WHEN I saw the boy drowning through the slats of the white fence separating the Pleasant Springs Psychiatric Hospital from the neighboring residence, I was in the middle of a longwinded explanation about why Gina, one of my favorite Pleasant Springs patients, could not climb an oak tree in the backyard.
“You’re afraid of heights,” I reminded her gently as I patted her shoulder. Gina wore a fancy sweater, angora perhaps by the soft feel of it, and striped pajama bottoms. Her makeup was applied, but her hair hadn’t been brushed in weeks because none of us could bring a comb within five feet of her before she began screaming her head off.
“I know,” Gina said, one foot already propped on the tree’s thick roots, “but if I don’t overcome my fear, I’ll never get out of here.”
“You’ve tried this before,” I said as my gaze drifted across the yard, a little slice of heaven, what with all the trees and flowers that you only found in the expensive areas outside of Los Angeles. I tried to keep my voice calm, composed, in charge, while simultaneously thinking that Dr. Hemman, from whom I had recently gotten this senior project assignment, would kill me if he found out that I’d accidentally let a schizophrenic woman with a penchant for trying—and failing—to climb the facility’s trees out without a guard.
Beyond the hospital gate were the mansions of the wealthy families that fed Pleasant Springs their steady stream of patients and, beyond that, the city. Home… at least for a few more months. Everyone at school complained about LA and talked incessantly about how they couldn’t wait to leave, but I loved waking up every morning and driving through the streets where celebrities walked their dogs and picked up lattes from their corner Starbucks. I just didn’t love doing it under the same roof as my parents, that was all.
My great aunt, who had lived through the early 2100s, often told me about how people had packed into the now defunct theaters to watch a two-hour movie—almost unimaginable now that everyone had a personal television, or a PTV, to watch whatever we wanted whenever we wanted it. Just put the glasses on, use the app to choose the new release, and voila. Crazy to imagine how far we had come since 2120 and how far we would go in the 2160s, now that technologies like teleportation devices were almost complete.
I looked to the right and noticed the boy in the blue jumpsuit dashing across the neighboring lawn. He moved fast, almost cheetah-like, and occasionally he stooped to pick something up from the gardens along the fence. Rocks, I realized as he put them in his pockets and continued to run.
Then I saw two things at once: a party of Pleasant Springs staff entering the lawn far in the distance, which explained the temporary “safety suit” they’d put him in, and the pool, where the weighted boy was headed.
They would never reach him in time.
I acted without thinking. One minute I had a firm grasp on Gina’s sweater, and the next I had climbed the very same tree she had just been trying to mount. I shimmied across the rough terrain of its sturdy branch’s bark and dropped the five feet between me and the perfectly manicured lawn on the other side of the fence. Leaves and sticks bit at my arms, but I didn’t have time to check my hands as I landed and took off behind the boy. The neighbors kept their yard relatively bare, but still, I managed to trample almost an entire bed of lilies as I ran.
When the boy leaped into the water without a glance backward, I counted down the seconds he’d been under with every step. One. Step. Two. Step. Three. Step. He was so close now, maybe twenty feet, then ten, then three, two, one.
I shed my sweater as I took the final step and jumped, eyes open, into the pool. The water was freezing cold and dirty from leaves and insects that had found their way in, but I didn’t pause, just began the swim downward to the concrete bottom.
His blue jumpsuit stood out against the white background, and in a few seconds, I had him by his underarms. He kicked, probably trying to get me off him so he could drown in peace, but the pool was shallow, and I was able to push off the bottom while tugging him toward the sunlight like a large child. He went limp, but I was strong enough to raise his head above the water—maybe all those private classes with a trainer had paid off the way my mom insisted they would—and in a minute, I was hefting him back over the side of the pool into the arms of the Pleasant Springs staff. Almost immediately his eyes blinked open and he sat up.
“Well done,” Dr. Hemman was saying to me, but something about the boy held my interest, so the doctor’s voice faded away.
Skinny arms good for painting and not much else.
