She knew Deborah from before all this, however. They were only six when they’d last met, drawing side by side in a first grade classroom, smiling shyly at each other. In the background, a boy fiddled with his hearing aide, another strained hopelessly against his wheelchair. They all called this place Wellspring but it was really Wellspring Institution—a “special” school. All students who went there were supposed to be stuck in this life—except for special cases like Renee, who escaped branding because the brain is not fully understood by human beings.
And somehow, Deborah has escaped too. Provenance is by no means an Ivy League school—Renee can tell that because she’s been accepted—but a certain degree of intellect is required. How is it that Deborah from Wellspring possessed that?
It is a weekend so the dining hall was less crowded than usual. Deborah sits alone—even though Renee has seen her with a group of girls in the past. If I don’t do it now, I won’t do it ever, Renee forcefully lectures herself. She sets her chin, stills her quaking hands and steps forward.
“Hey—Deborah? This seat taken?”
Deborah looks up, surprised. “No, feel free,” she says in a lilting voice, free of all speech impediments. “How do you know my name?” she asks as Renee clamors down.
“We used to go to school together.” The words feel foreign on her tongue. She’d never went to school before with someone she knew from—“Wellspring.”
“Oh.” Deborah looks down at her translucent soup. “I have vague memories of that place.”
Renee blanches. Wellspring feels like yesterday to her, or maybe that was middle school and Wellspring was last week.
She remembered things in hypersensitive sensations—emotional and physical—a blinding fear of her helpless state, then the manacle-like clamps of Genevieve’s hands on her arms, always demanding, angry, powerful. “You’re a stupid!” she’d yell at Renee, at least once every day. “You can’t make a sandcastle! You can’t draw right! You suck up to teachers!”
Genevieve Blair outlined Renee’s experience at Wellspring; Deborah was just there from time to time. Genevieve, Renee and Liana Fay were the three musketeers (of masochism, perhaps,) as inseparable as Siamese twins until the day Renee graduated. They were both so fair-haired and light skinned—especially surprising in Liana’s case given her Spanish family—where Renee was always dark, a physical sign that she didn’t belong.
But no, Renee realizes with a sinking heart. Deborah is a blonde too. Just where do I fit in?
The object of her attention is speaking even as Renee rewinds through the Wellspring era. “Well, I gotta go study for a Bio exam.” Certainly not the words the average Wellspring girl would use. “It was nice talking to you…”
“Renee,” she supplies weakly. Obviously, she has been an even fainter wind to Deborah than Deborah has been to her. “My name is Renee.”
And when were you born? A psychiatrist had asked her seven years ago.
March 21st, 1983.
So that makes you 12 years old?
Where do you go to school?
St. Mary’s Academy.
A pause. Please remain totally truthful with me. Have you ever tried to commit suicide?
A pause. Yes.
It was the shattering point in her second life, no matter what way you put it. The life that felt like death from her second year of first grade in 1990 to her 5th grade graduation in 1995. Nobody told her that “regular” school would be such a droning experience. She was terrified of Genevieve, yes, and frustrated with Liana, but they at least had quirks—unlike the nonspecific boys and girls at Springtown Elementary—at least they were real. Growing up in special school, where each child had a different ailment, forced Renee to be open minded but the kids at Springtown followed a “normal” path, assuming that the whole world was with them, unaware of how alone they really were.
Renee still wasn’t sure what made that first year at St. Mary’s the trigger—the fact that it was yet another change or the fact that there was no change. The kids in here were a bit more rich, dressed in uniforms rather than jeans, a bit more passionate about their menial academic and social pursuits in a rat race Renee would later identify as adolescence. They moved her from public school because they thought she was still too connected to Wellspring and Renee wouldn’t be surprised if they were secretly relieved by her suicidal attacks—for, after all, she did not succeed, nor did they know about all her attempts—it made her more teenage, more normal, revolting against the established order. When really she was trying to crawl back to it.
