Michael Henson is author of Ransack, a novel, and A Small Room With Trouble on My Mind, a book of stories, as well as three collections of poetry. His latest work is Tommy Perdue, a novella from MotesBooks. He is a member of the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative and has been active with the Urban Appalachian Council and other organizations for many years. He lives in Cincinnati.
That girl was talking in her sleep again.
Maggie Boylan sat up in her bed and listened. Everything else was quiet. Outside her window, across the hills and the frozen fields around, snow fell on silent snow. The third shift monitors were dozing at their stations. Every other addict in the unit was sound asleep. Everything else was perfectly still. There was only this muttering girl with her moans and curses.
Oh fuck, Maggie thought, not again.
For it was Please! And Please! And No! and then a long string of perfectly crafted curses. Then the curses trailed off and the girl moaned and muttered and twitched and gasped and Maggie knew that, for a second night in rehab, she could have no hope of sleeping.
The girl was just a young girl, barely old enough to be in such a place as this. But she carried such a burden of cursing and grief. She was a tiny little thing, skinny as a weasel and just as loopy. But she bellowed out her midnight curses like a bull in rut, curses not even Maggie would curse, curses strung together of strange and foreign words, curses Maggie knew to be curses only by the vehemence of them and by the way it broke her heart to hear them.
The girl twitched and gasped so that Maggie couldn't bear it and she stood, threw her jacket over her shoulders, and stared as the girl mumbled and muttered and sighed and pulled the blankets up around her neck.
All day long, she don't have two words to say, Maggie thought. A nod, a shake of the head, that would be all.
Then she goes to sleep and she can't shut up.
Maggie had tried last night to sleep on one of the couches in the group room, but the third shift people had run her back. She had begged to be switched to another room, but they turned her down. She had tried stuffing her ears with tissue, but the tissues fell out. So she was stuck with all this muttering and cursing that made it impossible to sleep.
It's that powerless shit, Maggie thought. I'm powerless. And powerless means you're fucked.
It was bad enough that she was stuck in here with all these mental cases—Maggie knew she had a little problem with Oxy-Contin, but she wasn't mental—but then she had to put up with this little girl with the big barrel of a voice.
Tomorrow, when Maggie fell asleep again in group, that skinny little vixen who ran it would tell her again she was being resistant.
But she wasn't resistant. She sat when she was supposed to sit and she stood when she was supposed to stand and she read what they told her to read and she wrote what they told her to write and she joined hands in the circle and mumbled the prayer along with the rest.
Resistant! she thought. If she wants to see resistant, I can resist my ass right out the door and up the road.
But she knew what was up the road.
The judge had laid it out for her: Guilty as charged. Three years on the shelf. Treatment in lieu of incarceration. Intensive probation.
“And if I ever see you in this courtroom during those three years or after, I will personally and promptly see to it that they put you under the jail.”
The girl >fell silent for a moment, but Maggie knew better than to hope. And sure enough, in seconds, it was Please! And No! and a new string of curses. She settled down to muttering again and Maggie thought, if the girl would just keep it at that level, I might be able to sleep through it after all. But right in the middle of the muttering, the girl sat bolt upright. “No,” she shouted. “Please no.”
They say you shouldn't wake them, Maggie remembered, though she couldn't see what harm it would do. The girl didn't shout again and, after several minutes, the wild, tormented dream seemed to have died down. But the girl suddenly sucked in air as if she had been punched. She held her breath for several long seconds, then released as if she had just surrendered. Maggie pulled her chair over to the girl's bed and sat where she could watch more closely. Over and over the girl sucked in air, held it, and released it. But at least for now, she was done with the shouts and the curses.
Quiet as a mouse in the daytime, Maggie thought. But she's the handbells of hell at night.
To look at her in the daytime, who would ever know? When she first saw her, Maggie thought the girl was part of the staff, she looked so serene and untroubled. She was so blonde and perfect—movie star blonde and movie star perfect—that the men on the unit and even the counselors and even the doctor on his stroll—each did that little jiggle of the head where they wanted to turn and follow her around the room, but didn't want to show it.
