Twelve hours after my mother was taken kicking and screaming to the hospital, I sat in the waiting room of the psychiatric wing, deliberately staring out the window instead of facing my uncle and cousin. Disinfectant and misery clung to the walls, strangling the tense conversations down to mere grunts. The waiting room slowly quieted with families leaving, promising to return the next morning. Behind me, my cousin Ty sighed for the millionth time. Without looking I knew my uncle Stephen was skewering him with a glare. Stephen had called the police on my mother but he wasn’t to blame. At least he knew where Mom lived. She had kept that little tidbit of information from me. It didn’t matter where she lived or who was visiting. The result was always the same—my mother in a hospital, followed by the endless tinkering of medications and counseling sessions. Days would turn to weeks and doctors would remind her that everything she saw and heard wasn’t real. My feet ached from my vigil at the window. The glass was cool and smudged from the excess of cleaning fluid. Windows were often low on the priority list for hospital janitors. I would know.
I’d spent my life staring through them. I’d hoped Stephen and Ty would slip out quietly, but nothing appeared to be easy this time. I could blame it on Christmas being just two months away. Stephen gave an extra dose of worry near the holidays. I settled for the nearest chair. My uncle abruptly left his perch from across the room and sat next me. I waited for the shoulder squeeze and the clearing of the throat. He’d launch into how none of this was my fault, that Mom’s chemical makeup was just a little off. I would nod along and pretend to agree with the lie. Because there was only one glaring difference between my mother and me—I kept my crazy quiet.
“Isla…” Stephen cleared his throat. On cue, he squeezed my shoulder. “I’m fine.” With a faint smile, I turned my gaze back to the window. I had perfected the art of lying in kindergarten. Survival of the fittest was more than a theory—it was a roadmap. The sooner they left, the sooner I could sneak into my mother’s room. I needed to know—to see with my own eyes—the severity of her situation, not the dumbed down version doctors tended to give me. “You’re anything but fine.” Ty couldn’t keep his mouth shut for anything.
In the window’s reflection, I watched him stretch his long arms and legs. He motioned for his father to switch him places before pointing at me. “My turn with the statue.” Fighting a groan, I rolled my eyes. Ty’s smile and future were as golden as the day he was born. His forced happiness was too bright. The false joy in his teasing hurt. “Not today, Ty.” Stephen’s raspy voice comforted me. Duty-bound as a brother and uncle, Stephen had never abandoned my mother despite her wild accusations.
The room fell silent with only the three of us. Glancing at the clock, desperation welled. I needed honest answers regarding my mother’s care. I was no longer the frightened child but the doctors—including Stephen—would filter the information, my ease their top priority. I didn’t need protection. I needed facts. Just like music comforted my mother, facts lulled my racing thoughts, the what ifs that pounded in my head. I needed Stephen and Ty to leave, preferably with their good intentions in tow. My stomach growled loudly. Like a snickering kid at church, Ty burst into laughter too obnoxious to be genuine.
Stephen elbowed him. Devoted to the role, Ty shoved a knuckle in his mouth, his shoulders shaking. “You’re ridiculous.” Stephen sneered—igniting another round of laughter from his son. Ty stood, his smile wide. Deep dimples on either side, he was the dark haired version of my mother, bold and beautiful while Stephen’s smaller frame and permanent scowl made him appear more like me than Ty. But unlike everyone else in my family, my eyes changed colors, confessing emotions I’d rather stay hidden. Despite his medical background, Stephen believed the phenomenon was a result of my miraculous birth. Stephen also believed he could save my mother. His faith didn’t prove much.
“What are you laughing at?” Stephen leveled his gaze at Ty. As a child, I feared the narrowing of his eyes and the tightening of his mouth. It wasn’t long before I noticed the small uptick of his lip, the constant fighting of a smile. Just like his son, he gathered merriment, although like me, he kept quiet. “Little Miss Statue is in fact, not a statue.” Ty wiped at his eyes—his dry eyes. He winked at me, trying to force laughter in a humorless situation. “Look, she’s cured. She can turn her head again.” Fidgeting in his seat, Stephen tsked.
