Today's Reading

Last year she had to find me a different gown for a few days while she worked out the stain from my first curse from my issued one. I'd just turned thirteen. The saturated red mark on my gown and bed and the stickiness between my legs hadn't been a shock to me. Before my mother was sterilized—a procedure doctors thought would help her melancholia depression and psychosis—I was always the one to clean her up because Nursey was charged with nearly a hundred other patients and had little help. Nursey had given me Carol's gown; she'd died only the week before and was barely cold in the graveyard out back. Her family hadn't claimed her body. Now she'd just be C. Monroe on a small stone marker. Wearing a dead woman's gown was commonplace around here, but knowing who'd worn it last left me with the heebie-jeebies.

I'd stayed in bed for most of the first day of my curse, and my friend Angel had assumed I was dying when I wouldn't go out for a walk through the orchard and then to the graveyard where we'd memorized every headstone. Nursey gave him an explanation, though I don't know what she said. Later he told me she'd mentioned my burgeoning womanhood and hormones, something we'd learned about when she gave us a few biology lessons.

Nursey had believed my step toward womanhood deserved something special, and when she brought my institutional shift back to me, she surprised me by turning it into a real dress. Her smile lit up when she pointed out something called a Peter Pan collar and the ruffles at the hem. When I put it on I spun around like I did when I was little, before I understood that it wasn't normal for a child to live in an asylum.

I cried when the hospital administrator, Dr. Wolff, refused to let me keep it, claiming he'd already made too many exceptions when it came to me. Nursey said we shouldn't push our luck—whatever that meant. Luck? Me? Luck would be the chance to run away and buy myself as many ruffled dresses as I wanted and wear a different one every day. Maybe fall in love and get married. Maybe even be a mother.

Maybe. Someday.

By now, at age fourteen, I knew that being a resident of the Riverside Home for the Insane was not how everyone else in the world lived. But it had been my life since birth. None of the doctors' diagnoses—feeble-minded, melancholia, or deaf mute--could be used to describe me. I didn't even have a bad temper. All my friends had these labels, and I was familiar with them, but they didn't apply to me. Neither were they used on my best friend, Angel—he was just an albino and didn't see well.

My poor mother was bewitched with voices and demons, and my father never cared enough to rescue either of us—or even visit. He was our only ticket out of this asylum because he was our next of kin. But today, on my fourteenth birthday, the fresh air outside tapped on the windows, taunting me, willing me to make a run for it. But what about my mother? If I left, wouldn't I be as bad as my father? I didn't want to be bad.

"All done." Aunt Eddie patted my shoulders and spun me around to get a good look. My distorted reflection stared back at me through her pooling eyes. I was a plain girl with too big a name. It hung over my identity like the issued hospital gown drooped on my shoulders. But it was the only thing my mother had ever given me.

"Brighton."

Nurse Joann Derry's voice vibrated through the chilled, bleak corners. She came into the small dayroom. "Brighton Friedrich, young lady, where are you?"

"She's here." Edna pushed me past the patients who were filing in after breakfast.

The closer I got to the dayroom door and to the hall that led to the dormitory hall, the more I could hear Mother in an upswing of a fit. The wails beat my eardrums, and my heart conformed to the rhythm. She needed me. Rain and Mother's fits were like peas and pods that multiplied on my birthday.

Mother's groaning always began around three o'clock in the morning every year. Then, for the next few hours, she would go through the pains of labor and childbirth as if it were happening for the first time. But when she found no baby at the end of it all, she'd mourn this phantom loss. She'd scratch at the concrete walls so severely her fingernails would bleed, and if we didn't restrain her fast enough, she'd lose one or two. After years of pulling out her hair, her roots remained fruitless. If we didn't watch her closely she'd pick at the softest places on her skin—the insides of her elbows, her wrists, her breasts—till they bled. The white coats called it psychosis. She couldn't, or wouldn't, cope. They said they didn't know why, but I wasn't sure I believed them anymore. They'd hurt so many of my friends that I knew not to trust them.

As for my mother, I'd never known her any other way. Besides restraints, my presence was the only thing that helped her. Sterilizing her had not released her from this madness. Her hormones were not responsible.

The doctors depended on a few things to calm her. My presence and touch, even as a baby, was one prescribed method. But if I failed, Nursey had no choice but to camisole or restrain her to her bed or a chair or give her a dose of chloral hydrate. Insulin was the new Holy Grail for fits and mania, putting patients into a coma-like sleep for many hours to days at a time. But the injections agitated her and caused a dangerous irregular heartbeat. There had never been good answers for Mother.
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