Quiet as a mouse, with dark, wide eyes like those of a mouse caught in a trap. To Maggie, she seemed a timid, useless mouse of a thing. But that did not stop the men from turning her way. The girl endured the eyes, when she lifted her own to see them, with an unreadable look that seemed alternately sly and despairing.
The girl was blonde in the daylight, but in the moonlight from the window her hair looked white as lamb's wool, her face pale, her brow flexed tight as corduroy.
Gradually, the girl's breathing leveled, her brow relaxed, and she began to breathe soft and natural as a child.
Such a baby, Maggie thought. I wish the fuck she would let me sleep, but she's such a poor fucked-up baby.
And through the small hours, until she finally fell asleep in her chair, Maggie watched over the white-haired girl as over a child.
Sometime in the middle of the night, a man and a woman from the third shift stood on either side of her and wanted to know, “Are you all right?”
“I was fine til you woke me up,” Maggie muttered. She cursed them both with no real enthusiasm—she knew she had been beaten on that count—and they guided her or lifted her—she couldn't remember which—from the chair to the bed.
Finally, the morning light and the chatter of the morning birds at the feeder woke her. Maggie sat up and looked around.
The girl was gone. Her bed was made up neat as if it had been an envelope licked and sealed. And all her little items—her books, her makeup, her lotion bottles, and what-not were tidied on the dresser top like soldiers in formation.
The loudspeaker went off and Maggie guessed it was the breakfast call. But that was only a guess. There was no real way a body could tell what fell from those wheezy, asthmatic speakers. She knew they said breakfast or lunch because everyone else started for the cafeteria. She knew it announced group because they all headed for the group room. But anything else might as well have been in French.
Maggie pulled herself up and looked out the window. The birds had gathered at a feeder in the yard below. Beyond the yard, a wire fence bordered on a cornfield. A powder of snow lay in the furrows; broken, blackened cornstalks rose up among the snow like scratches on a page. A rooster crowed in the distance. It was a dim winter dawn, gray as gunmetal. Beyond the cornfield, another field, and beyond that, a house or two still had on their lights. Beyond that, the morning mist obscured her view.
The loudspeaker barked again. I got to go, Maggie thought, I'll be late and they'll be writing me up.
It was breakfast after all. Maggie was late and the kitchen staff were happy to tell her so. But they didn't write her up, so she kept her curses under her breath, gulped down her breakfast, and headed off to group.
In group, Maggie sat silent for as long as she could. The little vixen was not happy about it and she said so.
“You mean, you've got nothing at all to say?”
Her little, blonde roommate didn't have anything to say either. Even less, for she would not even talk outside of group. In fact, Maggie had yet to hear her say a waking word. But the vixen said nothing to her. She was just picking on Maggie and it was wrong and Maggie would have told her so, but she knew better. She thought, They're just waiting for me to say something so they'll have an excuse to kick me out.
“Nothing at all?”
Say something and get kicked out for it. Say nothing and get kicked out for it—It was that powerless shit again.
“I seem to recall you had a lot to say when they dropped you off and you had a lot to say when they checked you in and you had a lot to say when they caught you smoking in the back hall, but you can't find anything to say now?”
“I'll say this . . .” Maggie spoke the first thought that came to mind and hoped that might get the vixen off her back. “I'll tell you this,” she said. “I never did trust nobody with a clipboard.”
Which was a mistake. The vixen didn't seem bothered in the least that Maggie didn't trust her. She wanted to know why and who did she know with a clipboard in the past and what did a clipboard represent to her and Maggie thought, what the fuck have I got myself into now?
From there on, it was a tangle. So far as she could recall, Maggie had never in her life had a thought about a person with a clipboard. But she couldn't unsay it now she had said it. And in moments, she was in a briar patch of invented insults and injuries. It was bankers evicting and auctioneers selling off all the family treasure and teachers swatting and preachers who were hypocrites and a store clerk who tried to feel her up when she was just thirteen.
It wore her out, after so little sleep, to invent so many lies at once and, before ten minutes were out, Maggie felt like her head would split. She had never had trouble coming up with lies before, but the vixen was relentless. She stuck her little fox of a nose into every little nook of every lie she told.
“So,” she said, finally, You don't trust me because I carry a clipboard and you've had all these negative experiences with people who carry clipboards.”
