Before it was a mental institution, it was a military site. And before that, it had been some kind of depot or shipping yard. One of those big industrial compounds that’s full of gravel and always smells like diesel or coal.
By the time I was around to see it though, it was the mental institution—over two hundred acres of pretty white sanity, with the main facility was at one end, taking up a full city block. The rest was a huge expanse of poison-green grass, studded with twenty-five identical halfway houses and a hundred cultivated oak trees.
I didn’t wind up there, if that’s what you’re thinking. At least, not in the normal way, assuming that being institutionalized can ever be called normal. I wasn’t crazy, is what I’m saying. I just went there every week.
The place was pretty much like other mental institutions—or at least, how I imagine they’d be—except for one thing. In the very middle, bordered on all sides by the halfway houses, there was a soccer complex.
It was one of those community-enriching things, some sort of philanthropic effort to give back, but mostly it was just uncomfortable and weird.
Every week, I sat alone on the bus, then filed down onto the grass and stood apart from the other girls, because even though all of our shirts matched, there was something else, something undefined, that made us different. They never stood too close to me.
“Keeks,” they said sometimes, making sympathetic faces and sucking in their cheeks. “You should really come out more. You want to maybe grab a slice after the game?” Because the thing is, they weren’t mean.
Just oblivious enough to somehow always forget that I hated to be called Keeks. That my name was Cassandra. That I would never be normal enough to spend an afternoon at Marlo Brothers Pizza with them.
I brought my homework, because it was easier to scribble formulas for area and gravity than to try and act bright and uncomplicated while the other girls lounged in the shade, laughing behind their hands. I was never self-pitying enough to think that they were laughing at me, and when they called me Wednesday Addams, I even kind of liked it. Better than Keeks, anyway. They were just looking for empty fun, watching the boys who went by in their grass-stained socks and rumpled, sweaty jerseys. I tuned it out.
But I always listened when they told dirty jokes or started talking about the mental institution.
On a cool, golden day in September, Britney Marsh said, “My dad told me that in the 50s, they used to do, like, water-therapy and shock treatments—that a ton of kids died in places just like this.”
She only said because we were sitting on the lawn of one of the halfway houses, waiting for our second game. It was this white three-story Victorian, with sadly-peeling paint and bars on all with windows. She said it because it was one of the houses for the juvenile ward, and the yellowing lawn seemed like a perfect setting for talking about dead kids.
“Gross,” said Margaret Schaffer, who played keeper and was, without question, the prettiest girl on the whole team.
Britney made witchy fingers at her and then they both squealed and laughed so hard they tipped over in the grass.
They were still laughing when the shouting started.
Around me, everyone flinched and then glanced around nervously. The lawn was empty, but suddenly, it felt like we were surrounded. It took me a second to realize that the noise was coming from directly above us, and I shaded my eyes, looking up at the house. It looked pretty much how it always did, except now the windows were full of faces and hands. Not the tortured shapes of ghosts, but boys, still very much alive.
They pressed into the gables, shoulder to shoulder, pounding their fists against the screens. They were shouting, but in a distant, garbled way. I couldn’t understand what they were saying.
And then, at the top of the house, third-story, gable room, I saw something that made me hold very still and hug myself tight. It was just a shadow—that’s all. A shadow and a sweep of shaggy hair, leaning casually in the window-frame, arms folded.
As I sat looking up at him, he shifted uneasily even I couldn’t see his face, and then called down in a low, clear voice, “To the girl with the long hair and the scrape on her knee—I love you.”
I cupped my hand over the raw place on my knee and looked away, checking to see if the other girls had heard, if they were startled, shocked that a boy might be talking about me, but they weren’t paying attention to anything but the chaos in the lower windows.
Above us, the boys had begun to kick the screens with their heels, positioning their feet carefully between the bars.
“Just ignore them,” said Britney in an offhand way, like it was one of those inconveniences that might be beyond her control, but of no real consequence. She sounded brave, but I had the scary idea that it was easy to be brave when you could always rely on the bars to protect you.
Then the first screen came flying out of the window-frame and flipped over, clattering down onto the front steps. Someone shrieked softly.
“Maybe we should find someplace else to sit,” Britney said as a second screen came flying down, and then a third.
The rest of the girls stood up, following her in a nervous flock away from the house.
I yanked my hair over my shoulder with one hand, to keep it off the back of my neck. My skin felt too sticky and when I began to walk after the others, I did it slowly. I didn’t want to stay, but it at the same time, it was painful to leave. I knew, with absolute certainty, that the boy at the top of the house could just as easily be me, or at least that I would understand him, even if he was crazy. Sometimes, just being in my own body made me feel plenty crazy myself.
“To the girl with the long hair,” he called down. “To Cassandra Harvey—I love you.”
And I stopped walking. Something in my throat was very sad.
The other girls were standing in a little cluster on the sidewalk, waiting for me to catch up. They reached out, making little hurrying gestures, but I looked away from them, and up at the boy in the gable window. He’d slipped his hands between the bars and his palms were pressed against the screen.
With his fingers spread, his hands looked very delicate, blurry through the wire mesh. The sunlight, striking the window at a dramatic angle, only shone on his forearms. Beyond his elbows he was in shadow, but as I looked up, he ducked his head shyly and his bangs flickered into the light, bright blond, then gone again.
“Keeks,” Margaret said gently. She’d come back for me, and her expression was wary without meaning to be. “What are you looking at?”
And I knew that even if I pointed, she wouldn’t see him, the same way she didn’t see how my strangeness was a permanent condition, or why I couldn’t go out with them. That being Wednesday Addams was jus the tip of a very lonely iceberg.
On the sidewalk, Britney stood with her shoulders hunched, hugging her elbows and looking worried. “Hey, what’s wrong? Why are you just standing there?”
But why was the kind of thing that didn’t have a reasonable answer. Why was impossible. My throat was so tight I was almost choking.
“Keeks,” Margaret whispered.
Cassandra, I thought, with raw scrapes and grass stains all over my legs.
“I love you,” called a dead boy in a gable room, in a mental institution, somewhere in the shadowy corner of a white house, in a voice that I still dream about sometimes.
Photo by Daniel Paquet