“'It's no use going back to yesterday. I was a different person then.'”
-Lewis Carroll, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"
"I know people are afraid of me," Lily said. "And I understand why. So I won't take it personally if you prefer not to work with me directly."
Ashe's pen scratched across her notebook. Occasionally she would look up; the room was blank, white, antiseptic, marked only by the dull sheen of the one-way mirror. Lily wore a hospital gown; it was the smallest size the clinic had but it hung off her like a sail. She had electric blue eyes and shiny copper hair and freckles that made her look exactly like a ragdoll. She toyed with a loose thread while she talked.
"I'm just saying that if you want to talk with me through the glass partition or even through my cell window, that's all right," Lily continued. "You won't hurt my feelings. Most of the doctors don't like being in the same room with me. Some of them don't even like to look at me on the monitors."
"How does that make you feel?" Ashe said.
"It's okay," Lily said. Her voice brimmed with geniality. "If I were them, I wouldn't want to be around someone like me either."
"What do you mean 'someone like you'?" The pen continued to scratch.
"Don't you know?" Lily said. "You must know, since you read my file, and anyway, everyone knows." She smiled; it was a tiny, beautiful, completely sincere gesture.
"I'm a monster," she said.
Ashe rewound the tape and played it a second time. The director of medicine sat at her desk on the other side of the room and the assistant director (who, like Ashe, was new, having arrived that very morning) hovered over her. "My God," he said, "she's as bad of a mess as everyone says."
Ashe ignored him, focusing on the recording.
"Who was the first person to use that word with you: 'monster'?" she heard herself say.
"My mother," Lily's voice said. "Or maybe my father? It had to be one of them. I'm sure it's in the file."
"Where are your parents now?"
"Papa hung himself. That's when I was…" On the tape she furrowed her brow, tugging one ruby-red lip in thought. "Five. Yes, five. And then Mama brought me here. She's dead now too."
"Lily, would you call yourself dangerous?"
"Have you ever killed anyone?"
"Goodness gracious, no!"
"Ever hurt anyone?"
"Well of course not. And I never would. Oh no. The very thought!"
"But you still say you're dangerous?"
"Oh yes. Terribly dangerous. Nobody should even come near me." She sounded somehow pleased as she said it. Ashe turned the tape off. She finished making notes before turning to the director.
"How long has she been like this?" Ashe said.
"All her life. All her life here, anyway, which is all the life she really ever had," the director said. "Her parents were terrified of her. I really think they might have killed her if we hadn't agreed to commit her here full-time. It was that bad."
"What were they frightened of?"
"They never would say. They just called her a monster."
"Did anyone ever suggest treating them instead of her?" asked the AD.
"Of course. We had spectacular arguments over it and they were under investigation from the child welfare services. Then they died and settled the matter for good."
Ashe fanned herself with Lily's file; it was almost too thick to hold. "And in the fifteen years since she was orphaned she's had how many primary physicians?"
"At least a dozen," the director said. "Most of them don't last a year. It's a troubling case. It takes a heavy toll."
"I've talked to the clinic staff and what she says is true," the AD chimed in. "Most of them don't even like being around her. She makes them…uncomfortable."
"And how does she make you feel?" Ashe asked.
The AD squirmed.
"That's why you're here," the director said. She moved to the window and her view of clinic's western wing, where Lily lived. "I've spent my entire career looking for someone who can get through to her. If you can do that…well, I suppose that would just about be a miracle."
She closed the blinds.
"And for a miracle worker, a lot of doors can open up. A lot of things that, under normal circumstances couldn't be done would suddenly become quite a bit more…" She hesitated. The AD chimed in:
Ashe felt a little thrill. She gathered up her notes, and the file, and the tapes.
"Our facilities are entirely at your disposal," the director said. "You're on staff as an outside specialist, which means you report to me and no one else. The only things we can't give you access to are the notes left by Lily's previous primaries. We had an agreement with each of them."
"But how will I treat her without knowing her full case history?"