Renee doesn’t waste time trying to get to know Deborah; that isn’t important. She’d been living in limbo all throughout high school—much like the one she was entrapped in within Springtown—but like the metallic smell of blood in the night, Deborah has reawakened Renee’s vampire days of special school—just by her mere presence. She seems to expound in Renee’s mind, pushing aside the more recent past of St. Mary’s and Springtown, and even the present at college.
“Don’t you ever want to go back there?” Renee asks abruptly during their next conversation.
Deborah stares at her, puzzled. “Where?”
“Why should I?” This time, Deborah doesn’t look down. “That was a long time ago. I’m a different person now.”
“How can you be?” Renee asks passionately. “Isn’t Wellspring your first memory—being damaged and deformed? Nobody’s supposed to escape that life, but we did. How is that possible? Why did we change?”
“Look,” Deborah stretches her arms out placatingly but her eyes hold a fleeing expression. “I don’t know you very well, but I say life goes on. There is no master plan. We were just…”
“Lucky?” Renee spits.
“Yeah. I guess we were.”
Renee still talked with Liana a few times a year. She was attending a community college, taking courses on how to manage her own apartment. Her body had grown plump with inactivity but she still possessed her lisping voice and innocent smile.
“What you up to?” she yelled into the phone, accustomed to speaking over her speech impediment.
It was the week of midterm exams, her last exams at St. Mary’s, the Christmas choral concert and newspaper edition were coming up fast, but she still hadn’t gotten her early decision answer back from Provenance. “Busy,” Renee said, actually bustling around, cleaning her room, cooking dinner, setting out textbooks to study. “In history, I have to memorize a thousand dates—all in the American era.’
“Oh,” Liana said haltingly. Renee can almost hear the girl’s brain churning in confusion, unaccustomed to living at such a fast pace.
Fire burned in Renee’s chest. Is it fair, she wondered, to have such a life—hard exams, regular college, when Liana cannot? Is it right—Is it normal? Liana now prattled on about her new puppy, an easy concept, then switched topics to Britney Spears’ new song, “I’m a Slave 4 U,” talking with such excitement about her favorite artist. She doesn’t even realize it’s all about sex! Renee thought, astounded. As with most “different” girls, Liana lived the goody-goody life, but at the same time, was attracted to what was normal. She even thought she was normal, except that she lived in the mirror, unable to touch the coarse reality she worshipped. Renee was different, since she diagnosed emotionally challenged rather than mentally challenged, as the doctors finally decided; she did not want to be normal.
Genevieve was a bit of both. If you were perceptive, you could discern that from her earliest days, when instead of acting meek and contained like the mentally challenged were supposed to, she delighted in terrorizing kids on the playground, exerting her power over the weak—be they ignorant or hypersensitive. Now she was incarcerated at a mental institution, Renee had heard through the grapevine, for trying to kill herself.
Renee hadn’t seen her since graduation in June 1990—running from her painful past, perhaps using the wisdom the doctors claimed she had. But still, it struck her as ironic that arrogant, spiteful Genevieve would ever take her beefy hand from someone else’s throat and place it about her own.
In 7th and 8th grade, when Renee was recovering from her own suicidal attempts, she imagined herself visiting Genevieve (in a room that was appropriately grimy and lined with bars.)
“You thought you were so much better than me,” she’d say imperiously, “but look at you now, Genevieve. I’m getting As and Bs at a prestigious private school while you’re stuck here in the dark—stupid, powerless, alone.”
But Renee’s imagination could never paint Genevieve as the victim. Instead—much to Renee’s horror—her mock Genevieve would lift her head and laugh. “So free are you?” she’d proclaim melodramatically, building up her speech as Renee kept coming back to the illusion. “So powerful? My dear, silly Renee—you’ve lived in fear ever since you left Wellspring. You’re a victim to your ‘normal’ life and a victim to the fear of death!” She’d stretch out her arms, lined with cuts and scars. “At least I’d tried!” she’d scoff. “I hated my life and they put me in here because I was a real danger to myself. But you could never bring yourself to slice through your miserable skin. You’re worse than dumb, worse than imprisoned—you’re a coward!”
