With midterms looming, I immersed myself in study groups, went to every office hour, and spent long nights in front of my computer writing drafts I obsessed over until they were perfect. Frankie and I quizzed each other; terms, theorists, and disorders covered flashcards, a pile we got right, an even bigger pile we got wrong.
“I’m never going to remember these,” Frankie said, throwing the pile of cards up in the air.
“Yes, you will.” I encouraged.
“Let’s go get something to eat, give our minds a break.”
The student union was packed so we ventured off campus to a small restaurant called GiGi’s Soup & Salad. We got the all-you-can-eat salad and clam chowder.
“What are positive psychotic symptoms?” Frankie quizzed.
“Delusions…hallucinations…disorganized speech and behavior.”
“Well, look who’s ready for the exam?” Frankie sassed.
“Not even close,” I blushed. “How’s your paper coming along?”
“What paper?” Frankie smirked. “I haven’t even started yet.” She slurped her soup. “Have you started?”
“Kind of. I was going to do my mother, but there are too many unanswered questions.”
“M never called you back, huh?” Frankie laughed.
“No,” I cringed.
It had been several weeks and still nothing. Two days after I had spoken with M, the phone number was disconnected. I wondered if I had made the whole thing up. I replayed the conversation in my head, concentrated on the small details—the cadence of her speech, the uneven tone of her voice. I kept telling myself that it had happened. M was real.
“So when are you done with midterms?” Frankie asked. “I have midterms all next week. I’m not done until Thursday.”
“Wednesday evening,” I said between bites.
“Lucky.” Frankie chewed. “We should plan something, get out for the weekend.”
That night, after working my way through the flashcards again, I pulled out Mother’s notebook. I flipped through the pages, Gargoyles peering back. These protective creatures guarded me, little one, but from what? What had been so threatening? I got on the computer and searched everything I could on Patterson—history, population, motto, elevation, places of interest. Then I searched “Patterson’s Juniper Forest.” Pictures of Juniper filled the screen. Their twisted trunks, needle-sharp leaves, and sprawling branches matched my memory. I scrolled through each picture and skimmed a few articles: Growing Juniper Forest Threatens Habitat. City Warns Against Hiking Through Juniper Forest. I scrolled down more. Wounded Boy Left in Forest to Die. Dismembered Body Found in Forest Identified. Underground Cellar Found In Juniper Forest, Human Remains Stored Inside.
“Don’t go out into that forest anymore,” Grandma Betty warned.
“Just listen to me, you hear?” Grandma Betty scolded.
Sage picked the peas out of her carrots, avoiding my stare.
We never went back into that forest, but Mother did.
I thought about all the organs she kept in the basement, the times she came home bloodied and bruised. All the times she ran into that forest and disappeared.
“What did you do, Mother?” I said under my breath, clicking on each story.
Boy 10-12 yrs found in forest, his face burned, teeth extracted.
My heart felt heavy, like it was enlarging somehow in my chest.
Authorities found 3 hearts, 5 livers, a spleen, and a set of lungs, all human remains.
Sweat slid down my spine, my breaths labored.
Underground shelter occupied by local woman; police investigate possible connection to earlier murders.
A painful tingling crawled through my body. I closed my eyes and tried to calm my breathing.
“It’s not true…it’s not true.” I repeated. “She didn’t do anything…she didn’t do it,” the room started to spin.
I moved into the kitchen and turned on the faucet, splashing water on my face. It was cold and sticky. I grabbed a towel, but the more I wiped the more water still stuck to my face. I turned the water back on, splashed, wiped, splashed, wiped, splashed, and wiped again. Water still stuck to my face, only this time I thought it must be acid. Somehow acid had gotten in my water. I looked under the sink, in the bathroom. I went outside and checked.
“Anyone know why there’s acid water coming out of the sink?” I asked a few passing students.
“What?” they backed up as I moved closer.
“Never mind,” I turned and went back to my apartment.
I turned the water back on, watching it hit the side of the sink. I filled three glasses and watched the water settle. I smelled the acid. I watched it spin around in the glasses.
I called Rachel to let her know what was happening.
“You won’t believe this…” I said when she answered. “There’s acid in the water here.”
“Yeah, I’m collecting sample now.”
“Are you sure it’s acid, Jun?”
“Mom! It’s acid okay.” She was silent. “Oh, and I found some information about the Juniper forest.”
“Jun, slow down.”
“It’s about murders. Real murders…”
“What does this have to do with acid in the water?”
“It’s about my mother.”
“No, murder. They found organs.”
I don’t remember hanging up the phone. I had lined up six glasses, four bowls, two big pots on the counter, and was eyeing the vases in the living room when someone knocked on the door.
“Maintenance…” the voice called.
“Just a second,” I grabbed the two vases and filled them with water.
I looked through the peep-hole. It was Maggie.
“Hey Maggie,” I opened the door.
“What’s going on tonight?”
“I think there’s acid in the water.”
“Can I check?”
“Sure,” I let her in.
She looked at the counter.
“What makes you think there’s acid in the water?”
“The water keeps sticking to my face.”
“Is it sticking to your face now?”
I’m not sure how I got to the emergency room. I lay on a bed, bright lights burning down on me. Two doctors standing just outside the half-drawn curtain were talking.
“Did the bloodwork come back? I may want to send her up to psych.”
I waited for them to leave before getting up. I ripped the IV out of my arm, slipped my shoes on, and walked out, careful not to draw too much attention to myself. My stride was fluid, intentional, not at all reflective of the storm inside. My body felt heavy, on the verge of shattering. At first I didn’t think about where I was going. I just walked, kept walking. Somehow I found my way back to my apartment. Still on the counter were the cups, bowls, and pots of water. I looked at them. There was no acid. I turned on the faucet and watched the water trickle out. No acid there either. There were three messages, but I turned off the light and went to bed instead of listening to them. A few hours later I awoke from a nightmare: Mother stood over my bed shouting, “I killed you. I killed you. I already killed you.” I got up and cleared the counter. Then I checked my messages.
“Juniper, please call me and your mother,” John said, his voice stern.
“Jun, where are you? Please call us. We want to know what’s going on. If you don’t call us soon, we’re going to head on out there.”
“Hello…hello?” it was a voice I didn’t recognize right away. “Uh…I’m looking for J-u-n-i-p-e-r…she called a while back looking for Daddy.” She cleared her throat. “He wants to talk to her…but he ain’t here right now, but he’ll be back…so if J-u-n-i-p-e-r could call back…I could uh…uh…uh…” she coughed. “uh…if J-u-n-i-p-e-r could call back…uh…that will be fine…this is M.”
I listened to the last message about six times before I called back.
“Hello?” I heard someone on the other end. “Anyone there?”
“I’m here,” she said.
“This is Juniper. Is this M?”
“Yeah, this M.”
“Hi M. I’m returning your call.
“Is your dad home?”
“Do you know when he’ll be home?” I asked, disappointment setting in again.
“He wants to talk to you, but he don’t want to talk on the phone.”
“He doesn’t want to talk on the phone?”
“Okay then…do you know what he wants to tell me?”
“You gon’ come or not? He’s been waitin’ for an answer.”
“I’ll come…give me a few days,” I pulled my emergency credit card from my wallet. “What’s the address?”
It all felt wrong. Irrational. But that didn’t stop me from getting on my computer and purchasing a bus ticket to Patterson. It didn’t stop me from packing an overnight bag and walking to the bus station before the sun had even risen. I felt myself fading, an alternate version emerging, her sense of reality loose, overlapping with some other world. I tried to resist, turn around and go back.
With each step my head and heart battled, the weakest winning because it screamed the loudest, its ache the strongest.