"If we see you pursuing a dead end we'll notify you. Lily's case is sensitive; every treating physician needs to feel they have complete freedom to try unorthodox methods. A privilege you'll enjoy now, too."
"I…understand," Ashe said. "And I want to say--"
"Save it," said the director. Then, perhaps seeing how startled Ashe was, her voice softened a bit. "I meant, save it for later. After you've been treating her for a while, you might find that you don’t want to thank me." And she ushered Ashe out with a handshake and an oddly solemn "Thank you."
Ashe and the AD shared an awkward elevator ride down together. He tried to make small talk; it wasn't much of an effort.
The clinic couldn't set Ashe up with quarters on the grounds, so instead they found her an apartment on the outskirts of the city, a forty five minute drive. Everything was still in boxes but she didn't bother to unpack, or even to eat (although she was famished) before playing the tapes again. This time she read back her notes from the interview as the tape ran, to assess her own reactions.
"What about your primary doctors," Ashe said on the tape. "Have you had a lot of them?"
"How many is a lot?" Lily said. "How many do most people have?"
"Most people don't have any."
"Oh, of course," Lily said, and laughed in a high, loud, un-self conscious way. "I still forget sometimes that I'm different."
"Did you like your other doctors?"
"I liked Dr. Benway. He was very kind," Lily said. "But he's not here anymore."
Here Ashe had put her notebook away. "Lily, there's something I want you to know, and I'm telling you because I think we should both be completely honest with one another."
Lily folded her hands in her lap and looked attentive.
"You should know that I'm not a real doctor. I've had all the schooling but I could never pass the final examinations. The clinic brought me in to work with you because some of my university work made them think I could help you. It's a special arrangement."
"That's very, very kind of you," Lily said. "And if you help me, will they let you become a real doctor?"
Ashe paused. "Yes," she said. "But that's not the reason I'm here. I'm here because I really care about your case. And about you."
"You're very sweet," Lily said, and she gave a full smile now, a bright, dazzling, 50-watt movie star-style smile. "Can I still call you Dr. Ashe?"
"If you want to. As long as you know it's not true."
Lily leaned in a little. "It'll be our little secret," she said. And she giggled.
Lily's Diary, Day 1:
Dr. Ashe asked me to write things in this book every day. She says that she will not read it, and that neither will anyone else, but I do not understand why you would ever write words that no one was going to read. I think if you leave words around someone is bound to read them sooner or later. But I will do what Dr. Ashe asks. I do not think my doctor would ever tell me to do something that was not good for me.
I do not know what to write in a message to no one. Dr. Ashe said I should think of it as a message to myself, but what can I write that I do not already know? Dr. Ashe does not seem like the other doctors I have had. She says that she cannot help me, but she can teach me to help myself. She said that, with things like this book, she can teach me how to know everything about myself.
I do not think it would be good to know everything about myself. I think the idea is scary.
Dr. Ashe said that I should write my dreams. I do not have dreams. But I know that a dream can also mean a wish, so I wish that Dr. Ashe will find a way to help me before she has to stop being my doctor, like all the others.
Another awkward elevator ride with the AD. He had walked her to her car the previous night and asked her to dinner, and Ashe had said no. Now he said nothing except a polite "Good morning." He checked his phone twice in the time it took to pass four floors.
"Is she waiting for me?" Ashe said.
"Everything is the way you wanted," the AD said.
"Thank you," Ashe said, and was surprised to see him blush.
Lily was in the same interview room they'd met in yesterday. A guard was posted at the door, and she knew two others would observe from behind the mirror. Lily always had three guards at all times, though Ashe did not know why; it was related to one of her previous doctors, and therefore the details were off-limits. The clinic staff considered guarding Lily the least desirable assignment, even worse than toilet duty.
Lily sat with hands folded, waiting. When she saw Ashe she lit up with another movie-star smile. Her blue eyes were dazzling. She never blinks, Ashe realized. She suspected that if she watched the previous day's tapes very closely she would find that Lily blinked only once every two minutes; maybe less. Ashe sat; it was impossible to get comfortable in these chairs, but they didn't seem to give Lily any trouble. Maybe after a lifetime you can get used to anything, she thought.