Tattoo of California burning in a spread of flames along the right forearm, inflicted one night in Jesse’s bedroom as I held the India ink and awaited my turn under the needle. We could just use one of the tattoo kiosks at the mall, I’d thought of suggesting, but then Jesse had taken my hand and all I’d wanted was his mark.
I didn’t need to see the familiar eyes, one blue and one green, to confirm it was him.
He didn’t seem surprised to see me. We could have been meeting in a coffee shop or a bookstore or in his bedroom, where we’d spent most of our time—all our time, really, since his parents were always working and his bedroom offered sanctuary from my nosy trophy wife of a mother and the awkward silence of my dad—until a few months ago, when everything ended.
No one had used that name in months, and just the sound of it made my legs feel like they were filled with pool water. Madison, my parents called me, pronouncing every syllable. Mad Hatter, the kids at school had called me behind my back when I was in my Jesse-inspired goth stage, or Mad Fatter from the really mean ones. Now that I was skinny and dressed in other colors but black, they called me nothing at all.
“You shouldn’t be here,” I told him.
“Now, Mr. Stone,” Dr. Hemman said with one of his most uplifting smiles. Maybe they worked on his patients, but right now those pearly whites weren’t going to work on me. “That’s no way to treat a new patient of ours.”
“You don’t understand,” I said, but now they were taking Jesse by the arm and pulling him back toward Pleasant Springs and couldn’t hear me.
I WASN’T surprised to see him, just surprised to see him there, in the last place I’d ever have thought to look. Pleasant Springs had been an accident, a “my parents put my face on an organic soy milk carton and someone recognized me” accident, an accident I thought I would rather die than face, and yet there he was against the backdrop of California sky, skinner and blonder than I remembered, but still 100 percent my Maddy. Not even death could change that.
“I apologize for Madison’s behavior,” some doctor in a white coat said smoothly as he guided me indoors. “Here at Pleasant Springs, we welcome every guest for as long as he or she wants to stay. We may not have any pools—” He chuckled to himself. “—but we have almost any other amenity you can think of: home-cooked meals, game nights, movie screenings, you name it.”
As he walked me down a windowed hall, warm from the sunbeams pushing through the glass, I wondered if this luxury hotel knock-off had anyone fooled. Probably not—they had a fence around the perimeter for a reason—but maybe the people who lived here were too far gone to care. Wait until my parents saw the bill for this place….
“The police officer who brought you here mentioned that you used to live in Los Angeles.” The doctor made small talk as we wandered past a lot of closed doors that had numbers painted above them in gold paint. “What made you come back?”
What a mystery. Why return to beautiful LA when you could be holed up in some crappy apartment outside of Boise, Idaho?
“It’s okay, you don’t have to tell me. I’m sure I’ll find out anyway once your parents get here tomorrow.”
If he meant to antagonize me, it worked. I kept my lips pressed together, but the angry words I wanted to say sat in my throat like a big piece of bread half-swallowed. Don’t draw attention to yourself or they’ll watch you. Just think of Maddy. You need to get back to Maddy.
The doctor dropped me off in Room 20 and, after explaining that a nurse would be in shortly to help me fill in my paperwork, locked the door behind him, leaving me in a bare bedroom with just a desk, PTV, and window screen currently set to “tranquil forest.” No phone, no extra clothes, no robomaid in the corner waiting for a bit of dust it could consume. A few pills labeled “HAPPY!” with accompanying smiley faces were in the desk drawer, but after tucking them away in my pocket, I found nothing else.
My mind went to Maddy. I couldn’t have imagined a worse way to meet him, but Maddy and I had always been like that, finding each other when we least expected it. Back in tenth grade, we’d met on the bus after the first day of school, when he sat down next to me and stuck his nose in a book—The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood—and given me the perfect opportunity to just watch him. Light brown hair, long to the point of being too long, and matching brown eyes. A stocky body that he hid under bulky clothes. One dangling silver charm in his ear—a book, on further inspection—and a matching charm hanging right beneath his neckline.