Maggie nodded. There wasn't a word of truth to it, but she nodded.
“So maybe this will help.” The vixen took her notes from under the clip, gripped the clipboard by one corner, and flung it like a frisbee. It banked off the wall and fell into the trashcan.
Maggie thought, this girl's a freak.
“Now, I don't have a clipboard. So tell me something.”
“Tell you what?”
“Tell me what's the real problem.”
“I already told you.”
“Because I don't believe a bit of this clipboard bullshit.”
“I thought you wasn't supposed to cuss.”
“I'm not supposed to throw away a perfectly good clipboard either. But let's talk about you.”
The blond girl's mousestrap eyes moved from one to another.
“You ain't talking to her like that,” Maggie said. “She ain't said a word since I got here and I don't see you picking on her.”
“Because right now we're focusing on you.”
“You can focus on my ass.”
“We might do that later. Right now, we're focused on your ability to tell the truth.”
The blonde girl pulled her feet up on her chair, tucked her knees under her chin, and stared at the floor. Maggie was sorry she had tried to drag the girl into it, sorry she had spoken at all. She suddenly grew desperately tired. Her arms were heavy as bricks. “My God,” she muttered. “I want to get out of here so fucking bad.”
“Because you feel you're being picked on.”
Maggie looked hard at the vixen to see if she could catch any hint of mockery in her face and decided she did not like her either way. “No,” she said. “Because this whole place sucks, including you, you little four-eyed bitch.”
“Thank you for what?” Maggie was certain she was fucked now for sure.
“Thank you for saying something real.”
“If real is what you're lookin for, then fuck you again.”
“Because everything you've said before has been a lie.”
“So fuck you ten times more.”
“And now we get to see the real you.”
“And the real me says fuck you til you're cross-eyed.”
“Thank you for sharing,” the vixen said. “I think we've made some progress.”
Maggie would have told her to stick some progress up her skinny ass. But the loudspeaker announced something in asthmatic French and everyone stood for the end of group.
Maggie stood with the rest and held hands with the rest and mumbled the prayer along with the rest, but she swayed with exhaustion and her mind was muddled and confused and she silently cursed the vixen and the blonde girl for it.
By mid-afternoon, Maggie was delirious from lack of sleep. The coffee was weak-ass decaf and they wouldn't let her take a nap. They piss-tested her before supper and Maggie was sure they thought she was high on Oxys again.
If only she was. Just one sweet little Oxy. Just one would lift her out of this insanity, if only for a little while. If she could she could without getting caught, she would. But she was not about to face that judge again.
So she struggled through the rest of her groups and doodled through the art therapy and dozed over her evening meal and tried to follow the story of the AA speaker. She sat when she was supposed to sit and she stood when she was supposed to stand. She read what she was supposed to read and mumbled through the prayers like the rest. For there was no way she would let herself get kicked out of the program and face all that prison time. One day at a time, she thought. One fucking day at a time.
But please, God, not such another day as this.
At break, Maggie went back to her room for a cigarette and her jacket. And there was the girl. She was kneeling on Maggie's bed and looking out the window.
“What's up, babe?”
Startled, the girl turned. She got up from the bed and crossed the room to her own.
“It's okay, honey. You want to look out the window, look out.”
The girl stared out of her mousetrap eyes, but said nothing.
“It's okay,” Maggie said. “Just look.” Maggie knelt on the bed and looked to see what the girl might have seen. “I don't see nothing,” she said. “Nothing but snow, but you're welcome to look.”
The girl still said nothing, but she crossed the room and joined Maggie at the window.
“Like I say, there ain't nothing out there but . . . “
The girl touched Maggie on the shoulder and put a finger to her lips. She looked out the window and seemed to search each corner, each cap of snow on each fencepost. She finished her search, then backed off the bed, and turned to go.
“I wish I knew what you was looking for”
“I watch for those men.”
I'll be damned, Maggie thought. She can talk. The accent was foreign. Maggie could not tell what kind of foreign it was, but it was surely not Ohio.
The girl stared at Maggie for a long time before she answered. “I will tell you,” she said. “But not now.”
“But who . . .”
“If they come for me, I will kill myself”
“But . . .”
“I am dead woman either way.”