"To start out today we're going to have a little talk," she said. "You can think of it as a kind of game." Lily was attentive. "I'm going to ask you some questions about what you think you might do in the situation I describe. Do you understand?"
Lily nodded; her bangs bounced.
'All right: If you saw a homeless person on the street--"
"Oh, I wouldn’t be on the street," Lily said.
"But if you were?"
"I wouldn't be."
"It's too dangerous. For everyone else."
Ashe pondered for a moment. "Pretend that it wasn't. Pretend that everyone else in the world was like you."
"You mean…everyone would be a monster?"
Ashe flinched at the word but let it slide, "Yes. Imagine that's true for all of these."
Lily looked as if this were a lot to take in, but she nodded again.
"Imagine someone on the street asks you for money because he can't eat. Would you give it to him?"
"Why would he have to eat?"
"People get hungry."
"I don't. And you said everyone was like me in these questions."
"You would get hungry if the clinic ever forgot to feed you."
"I don't eat. Ever."
Ashe paused. She leafed through the file; there was a section at the end marked "physical abnormalities." She had only skimmed it before because she was sure it must be riddled with errors, based on what she'd already seen. She looked for the section marked "diet." It consisted of only one word: None.
What in the world--?
She shook her head. "Never mind then. Next question: If you were hurt and needed help, who is the first person you would call?"
"Why would I call for help?"
"Because you're hurt."
"I don't think anyone would help me if I was really hurt. I think most of them would probably think it was a good thing." She paused. "But I guess if I really needed help I would call you."
Ashe felt a headache coming on. "Let's try something different: If you had a pet--"
"I would kill it."
Ashe's pencil broke. She looked up; Lily appeared calm. Ashe's throat was dry, so she swallowed. "Why?" she said.
"I'm told that pets always die and when they do it's very sad. So I'd rather get it over with. It would be less sad the sooner it happened. Wouldn't it?"
Ashe skipped the next few questions.
She took a deep breath before the final one: "If someone you didn't know gave you a hug--"
"A man or a woman?"
"A woman," Ashe said, without thinking. "If a woman you didn't know gave you a hug, what would you do?"
"I would wait for her to finish."
"Is that all?"
Lily thought. "I would ask her if she wanted to have sex with me."
Ashe's pencil broke again. Lily's eyes flicked down to it.
"That's something people do, right?" she said.
"Sometimes," Ashe said. She got a new pencil.
"Have you ever had sex?"
"I--yes, of course." Ashe frowned; maybe she shouldn't have added the "of course."
"I'm told that almost everyone has sex but very few people talk about it. Isn't that silly? I assume if someone was willing to hug me she might be willing to have sex with me. Is that a good guess?" Before Ashe could answer Lily made a dismissive gesture. "Oh, well, I guess it doesn't matter, since I'll never find someone like that. Anyway, do you have any more questions, Dr. Ashe?"
Ashe looked at her notebook. She'd barely written a word. She flipped to a new page.
"No. No, I think that's all the questions for today. Let's move on to something else…"
Ashe suddenly remembered the men watching behind the mirror. They would have heard every word, and of course the whole thing was on tape now. She started to blush, and she imagined them laughing at that and it made her blush more. When she opened her mouth nothing came out. She imagined herself back in the classroom, staring at her blank exam sheet and realizing that, somehow, she'd run out of time again. Just breathe, she told herself; it's not an exam, it's only your notes, and this isn't a classroom, it's the clinic, and you're not in school, and no one is judging you, and you can do this, you can do this, you just have to--
"It'll be all right."
"What?" Ashe's eyes snapped open. She did not remember closing them. She felt sick with vertigo; how long had she been sitting here? It must only have been a few seconds if no one had intervened, but it was impossible to be sure; a few seconds and a few hours felt exactly the same when she had an attack. But Lily was still here, and in fact she was leaning in again in her precocious "We have a secret," kind of way.
