TINGE Magazine - http://www.tingemagazine.org

Issue 2

In the Swamp Between the Cities and The Shore, a Girl

 · Fiction

This is what the doctor knows. The girl in room seventy-six only refers to herself as the girlfriend. They found her wandering through the Everglades clutching a human metatarsal. The bone covered in dried blood, her face smeared with black mud. Authorities have yet to find a DNA match to the bone or the girl. The doctor sits at his desk and considers the file before him. He searches for any clues as to what may have transpired in the swamp but there are few details in her file save for a few vague testimonies recorded during the initial interviews with the girl calling herself the girlfriend.

He pours a cup of coffee for himself and then a cup of water for the girl calling herself the girlfriend. He cracks the blinds and lets the sunlight come in a smooth slant. He then checks his desk for any sharp objects. Once he is sure he’s prepped the room, he buzzes down for the orderlies to escort the girl calling herself the girlfriend to his office.

When she arrives, he finds himself caught off guard for the woman who enters the room looks nothing like the half-mad feral woman in the photo in his file on the girl calling herself the girlfriend. There is nothing, in fact, feral about her. She walks with such grace as to appear to be floating over the tiles of his office. Her thin wrists cocked in such a way as if she might be preparing to enter the third position in a ballet class. Her voice is steady and warm. The doctor greets the girl calling herself the girlfriend and she takes a seat as fluidly as she walked. Crossing her left leg over the right, she smiles at the doctor, who offers her a cup of water and introduces himself. Describing the ways in which he envisions their scheduled sessions to run, the doctor keeps his voice level but cheerful, as if promising, without promising, a resolution that satisfies both he and the girl calling herself the girlfriend.

The girl calling herself the girlfriend sips his water, her bottom lip folding over the edge with a subtle grip. Smiling, she uses her pinky to clear the well-combed hair from the periphery of her eye. Of course, she says.

Sitting behind his desk, he asks the girl calling herself the girlfriend where she grew up.

Happyville, Florida, the girl calling herself the girlfriend says.

Surprised that she is so receptive to his line of questioning, he leans in. I’ve been there, he says, a fine community.

A fine community indeed, she says.

He follows up with a few more distant questions, questions about her family and childhood and receives similar answers that reflect the consensus view of reality. Perhaps, he writes in his notes, she simply needs someone to show a vested interest. Then he begins to ask her about the days leading up to her rescue.

Do you remember how long you’d been in the Everglades? He asks.

There grows a look in the girl calling herself the girlfriend’s eye that seems to the doctor otherworldly — as if changing color or shape. He writes the word possessed. Why he has chosen the word possessed, he can’t rightly say but it is his first thought and he believes the best thought.

He asks the question again. This time the girl calling herself the girlfriend reacts slightly different. Humming first and then forming her lips around a word that she can’t quite find, the girl calling herself the girlfriend finally opts to say nothing at all. This seems to be the case with most questions, save for those things, which occurred in the girl calling herself the girlfriend’s life before the swamp.

When his session with her ends, the doctor reviews his notes. He is perplexed by how little she is willing to reveal to him. At the beginning of the session he had suspected she was hiding something from him intentionally, so he’d thoroughly explained doctor-patient confidentiality, assuring her that this confidentiality reached beyond legality, that it was a personal code that he would never violate, no matter the penalty, that it was an impenetrable blanket of security that ensures a safe place for his patients. This did not seem to gain him any new ground, and whenever he’d brought the subject up again, the girl calling herself the girlfriend would always smile and suggest that she was not capable of misdeeds, especially ones that might require such protection.

He now understands that she is not hiding something, but, rather, there is something that is hiding inside of her.

*  *  *

As time passes and the doctor becomes more familiar with the girl calling herself the girlfriend, they begin to grow more comfortable in each other’s presence. This, he thinks, is the way the matter should progress, and he is pleased with the natural ease with which this particular aspect of the therapy is going. Though she still never answers how long she’d been in the swamp or how she’d gotten there or how she’d come into possession of the small bone she carried with her, the doctor is able to help her reclaim other memories through indirect questioning. These answers are always incomplete. Though she knows she grew up in Happyville, she left as a child and can’t remember the name of the city she lived in after. She did not attend college — opting instead to take a job — but she cannot remember exactly what she did, only that it involved a metal stapler and a typewriter. Occasionally she says it involved a microscope. Still other times, she believes it was not a microscope but a record player. The stapler, she says, I know for sure.