A lucky coward she was now. Lucky for being spared the hardship of mental deficiency—cowardly for not ending the life that did cause her hardship. So Renee moved on, born, perhaps, into her fourth life, where she carried on with the second and hid the pain and abnormality of the first and third. Her trips to the psychiatrist ended, she was taken off the anti-depressant, she became star of the chorus and editor of the newspaper, 18 years after all of the “normal” people. And feeling like she was hardly doing it herself but just sleepwalking through the life, while her stupored reality clung to occasional glimmers of the past.
But Deborah shatters that life like a skater falling through the ice. How long will Renee expound on this? How long before Deborah overcomes her “normal” lethargy and joins in Renee’s quest for answers—because they’ve shared such similar lives?
But they haven’t, not really. Not if you look at the present (a fifth life?), at Provenance College. Deborah is tall, blonde, with dozens of friends hanging off her arms. Renee is short, brunette and now that she is back in her right mind, very much alone.
Deborah starts to make an effort to include Renee in social gatherings and Renee—trying to grasp onto those tendrils of high school life—wears a simper on her face, moving around the girls in spastic movement. They are all so normal—discussing movies and music videos, things they learn in college and things they think are common knowledge. No one thinks upon speech or motor skills, though they use them constantly. No one mentions suicide. No one is emotionally damaged, at least not akin to Renee.
By the time Thanksgiving rolls around, Renee feels comfortable enough with Deborah to ask for a lift home. They sit in her lilac-scented car, the engine humming along with the radio, familiar streets whizzing by too fast to see. Deborah comments light-heartedly on this class or that boy and Renee answers with her artificial self, the real one still trapped in buried memories.
She repeats the conversation for her family at the dinner feast; that seems to subdue them. Finally, their Renee is normal. It took 19 years, four schools, one repeated grade and one suicidal attempt (they think) to get to this—destination. Except that it isn’t a destination; it is still a journey. Get a bachelor’s degree, sink into a corporate job for 30 to 40 years then, finally, it will be over. Renee wonders if she can make it that far if she always keeps looking back.
The next day, Renee asks to take a walk by herself and ended up somewhere she hadn’t visited for 13 years—Wellspring Institution. The building has been given a facelift through a façade of bright, red paint, rejuvenated at the latest batch of physical and mental wanting students who play on the remodeled playground.
But look, she sooths herself, there’s still sand in front of that new swing set.
“Recess!” Genevieve shouted every day at 12:30. “Sand castle time!” She’d lead the girls to a spot in front of the swing set. “No!” she’d scream a few minutes later, pointing at the lopsided circular mound. “You doing it wrong!” Genevieve would yank your arm or pull your hair so hard that the teacher would drag her over for extended time-out. “You can’t let her do this to you, Renee,” the teacher said daily—for it usually was Renee—because Renee didn’t really belong. True to the teacher’s warnings, she learned to fear, she learned to be unwillingly victimized, and she carried these lessons out into the “normal” world.
I’m no more lucky than Genevieve or Liana, she tells herself now, Wellspring defined me too. Deborah, who is supposed to be her new soulmate—Deborah is the true goddess; she had learned to forget.
“Renee?” Her presence is even omnipotent! Renee jolts back to 2002; she is kneeling in the sand in front of the new swings, and Deborah is standing behind her like a pillar. “Your mom said I might find you here. Ready to go back to Provenance?”
Renee can’t look at her; she is still too busy looking back. Yup. Deborah has forgotten. There is no curiosity in her tone, not even nervousness about being near this school she won’t let define her. She is now completely normal. And Renee is still alone.
Slowly, she gets to her shaking feet, brushing away coarse sand from in between her fingers.