“And she can eat. Go make yourself useful.” Donning a semi-serious face, Ty saluted his father and with an overly dramatic goosestep march, left the room. One down, one to go. “You don’t have to stay,” I offered gently. Posters surrounded us, extolling the virtues of the psychiatric wing and calling it t h e premier standard in mental health. The chipped linoleum and dingy walls said otherwise. Stephen would work his magic, leaning heavily on his position with the international Samaritan Exchange, and have my mother transferred to Stanford, our alma mater. I felt a twinge of homesickness, not for my childhood home but for my university. It’d provided me the stability I craved as a child—that, and not living with my mother had helped heal wounds I didn’t know existed.
Until today. Returning to the window, I felt the familiar pull. The once frightening feeling had become an old vice, comforting me like a tattered blanket. The feeling pulled me to a stand and with my back to my uncle, I stared out the window, beyond the broken fountain in the middle of an abandoned courtyard. With my vision a little hazy, I gripped the windowsill and waited. And then, the flicker, a brief image, not quite a memory but something more, appeared. A man. Blond. Medieval clothes. A hand on the cold glass, I closed my eyes to escape, blocking out the hospital.
Warmth spread over me, like the sun on a cloudy day. I kept the guilt at bay—my mother was in the other room fighting the same demons I now beckoned. The familiar image of the blond man blossomed, surrounding me. A horse appeared next to the man. And for a moment, life stilled. I stared at him, wishing he— wishing this was real. He took my hand, and before I could protest, he boosted me up on his horse. My heart raced. He climbed up behind me. My blood hummed.
He wrapped an arm around my waist, pulling my back against his chest. My pulse beat wildly. His breath on my neck tickled my skin. He covered my hand— the ring on my finger. Warmth filled me, a peace as solid as the floor under me settled in my bones. His lips touched my temple. It felt like home. “Burritos or jello?” Ty’s voice burst through, shattering the moment. I spun around, my heart pounding. Warmth drained from me, raking my skin and falling to the chipped linoleum floor.
The blond man had come and gone, a vision and feeling so strong, so real—just like my mother’s voices were to her. “Isla?” Stephen was at my side, his hand supporting my elbow. “Isla Belle?” “I’m fine.” My voice cracked, the loss of the him—the blond—pulled at my heart. “I’m okay.” Stephen and Ty exchanged a look I knew well. I’d shared the same worried expression when speaking about my mother. Except this time I didn’t care. Clap me in chains, drug me to oblivion—it didn’t matter. The only thing that felt right of late was the man who existed only in my head.
I was my mother’s child, nothing could change that. Her destiny was mine. “You are going home.” Stephen offered no room for argument. They’d never leave me now. A whimper escaped. He motioned for Ty to join me while he grabbed the folder he’d been working on. The rough draft of a Samaritan Exchange event flyer slipped from the folder, sliding to my feet. My chest tightened, an all too familiar feeling came over me. Picking up the paper, I froze, halfway between kneeling and standing.
On the back of the program featured four headshots, all prominent officers of the organization. My hand trembled. The man in the lower right photo stared back at me. He was the blond man, my blond from my dreams, his image just as striking as it was a moment ago in the window. The world stilled. His clothes were wrong, too modern but the worry over my mother melted away. Like he’d done in my visions, the sight of him gave me peace—all would be well. My thumb caressed his picture; the man I’d dreamed of every day of my life. I knew him like I knew my own name. He was a part of me—as much as my childhood.
And mother. “Isla?” Stephen asked. I blinked but the image stayed. This wasn’t a vision. No. I would not believe my visions were real. I was not my mother. “We need to go, Isla. Now.” My uncle tried again, sending me back to the cold reality.
I blinked again. The flyer trembled in my hand but the picture never changed. Like fire and ice, I felt both curious and wary. For years, I wished the blond was real and that he was mine. But with a snap, fear washed over me, shoving the peace aside. My mother was down the hall. This couldn’t be real, none of it. Her fate was mine.