The doctor’s colleagues have competing theories about the girl calling herself the girlfriend. Dr. Jenks, a cognitive specialist, believes she suffers from retrograde amnesia from some kind of head trauma. Father McGowan, a wise man with degrees in divinity studies, philosophy, and psychology, believes she suffers from repressed memories surrounding a terrible tragedy that befell her in her youth and it’s only just now grown so dire that her mind can no longer cope. Dr. Zeil, without any medical confirmation, believes that the girl calling herself the girlfriend has a tumor in her head that is dividing her brain and preventing it from functioning properly. Though two of these may contain a kernel of truth, the doctor is unwilling to speculate on paper officially until he has made some kind of real progress with the girl calling herself the girlfriend.

It isn’t long before the director of the hospital begins calling the doctor weekly to check in on the status of the girl calling herself the girlfriend (whom the director unaffectionately refers to as swamp girl or bone lady or in his less articulate moments the freebie) as he wants to clear the bed out for paying patients, ones who aren’t staying as a courtesy to local law enforcement. Every time he uses such nicknames, the doctor corrects him by saying that it is a matter of professionalism that they refer to the patient by her chosen name until such a time that they discover her given name and then, as a matter of best practice, they should call her by her given name and discontinue using her chosen name altogether. Each time the director retorts verbatim that it doesn’t matter much what he calls her as long as they are making progress, to which the doctor replies that he is optimistic.

*  *  *

Placing lumps of brightly colored modeling compound on a table in the back of his office, the doctor looks out his window and onto the yard behind the hospital. Several patients wander along the brick paths between the flower gardens and bushes. He wonders if they ever feel as peaceful as they look among those fuchsia blooms or if they’re trapped in a moment of confusion, or worse terror, as some horrifying tragedy returns to fill their bones and cloud their minds. He is nearly touching the glass when the nurse announces the arrival of his patient. Flattening his shirt at the sides where it sometimes bulges, he turns and greets the girl calling herself the girlfriend and asks her to join him at the table by the window.

This, he tells her, is a free expression activity. We will ask one another questions while we sculpt things. The idea is to focus on what we are creating, which takes some of the pressure off of what we’re saying.

The girl calling herself the girlfriend touches a lump of red compound, lightly as if the slightest movement might provoke it to swallow her into its mass and devour her completely. Pulling it closer, she carefully dents the sides and says, Sure.

Is red your favorite color? the doctor asks.

No. It’s just the color I selected.

She thinks for a moment, working the compound into a thin strand, rolling it smooth against the table, her eyes focused on the books lining the walls of the office.

Why this career, she asks, mental health?

The doctor recounts his reasons for selecting the profession, telling her that he has always felt a calling to help people. Who, he says, after all, is more undeserved than those suffering from mental complications. The girl calling herself the girlfriend seems to accept his answer.

I prefer that phrasing, the girl calling herself the girlfriend says, mentally ill sounds so permanent. A sentence, you know?

The doctor agrees, talks about spectrums, about successes, about human resolve.

He keeps his questions light, never once steering into the swamp, the bone, or the amnesia. She seems fascinated by his history and he is happy to share with her an appropriate amount. When she looks away, the doctor glances at her compound. She constructed two small bodies: one yellow, one red. Their thick legs holding them upright, their thin arms threatening to fall away. Their misshapen hands locked together with a fingerprint.

During the middle of a question, the girl calling herself the girlfriend interrupts the doctor. What is your biggest fear? she asks.

With trepidation, the doctor answers, that I will fail those around me. It is a careful answer but contains enough truth that it isn’t an outright lie. This is the game, he assures himself, to gain the trust of the patient, without being too vulnerable.

She makes a small noise and then offers, I’m scared of being alone. The girl calling herself the girlfriend then separates the hands of the figures. Looking into the sunlight collecting in an oblong space upon the floor, she stares and the silence in the room seems to press down upon them.

This must be a very scary time for you then.

Maybe, She turns to the window and pulls a hand off one of the figures and rubs it for an instant on the edge of her bottom lip, lost in thought, before finally slipping it into her mouth and swallowing it. It’s hard not to feel alone, she says, when you can’t remember who you are.

You’re not alone here. You have me, he says, smiling.

I can’t decide if I’m stuck with you or you’re stuck with me.

The doctor pushes his compound into a circle, forming two eyes and a smile into the surface with the blade of his thumbnail. You’re free to go when the evaluation period is over, he says.

Go where, she says.

That’s what we want to find out.

When the session ends, the girl calling herself the girlfriend asks if she can take one of the figures with her to her room. He sees no harm in this and allows it. When she selects the sculpture with the missing hand, the doctor asks if she might opt rather to take the one that doesn’t have a missing appendage, but the girl calling herself the girlfriend insists upon taking the one she’s already selected. The doctor nods and begins cleaning up the materials as the nurse escorts the girl calling herself the girlfriend down to the community recreation room.