"I said it'll be all right," Lily said. "You looked like something was bothering you. So I wanted to be reassuring." She paused. "Did it work?"
Ashe blinked a few times. The vertigo subsided. She could breathe again. The room no longer felt so confining. She could look at the blank page without fear.
"Yes," she said. Then she smiled. "I'm okay. Thank you Lily. Sometimes…sometimes everyone needs a little help, I suppose."
Lily just smiled.
Lily's Diary, Day 10:
I had a thought that scared me today. I wondered what happens inside of a room when I am not there.
I used to think that when I was not in a room that it meant the room was not there anymore, but Dr. Benway explained to me that is not so. He said that people are still there even when I do not see them, and that they do things I do not know about. Today, when I left the room with Dr. Ashe, I became afraid. I realized that once I was gone from a room, anything could happen inside it.
The idea of all the things that could happen behind a closed door made me very afraid. It is the first time that I can ever remember being afraid of something besides myself. It is not a good feeling, but perhaps it means that what Dr. Ashe is doing is starting to work.
I wonder what words are in this book when I close the cover. The pages are all blank when I open them, but there could be anything at all written here when I am not looking at them anymore. Empty books may not be any safer than empty rooms, and words may do things I do not know about, just like people.
Five minutes in the door Ashe knew something was wrong. The orderlies huddled around the interview room like gossipy schoolgirls. When she approached they all stopped talking at once and would not meet her gaze. Rather than listen to their denials she just stepped past them. Whatever had them worked up it could only be something about Lily.
The room was different now; someone had wheeled in a TV. Lily watched it with her back to the door. When Ashe saw what was on the screen she stopped, gaping. Then she closed the door again. The orderlies all looked away. One of them snickered.
"Who?" Ashe demanded. No answer.
"Who?!" she said again.
"Orders," one of them mumbled. "From the AD."
Ashe pushed them aside. She took the elevator to the next floor. She walked into his office without knocking and dropped Lily's file on the desk to get his attention. It made a hard smacking sound. He looked at her over his glasses.
"Are you insane?" she said.
"You tell me. Specialist."
Ashe was prepared with a bitter comeback, but she swallowed the words. Think this through, she told herself. You're both professionals. She sat down, folded her skirt over her knees, and took a deep breath before speaking again.
"Tell me what happened," she said.
"She wouldn't stop asking the staff questions. That's unusual; normally she rarely speaks to anyone. Since you started treating her she's become chatty."
"That's a good sign."
"Maybe. But the things she was asking…disturbed people. Remember, no one is comfortable working with her anyway. She was asking very…explicit questions."
"Questions about sex?"
"What's so bad about that?"
The AD picked up a memo and handed it to her. Ashe read a few lines, then grew pale.
"I went and spoke to her myself," the AD continued, "and when I did she asked for the movies. It seemed like an efficient way to address her…curiosity...without disturbing the staff. She's been watching them for eleven hours now."
Unsure what to say, Ashe just made notes. When it was evident that the AD had nothing more to add, she folded up her notebook and said, "Thank you for keeping me updated on my patient's status." And she walked out.
Lily was still watching the television. Ashe closed the door and locked it. The orderlies had the keys and could open the door if they wanted to, but the locking was a signal. She wished she had curtains to put over the mirror as well. Lily raised a hand in greeting, but did not turn around. She sat less than a foot away from the TV screen.
Ashe regarded the image on it: a tanned woman bent over a table, legs splayed, while a man whose face was always out of the frame railed her from behind, his knees and thighs working like pistons while her sculpted backside bobbed in and out of view. The coils of her own hair piled up like a pillow beneath her head as she pressed her cheek to the tabletop and then--
The scene changed. Now it was a man and a woman on the beach, he sprawled out on a blanket and she crouched on top of him, riding his erect cock. The tide came in behind them. The woman (dark-haired with large, dark nipples) leaned all the way forward so that the camera could swivel around for a view of her cunt opening and sliding along the shaft of--
The scene changed again, and again, and again, never more than thirty seconds on any one. Now it was a woman giving a blowjob on the hood of a car parked in a deserted alley. Now two women showering, soaping and fondling each other's breasts with red lipstick smiles. Now a woman writhing on red satin sheets, a bizarrely obtrusive sex toy lodged between her legs. Lily was passive throughout it all. Ashe tapped her pencil against her notepad and said, "What do these films make you think about?"