“A case for artificial wombs, am I right?” I joked, and he looked up from his book and glared at me. “You know…,” I continued, “because the women are only allowed to have kids and nothing else…. Artificial wombs…. Get it?”
In truth I hadn’t read the book, but the test guide I’d downloaded the year before had said something about girls only being allowed to birth children and do nothing else. The guide hadn’t helped me pass the exam, however, and I’d ended up drawing a dragon burning a stack of books with its flames over the lined sheet of test paper.
He looked back down at his book without a word.
“How come you weren’t on the bus this morning?” I asked a few minutes later and then immediately regretted it. Why would I say something dumb like that? Why was I still talking at all?
“No, you weren’t.”
“I was.” Another glare.
“I’m sorry to argue, but you weren’t. I would have noticed you.”
Oh no. Had I just said that out loud?
The book closed, which I took to be a good sign, but instead of engaging me in conversation, the boy looked around the bus frantically.
“What bus is this? Where are we going?”
“Bus forty-seven. We’re almost downtown,” I said. We’d gone a good ten minutes from the LA Charter School for Artistically Talented Youth, or SATY, in the time it took us to have this scattered conversation.
“Shit.” The book went into his backpack, and then the boy stood up right as the bus came to a halt. He pressed into the seat in front of us, and to steady him, I grabbed his arm. My own backpack fell off the seat onto the floor, but I didn’t care. “I’m going the wrong way. Like, completely the wrong way. I live all the way up in West Hollywood!”
“It’s okay,” I said while thinking fast. “Why don’t you just come over to my house? When my mom gets home, I’ll drive you back.”
I didn’t think his glare could get any more furious, but I was wrong.
“I don’t know you,” he said pointedly. At least he had sat down and taken his book out again.
“I know. And I don’t know you, beyond the facts that you really, really like books and really, really don’t like me talking to you. But give me a chance to introduce myself, and maybe one of those facts will change. What do you think?”
The boy smiled and then hid the smile behind his closed book. As though it was a shield, he said from behind it, “What’s your name?”
“Maddy. I like it.”
“Sure, Maddy, whatever you say.”
We didn’t talk much after that, and Maddy went back to reading, but by the time we reached my neighborhood ten minutes later, he hadn’t turned the page once. As we stepped off the bus, I imagined what the cluster of rundown buildings we called The Big Barrio looked like through his eyes, packed as it was with five hundred thousand Hispanics of all nationalities yelling things in a language he probably didn’t understand. Then again, now that 60 percent of Californians spoke the language, maybe he did.
“This way.” I led him through the throngs of people packed into the sidewalks, already crowded at 4:00 p.m. on a Monday, and into a building directly across from mine. The streets, flooded with automatic cabs driving or hovering their patrons about the city, were impassible, so the mayor had created sky streets that took us locals from building to building without the risk of death. Of course, people were mugged or murdered in the sky streets too, but then again, people were mugged or murdered everywhere all the time. Better to do it without a headlight in your face, I supposed.
“I’ve never been here,” Maddy said as we smooshed into the elevator and rode it up one hundred stories.
I couldn’t tell if he meant The Big Barrio or downtown LA. Either way he looked spooked, and I imagined what his view probably looked like from the only unspoiled part of the city. Trees. Flowers. Sprinklers raining unpolluted dewdrops on green grass.
Someone elbowed me, and I turned to glare at our elevator mates. On my left was a lawyer type—probably immigration, I thought suspiciously as I eyed her purple suit and matching briefcase—and on my right, was some guy in a takeout restaurant uniform. Whenever she saw someone like him, my mom always said, Nothing changes, principito. Forty years ago, we were flipping burgers. Now we’re fixing the machines that flip ’em.
She would know—she serviced robomaids for a living.
A few seconds later, we were pushed out the too-small mouth of the elevator and into the sky street that led directly to my building. The minute he saw the glass walkway—through which you could see all of the cars below the hover line and then, even farther, the residents of the BB—Maddy backed up three paces and plastered himself against the wall.
Which was also made of glass.