*  *  *

On the next occasion, the doctor, having had such success with art therapy, continues with this method opting this time to use a set of crayons and some paper. They busy themselves drawing, he in red, orange, and green, she in silver, black, blue, and gray, which looks to the doctor nearly identical to the silver. The doctor is no hand at crafts, especially in drawing, specifically with crayons; however, the girl calling herself the girlfriend proves a natural at it. Her lines near perfect, the shading even, her gradients, blending smoothly from black to blue to silver to gray and into the white of the page. Where the doctor chooses to draw the sun, with rays bursting forth in terribly jagged lines, the girl calling herself the girlfriend, chooses to draw a black crescent moon so sharp at the edges it bears an eerie resemblance to a scythe. From that sharp edge, a light radiates upon the Capitoline Wolf. Though upon closer inspection, he sees it’s not quite the Capitoline Wolf, for instead of children suckling upon the teats, the girl calling herself the girlfriend has drawn men chewing at the undercarriage, tearing it asunder.

The doctor points to wolf and says, what’s it’s name.

Amber, she says.

Why Amber, he says.

She shrugs and begins drawing a sky filled with shimmering stars. The name of the men she does not know. Amply distracted by her Celestine sky, the doctor asks her about the name she’s chosen for herself.

It’s all I can remember, she says, I am the girlfriend of someone. I can’t remember who, but he loves me very much.

He must be worried, the doctor says, his voice level and warm, that professional caring he’s practiced for so many years.

Probably, she says, but I know his love is always with me.

The doctor asks her what this means but she can only say, I feel it, and very little else. He begins asking her how she’d met the boyfriend. She is able to elaborate on this with remarkable precision, though the doctor admits in his notes, the details even seem to surprise her, as if she’s pulled them from fragments of a dream. They’d met at a holiday party. She came with an ex-boyfriend-turned-friend. They’d traded numbers and began having nightly phone conversations. It seemed, the girl calling herself the girlfriend says, to take a long time to make it to our first date, but I’m glad we waited because we really got to know each other.

I lost him once, she says. Her eyes again seeming to change colors or shape for a moment, as if another person has slipped inside the shell of her and is looking out at the doctor. The girl calling herself the girlfriend picks up another crayon and smiles, her eyes returning to her. She says, but he came back and he’d never leave again. She holds her picture up, her face aglow with a child-like glee. You should frame it, she jokes.

*  *  *

On another meeting she reveals that the boyfriend had been accepted to graduate school and often spent nights in classes, which had given her some concern. She quizzed him on his whereabouts, his female friends he’d met, his car’s mileage, what he’d eaten, going so far as to ask him the same questions at different intervals to see if there were any variations in the answers.

I’d become a real pill, she says. It surprises the doctor that the girl calling herself the girlfriend can remember so much about her relationship with her boyfriend and so very little else. She cannot, for example, remember the name of the university he attended, though she can remember it had a tower or pillar or steeple; she cannot remember the boyfriend’s name but that she had called him either, dove, lamb, or kitten; she can not remember what he studied, though she thinks he had many small books, or one large book, or a complicated system of spiral-bound course packets. These inconsistencies sometimes seem to collect upon themselves on days when she is less engaged in her crafts. They multiply and grow more cumbersome as she progresses through the session until she can no longer make it through the story as she becomes too confused and sometimes begins crying from frustration or simply shutting down.

The doctor often tries to pivot from these productive moments into finding out about what happened in the swamp, but each time he is been met by the same opaque wall. The same look. The same lips trying to wrap her mouth around a word. Finding it impossible to progress with the session after any question regarding the swamp, the doctor begins waiting until the end of the session to ask any questions that might trigger such bewilderment.

Though his colleagues find little worth in art therapy, calling it “touchy-feely” or “expressionistic craft time,” the doctor finds his progress with the girl calling herself the girlfriend remarkable and begins repeating some of the crafting activities to see if he can duplicate the forward progression. However, he finds that the girl calling herself the girlfriend creates the exact same art objects and speaks about the same things. Even when he attempts to steer her, she bends her way back to the original subject. There is one exception. On the occasions where they work with the modeling compound, she will point to the red body, the one on her left and say, this, this is not it. This is not the original. When the doctor asks her what she means, she shrugs her shoulders and says, I don’t know. It just isn’t.

Moving forward, the doctor begins introducing new activities, to unearth new results. He understands that the girl sitting before him is a complicated puzzle like nothing he’s ever seen. Before long, he finds himself obsessed, refusing new patients and meeting with the girl calling herself the girlfriend on a daily basis — challenging himself to keep her receptive to decoding as long as he can before she reaches her threshold of her communicative potential.