“Who . . .”
She raised her hand to cut off Maggie's question. “Please,” she said. In foreign, it sounded pliz. “Pliz,” she said. “Don't tell no one.”
The loudspeaker coughed out a call to evening meal. The girl touched her finger to her lips again and slipped out of the room.
Maggie told no one. It was not her nature to tell. The girl resumed her silence through the evening meal, chores, and evening group. She was silent through the AA meeting. She did not so much as look Maggie's way.
Finally, after evening meeting, they were alone in their room.
The girl was in her nightgown and stood in her bare feet near the door. She was ready to switch off the light when Maggie asked, “Why do you talk all night long in your sleep but you won't say a word all day?” Maggie did not expect an answer, but she asked anyway.
The mousetrap eyes grew even wider. “Whot did I say?”
“You said a lot, babe.”
“Whot did I say?”
“You said, No and please over and over, but the rest all sounded foreign.”
“Did I say anyone's name?”
“It all sounded foreign to me.”
“A name, did I say anyone's name?”
“How would I know a name in foreign?”
The girl sank down into her bed. She looked across the room to her window and shook her head. “I am dead woman,” she said to the window.
“You don't look dead to me. And you sure don't sound dead at night.”
The girl shook her head. “Tomorrow, next day—who knows?—they come for me.” Then she rolled over in her bed and faced the wall and pulled the blanket up to her ears.
In minutes, she was asleep. Maggie could tell because she started again to gasp, hold her breath, and release. But in a few minutes more, she was breathing soft as a kitten.
If she shouted in the night again, Maggie did not know it, for she was drowned in her own sleep and her dreams were full of curses.
Maggie woke in the morning, miserable and alert.
The girl was already up, tidying her bed, folding down the corners neat as that envelope.
“How are you this morning, Dead Woman?”
“Is not a joke,” the girl said. She pulled her sheets tight with a snap, then raised herself to look at Maggie with her unreadable eyes.
“Is not a joke,” she said. “Pliz do not laugh.“ She narrowed her eyes. “Do not laugh,” she said.
Her name was Marina. And she came from some unpronounceable country where they convince the young girls they're headed to America for jobs as nurses or secretaries and they trap them into prostitution. They rape them and they pump them full of drugs and they put them to work as prostitutes.
“Slave,” she said. “I was slave. Even now I am not free, but there I was slave.”
Even when the police raided the place where they worked her, she was not freed. The men got away; the police charged her with prostitution and a judge sent her to this place.
“The men ran. But they will be back to find me.”
“You sure? You don't think they've maybe learned their lesson?”
“You do not know them. They learn no lessons. They want me back. I tried to run. But they brought me back.”
Maggie's heart ached for the girl. “I don't know what to say, babe.”
“Say nothing. You can say nothing to a dead woman.”
The next morning, the girl pointed out the window. “Look,” she said. She said it foreign, like Luke. “Luke,” she pointed.
Maggie looked with her. “I don't see nothing,” she said.
“Luke, there,” she said. “By the fence.”
Maggie saw only the fence line and the snow and the black stalks of corn.
“Footprints,” she said. She said it like boot prints.
“It's probably a farmer,” Maggie said. “Checking his fenceline.
“Is no farmer.”
“Where do you see these prints?”
“There,” she pointed. “Luke,” she said. “The footprints stop there. Across from these window. They stop there. They stand there. And they watch.”
Maggie looked, but she could not see what the girl saw in the snow. She saw the yard and the birdseed frittered over the snow. She saw the fence and the field beyond the fence. “I still think it's just a farmer.”
“Is the farmer of souls.”
“How is the farmer of souls gonna find you here?”
“And how they gonnna get you out of here?”
“I dunno. I dunno. They do what they want and nobody will stop them. I just want to die.” She balled up her fists, bowed her head, and began to pound her temples. “I just want to go somewhere and die.”
“Honey, don't say that.”
“What can I say? I have no way to live.”
“You can live, babe. I've lived through some shit, you can too.”
The girl looked at Maggie with her unreadable look that may have been sly or it may have been despairing. “I have to run,” she said.
“Where you gonna go?”
“I dunno. I dunno. But if I stay here I am dead woman.” She began to grab the ranked soldiers at the top of her dresser and throw them into a backpack.