“Ah!” he yelled as he tore his eyes away from the ground and jumped back toward me. His hand snaked through my arm, and even though I knew it didn’t mean anything, my heart pounded.
“It’s okay.” I led him slowly toward my building as he slid one foot in front of the other. He looked like an old man shuffling down the hall in his slippers, and I couldn’t help laughing.
“Very funny.” There was that glare again, but it dissolved back into fear as we got farther and farther down the street. “Why do they make these things out of glass, anyway?”
I shrugged instead of saying what I really thought—So if something goes down in here, the police are more likely to see it?—and then focused on distracting him. The faster we got across the bridge, the faster I could spend time alone with him before my mom got home.
“So, what made the city spend $80,000 a year on you?” I asked.
He gave me a weird face-scrunched look, and I immediately felt like an idiot. Of course he wasn’t a scholarship kid… only kids from BB or Death Valley, the last remaining strongholds against complete gentrification, got free rides to our high school.
“I write, if that’s what you mean.”
I mocked hitting myself on the head with my palm. “Duh. I knew there had to be a reason you liked reading so much.”
“I would like reading anyway,” he corrected me.
“Sure you would.”
We would have continued that way, fake (or at least I hoped it was fake) arguing, if we hadn’t reached the other side right then. The crowd flowed down a flight of steps to the next elevator, and voila, fifty stories down we were home.
Inside, the house smelled like my grandmother, who always smelled like the traditional Mexican mixture of chilies, cumin, and oregano she used to cook with before she passed away. My mom used to complain about the constant cooking, her nosiness, her scent, which permeated all our clothes, Grandma’s refusal to eat at any restaurant that didn’t serve chiles en nogada, which she called the “most patriotic of foods.” Then she died, and it was like mom became her overnight.
Shit. Shit, shit, shit.
My mom emerged from the kitchen at the end of the hall. She was wearing one of my grandmother’s old huipils, which had probably been given to my grandmother by her own mother a billion years ago, considering how faded the red patterns were. It went to her midthigh, revealing tan legs fit from long days at the factory. The only other thing she had on was a pair of red flip-flops, which meant she’d probably had a good day; when my dad got home, she would let my dad twirl her around and call her amada.
“Who’s this?” she asked in English as she turned on the polite smile she reserved for my teachers and our landlord.
“Madison,” Maddy answered before I could. “I took the wrong bus, and Jesse said he would drive me home if you said it was okay.”
“I’m going to show him my room real quick,” I said before my mom could interfere. “I’ll take him home after that, if it’s okay?”
“Okay.” My mom tilted her head, and I felt like she could see right through me. “But keep the door open.”
Maddy flushed an adorable pink and then headed toward the room he probably assumed was mine. I mean, it was the only door covered in black paper and white chalk drawings, so it obviously wasn’t anyone else’s. Inside, he stopped a few feet in and just stared.
“Like it?” I asked, and he didn’t answer.
I tried to see the room through his eyes. Red paint on black. Lines of poetry spinning in the gray clouds above LA, which was decorated in colorful calaveras. White scratch marks. Handprints.
“That’s a lot of skulls,” he said finally.
“I like mixing Mexican stuff into my work. Besides, it convinced my mom to let me draw on the walls.”
Luckily, I’d made the bed. Maddy sat on the edge, about as far as he could go without falling off, and I sat down next to him. From that angle, we were looking straight at the only happy thing in the room: a giant burning sun that took up about five feet of wall space. I was suddenly conscious of where my hands were, clasped and resting on my lap in the least holdable position possible. Not that I expected him to take my hand, but I didn’t want to rule it out.
For a while no one spoke. On the way there, I’d been so sure of myself, but now that he had seen my art, I felt weirdly shy.
“What’s with the sun?” Maddy asked finally, breaking the silence.
“Oh, you know, it’s a star. The largest object in our solar system. It has—”
“No, not the sun,” he interrupted. “I mean that sun. There. On the wall.”
“Oh, right.” That sun. The one I’d drawn at the end of my last episode, when I thought nothing could pull me out of bed. “It’s a reminder.”
“That eventually, the sun always comes out.”