*  *  *

A few months into the treatment, the doctor is called out of town to attend a funeral of a childhood friend. Though stricken with sadness at the loss, he can’t help himself from missing his daily sessions with the girl calling herself the girlfriend. At the wake, he sits staring at the open casket, first thinking of the past adventures he and his old friend got into along the trails of the forests beyond their neighborhood, but soon finds himself transitioning into thoughts of the girl calling herself the girlfriend alone in the swamp. What had happened to her car, her phone, her shoes? What is it that called her back to the shadows, those prehistoric waterways standing in opposition to the gleaming bright modern cities along the coastlines? He thinks back to his departed friend, to their hijinks in the forest beyond the neighborhoods, how they escaped the confines of the man-made world to return to some primitive time where boys ran the world in wild packs, screaming and naked beneath the trees. But, for the girl calling herself the girlfriend, he can’t say. Perhaps it was a wrong turn, a late return after a day of nature hiking gone terribly awry, or a flat tire. Or perhaps she went there to return to her primal self, to run wild like wolves among the cypress and orchid.

The day after the funeral, the doctor calls the director of the hospital to assuage his concerns regarding the doctor’s diminished work load and reports that he is making a great deal of progress with the girl calling herself the girlfriend and thanks the director for allowing him to focus on the patient as a matter of expedience. The director, somewhat perturbed by the matter, replies curtly that it’s in the best interest of the hospital for the doctor to return to his usual duties as soon as possible.

*  *  *

The morning he returns to work, the girl calling herself the girlfriend doesn’t feel well so the doctor agrees to meet in her room. She lies there prostrate on her bed, her skin pale.

I thought you’d abandoned me, she says, her voice thin inside her like a tiny bird caught in the cage of her chest.

He tells her about the funeral and her lips pull across her teeth in a kind of smile and she whispers that she’ll let it slide this time

She has no fever, no discernable ailment that the doctor can identify, but she still exhibits the physical signs of someone suffering from a severe viral infection. At first the doctor worries that she’d contracted something in the swamp. That something was growing inside of her, a wormlike parasite curling inside her intestines or brain. He runs a battery of tests with the medical team but the results come up negative.

They sit in her room that evening, she on the bed, the sheet bundled at her feet, he on an old wooden chair. Though the doctor rarely visits patient’s rooms, it seems as if hers is more sparsely decorated than the others. There are no photographs torn from the magazines they provide their patients, no family photos, no excess artwork at all. Her only decoration, the sculpture she’d crafted during their session, and even that has been reduced to little if anything at all. The head, the legs, one of the arms, all gone.

What happened to your sculpture, the doctor asks.

Without a glance toward it, she says, I don’t remember.

This concerns the doctor. If she is losing new memories, her trauma could, despite the negative result on the cat scans, be something more problematic. He begins asking questions about things they’ve discussed previously. With weakened voice and slow response, she answers each correctly. Lifting her head from her pillow a little, she asks if she can sleep awhile. When the doctor stands to leave, scooting the chair back several inches with his calves, the girl calling herself the girlfriend asks, in an uncharacteristically panicked breath, if he might stay a while longer, that his presence comforts her. He nods and eases back into his chair.

Watching the gentle pulse of her chest as she sleeps, the rise and fall so slight as to be practically impossible, he feels an odd compulsion to cradle her in his arms as if she is his own child. Instead, he pulls the covers up to her neck and sits back in his chair, lolling off to sleep himself until one of the nurses steps in for the girl calling herself the girlfriend’s nightly check in. She, surprised to see the doctor, drops her clipboard but manages to catch it against her thigh. Whispering, sorry, he steps around her, taking one last look at the mostly dismembered sculpture resting on the dresser, noticing for the first time fine undulating ridges from the ragged backs of her mandibular central incisors.

*  *  *

The director calls the doctor moments after he’s arrived and started his first cup of coffee. He inquires about the status of the girl calling herself the girlfriend so he can report back to the board at an afternoon meeting. The doctor promises a diagnosis as well as a hypothesis as to the circumstances that brought her to the swamp and asks if the director could ask the board for another month. Again, the director answers with a lack of enthusiasm, claiming the doctor’s reputation can only buy him a limited amount of time, continuing on to say that any other doctor would have been rejected upon the first proposal of a reduced patient load. The doctor thanks the director and begins preparing his office for his session with the girl calling herself the girlfriend.