“Tell the staff. They won't let them past the desk.”
She laughed a dead woman's laugh. “Front desk will not stop them.”
“Well, they'll sure enough try to stop you if you try to leave.”
“I go out back.”
“And set off the alarm. Think about it.”
The girl set down the backpack and sank onto her bed. “I am dead woman.”
“Not yet. Let's think.”
“I cannot think.”
“A plan,” Maggie said. “What you need is a plan.”
The girl brooded while Maggie thought.
“I don't reckon it would help to call the sheriff.”
The girl smirked. “The police tell them go away, they go away. They laugh and they come back. I tell you I am dead woman.”
Maggie looked at the little plastic sandals the girl was wearing. “You got better shoes than that?”
“These are the shoes they give a dead woman.”
“You're sure enough dead if you try to walk through the snow in those things.”
They agreed that the girl would take Maggie's coat and shoes. Maggie could pretend the girl stole them. Maggie could create a diversion and the girl would slip out of a first floor window and walk across the hills to the next little town where there was a homeless shelter. It had started to snow again. That would make it harder going, but it would cover up her tracks. From there, who knew? The girl would have to figure it out from there.
It worked. Maggie picked an argument with the second shift staff. She got rowdy enough to get everyone's attention, settled it just short of getting herself kicked out, then little later, raised a second ruckus over the little blonde bitch who stole her shoes and coat.
Maggie thought that, without the girl's racket, she would sleep easy. Instead, she fretted, tossed, and worried about the girl. She could not help thinking about what might happen. Would they track her down? Would she freeze to death out there in the snow?
Finally, she thought, Hell with this. I need a smoke. She tossed back the covers, got out of bed, and got a lighter and a cigarette. The monitor at the desk was looking at bikini models in a magazine and never looked up when she asked. He pointed toward the door and nodded.
The prissy shoes the girl had left her hurt her feet and they were little slim things so that the cold of the snow went right up through her. I need to make this quick, she thought. She pulled her jacket close around her and lit up. The smoke felt good, the last thing she had to feel good about.
She shivered through her cigarette. She smoked it down to the filter tip and made ready to flip it over the fence and into the field. She launched it and watched the arc of it over the barbwire fence to where it died in the snow with a hiss.
She knocked on the door to get back in and waited for the monitor. And waited. And muttered and cursed the cold and the silly shoes the girl had left her and the habit of cigarette smoking and the entire race of monitors.
A car came down the road. She heard the engine growl out of the curve and she saw the headlights cross the hedges. Then as it passed, she saw the blood-red tail lights brighten as it pulled to a stop about a hundred yards down the cornfield and far from the lights of the farmhouses.
The monitor finally came padding down the hall and opened the door. “Come on in, Maggie,” he said.
“Hold on,” she said.
“It's too damn cold to hold on.”
“Hold on. Just a minute.”
There were voices now.
“What are you doing out here?”
“I'm looking at this car.”
“It's too damn cold to look at a car.”
“Hold on.” Maggie strained to hear the voices. “Just a minute,” she said.
“Maggie, I got to do rounds.”
“Go on,” she said. “Come back for me later.”
The monitor let the door fall shut, then muttered down the hall and cursed his way around the corner. Out in the snow, the voices, half-hushed and argumentative, rose and fell and rose and fell and Maggie could not make out a word of it from the distance and from the muffling of the snow. But she could make out the voice of a woman from out in the field and the voice of a man from the car and she could hear the voices coming closer together.
Oh my God, she thought. Oh please Jesus no.
The voices argued closer until the woman came into the range of the headlights and Maggie could see that the woman was small, that she wore a dark coat, and that her hair—in the headlights of the car—looked white as the snow around her.
Please Jesus no, Maggie thought again.
The woman sputtered and cursed as the man helped her over the barbwire fence and they got into the car and left.
Please God, no, Maggie prayed. Over and over, she shivered and cursed and prayed.
The car was long gone when the monitor came off his rounds. “Come on, Maggie,” he said. “You'll catch your death out here.”
Maggie shivered once more and stared toward the road.
“Maggie,” the monitor called. She turned to go in, her face damp with tears and snot and snow.