize her own face. It is a mass of bruised, swollen flesh. Her forehead is crisscrossed with deep, ragged cuts. Her right eye is blackened and swollen shut, and dried trickles of blood make lines across her face. Her hair is matted and stiff; the collar of her blouse is caked with dried blood. She turns slightly and looks down at the floor where she had lain. A small puddle of blood remains on the white tile. Realization floods her as she sees the cracked toilet tank lid, it’s sharp, jagged edges red with her blood and bits of her flesh. “Oh my god,” she breathes. She has never had it happen this violently before... A wave of fear washes over her. How is she going to explain this away? Some of the gashes are still bleeding; a trickle of fresh, bright red is seeping down, slipping among the darker tracks of the old. Her hand flutters to her mouth, and she turns from the mirror in terror. “What have you done? Oh Zoe, what have you done?” she says softly, tears filling her eyes. Get out! the voice says, and she obeys, running down the hallway and out the front door, running out into the night without any idea of where she is heading.
His pager goes off, buzzing insistently at his side. He smiles gently at the patient sitting across from him. “Excuse me a moment.” He unclips it and glances at the display. A call of “urgent” is flashing at him. He frowns, then sighs. “Sondra, this seems to be an emergency. We’ll have to finish this later, okay? I’m not deserting you, but I’m the only psychiatrist on call right now. I’m sorry.” He smiles apologetically at the thin, nervous girl. She nods without looking at him, her eyes fixed on her hands that lie folded in her lap, and he rises and opens the door, gesturing for orderly to take her back to her bed in the ward. He turns quickly, and with long strides heads for the elevator.
The head nurse in emergency greets him with a weary nod, and hands him a chart. They walk together to the trauma room, the nurse filling him in on the way.
“It a young female, brought in by a police officer. He found her on the side of the road. She was apparently delirious. Multiple lacerations, head trauma. She’s pretty banged up. The officer said that when he found her she was babbling about failure and being bad, like she was scolding someone, but that she went quiet after he tried to talk to her. Didn’t offer any resistance when he put her in the car. She won’t talk to anyone now, she just stares into space. When she’s left alone, she curls up and rocks back and forth. When we examined her we found multiple healed scars on her arms and legs. She wouldn’t say where they were from, though she looked terrified for a second when we asked about them. Then she blanked again.”
“Hmm. Do you have any idea of her name, or age?”
The nurse shakes her head. “I’d guess her to be about fifteen, maybe younger. The officer said she mentioned someone named Zoe, but other than that we know nothing. He found her on Morris Road, but she was covered in mud and out of breath, like she’d been running or walking a long distance. No ID or personal belongings on her. She could have come from anywhere. The cop‘s going to check with Missing Persons to see if anyone matches her description.”
They turn the corner and walk into the trauma room. The girl is sitting on the edge of the bed, staring blankly at the green tile wall, while a male orderly cleans the cuts on her forehead. He glances up when they enter the room, and speaks to the head nurse. “The doctor said we can’t stitch these cuts. He thinks that they’re more than six hours old.” She nods at him, then fixes her eyes on the girl, who has not acknowledged the presence of others in the room.
“Honey?” she says loudly. When the girl doesn’t move, she walks over to stand in front of her. “Honey, this is Dr. Janoffski. He’s one of our psychiatrists. He needs to talk to you.” The child shows no response, and the nurse glances up to meet the doctor’s eyes. He nods.
“That’s okay,” he says softly, “you can go. I’ll handle her from here. We’ll get her a bed up on three when she’s all cleaned up.” The nurse nods and sweeps out of the room as the orderly wraps the girl’s forehead in white bandages. Finished, he gathers his instruments and leaves, pulling the curtain shut behind him. Dr. Janoffski is alone with the child. He pulls over a stool from the corner and sits in front of her, gazing into her face. She will not meet his eyes, and he is unsure if she even knows he’s there. He smiles gently. “Could you tell me your name?” He waits for a moment, and when she doesn’t respond, he jots a brief statement on his notes. “Come now, there’s no cause to be frightened,” he says, looking into her vacant eyes. “No one is going to hurt you here.” A few seconds pass. “All right, that’s okay. I understand you might not want to talk.” He sets his charts down on the bed. “I’m going to take your hand, if that’s okay,” he says. Firmly, yet gently, he lifts her arm from her side. She offers no resistance. He takes her pulse, then, with a thoughtful look, raises her arm slowly above her shoulder and lets go. It flops limply back to her side. He smiles and pats her shoulder softly, then makes a few more notes on his chart. Standing up, he says “All right, here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to get you a bed up on the third floor where you’ll be nice and safe, and we’ll see if we can’t get you feeling better. We’ll take care of you. If you need something, all you need to do is ask. Everything’s going to be okay.” He gives her another gentle smile, then leaves to get the orderly to take her to her room.