The doctor places new modeling compound upon the table. He asks the same questions as he’s asked before. The girl calling herself the girlfriend answers with the exact answers she has previously, no embellishments no fluctuations. This time, however, she does not shape things out of the compound.

Don’t you want to shape things, the doctor says.

No, the girl calling herself the girlfriend says. We’ve done this enough.

Yes, but I thought you might want to make another one. To replace the one that’s been damaged.

No, the girl calling herself the girlfriend says, I don’t need it.

But wouldn’t you like a new one?

He’s fine, she says.

I didn’t know it was a he.

Of course it’s a he. You can see it’s a man. It’s evident.

I’m an old man, my eyes not what they used to be. Please let me know what I’m missing.

The color for one. Red is a masculine color. It’s the color of passion.

The doctor points out that he has plenty of red clay and that she is more than welcome to use any of it she wants. The girl calling herself the girlfriend shows no interest. When the doctor asks her why, she replies that there can only be one of any thing. The doctor asks the girl calling herself the girlfriend if she can retrieve the sculpture from her room and she complies.

They sit there for a moment, the daylight cool through the windows, resting in odd places between the wall and floor, the sculpture lopsided upon the desk. Watching her as she looks upon the mostly disfigured figure, the doctor sees the girl calling herself the girlfriend as he did on their first meeting, the body of a ballet dancer, a back hewn of oak, the purl of muscles along her calves barely hidden by skin, composed and strong. Pushing a trashcan with his foot, the doctor asks the girl calling herself the girlfriend to toss the sculpture inside. As he suspects, she refuses. He gives it a moment and then stands as if to take the sculpture. She, swift as cobra, snatches it and forces the sculpture into her mouth. Though, not all of it. A very slender piece she cuts free with her lips and attempts to stow between her fingers. The doctor allows this, for he has his answer. Something strange fills him, coldness in his head and warmth around his chest.

He writes as she chews the hardened mass of modeling compound. Then, upon reading his notes, he regards the girl calling herself the girlfriend. She looks smaller than normal as if reduced, bent in the chair trying to keep the last piece of her sculpture hidden from him. He grins, an attempt to ease her worries, and then dismisses her, thanking her for her coming in. The nurse comes to escort the girl calling herself the girlfriend to her room. She stands and walks, reluctance in each step. Before she’s completely out of the office, the girl calling herself the girlfriend turns and asks, will I see you again?

The doctor nods and says, of course.

*  *  *

That night he receives a call from the director of the hospital inquiring as to the progress on the case, citing once again that it is unprecedented, even for a man of his caliber, to take so much time from his typical case load to focus on one patient, continuing on to say that the board has decided to release the girl calling herself the girlfriend to the state psychiatric facility. Yes, the doctor says, I understand. I will have a full diagnosis by the morning.

Closing his file, he considers the options. It is a matter of time before the girl calling herself the girlfriend remembers the unspeakable thing that happened in the swamp. If he tells her the outcome of his study, it will undoubtedly hasten her realization. How long would his silence buy her? A month? Two? He does not sleep that night, does not leave the office, instead he researches the missing persons database for men between the ages of twenty-five and thirty, who fit the vague descriptions the girl calling herself the girlfriend shared during their meetings. Thousands of names sifted down through the hours to a handful, those reduced by triangulating her descriptions of universities, the swamp, her hometown. Refining through the darkling hours of night until he is left with one name. From there he is able to trace the girl calling herself the girlfriend through social media.

Daylight seeps up through the horizon as he types his report.

On the evening of, he begins, working through the events, Amber Sims drove her boyfriend, Shaw Roberts, into the Everglades. Before he finishes the sentence, he pauses, thinking of the girl calling herself the girlfriend, the girl who he will never see as Amber, no matter how many photographs or official records he sees confirming the name. Isn’t it possible, after all, that she’s become an entirely different person through the mysterious chemistry of the mind? How delicately she’d handled her crafts, how sweet she’d been to the staff and to the doctor himself. Perhaps, he reasons, she is no longer Amber at all but has in fact transitioned into the girlfriend. He types, alligator, trauma. He stares at these words for a while. His fingers over the delete key.

The sun is rising above the tree line, its light savage and unforgiving. The doctor hits send on the email containing his report. He steps away from the desk, notes in his hand. He makes himself some coffee as he has a long day ahead of him. He sips the first taste, finding it more bitter than ever before; he inserts his notes into the paper feed on his document shredder. Clicking the machine on, he listens to the motor for second, reconsidering his decision, then nudges the edges of the pages toward the mouth. As he walks away toward the bathroom, he can hear the faint whirl of the blades as they chew at the paper. A month, he thinks, or two. It’s better than nothing. It’s better than nothing.

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