"I'm not sure," Lily said.
Now the screen showed a woman in a vinyl suit turning a lever while another woman, naked, writhed in simulated agony on the rack. Alligator clips adorned her pink nipples.
"Which of these is sex?" Lily said.
"All of them," said Ashe. The volume on the television was turned down to the minimum but the performers’ voices were still audible:
"Do you like it, you filthy whore?"
"Oh God…oh God!"
"But none of them are the same," Lily said. "How can you tell what is sex and what isn't?"
"That's why I asked how it makes you feel."
The scene changed again: A redheaded woman (her hair a few shades off from Lily's) arched on all fours on a table with a man on either side, pivoting between them, one cock in her ass and the other in her mouth. Ashe realized, suddenly, that she had actually written the phrase "One cock in her ass and the other in her mouth," on her notepad as she watched, without meaning to, and scribbled it out.
"No one's sexual preferences are exactly the same," she continued. "But everyone recognizes theirs. Which of these scenes do you like?"
"They confuse me," Lily said. Though she now seemed particularly distracted by the image of two lithe, athletic women sprawled on the ground, legs tangled, rubbing up against each other and moaning in what Ashe had to imagine were exaggerated expressions of ecstasy. She crossed her own legs without thinking about it. Her pencil sat, languid, on the page. The screen filled with naked pink flesh, writhing and thrashing. Now and then a close-up of either woman's face focused on the perfect pink O of her lips.
Lily swiveled in her chair. "What about you?" she said. "How do they make you feel?"
"We're not here to talk about me."
"But I'd like to." Lily's blue eyes gleamed. "You're normal. I want to know what normal people think about sex. It's important, isn't it?"
"It can be," Ashe said. She was not sure if it was Lily's gaze, the scenes on the television, or simple embarrassment but she was having trouble catching her breath. Her voice sounded throaty. Another girl-girl scene was on now, an extreme close-up of one woman's splayed thighs while a blond crouched between them with vibrator in hand. The blond licked her lips, then the plastic tip of the toy. Ashe was painfully aware of the glare from the one-way mirror and her ignorance of who was behind it. Rather than think about it, she concentrated on Lily. Only Lily mattered anyway.
"Sex can be very important," Ashe continued. Lily was attentive. More attentive than Ashe remembered her ever being before, actually. The TV speakers continued to punctuate their conversation:
"Ahhh, yes…yes…ohhhh, fuck, YES!"
"It's an urge that lets you know…when you've found someone remarkable. Someone you're willing to compromise yourself for." It sounded awful, but it just rolled right out of Ashe's mouth and Lily seemed to accept it. The screen changed to a woman, bent over and manacled to the ground, her ass flogged by off-screen assailants. Her screams approached an Aria-like pitch:
"Oh, fuck, I've been bad…I've been so bad…I've been terrible, dirty, awful, and very, very, very, AH, God!"
"Like you?" Lily said. Ashe's mouth went dry. "You told me to be willing to learn about myself. That's something I never wanted to do, so that's compromising. And I've never had a doctor like you, so that means you're remarkable. I think if you weren't my doctor you're someone I'd be attracted to, like the women in the videos."
For a fleeting second Lily's little pink tongue flickered over her soft, juvenile lips; it was both alluring and obscene. "Do you think I'm right, Dr. Ashe?"
"I think…" Ashe could not help but notice Lily's hands--white as goose down and, by the looks of them, just as soft. They were making an enticing journey up Lily's bare calves (which led up from her tiny, delicate looking feet and gently turned ankles), across her knees and then to the hem of her ill-fitting hospital gown, which crept a fraction of an inch up the bare flesh of her legs to reveal naked thigh. She squeezed her legs together but slid three fingers of one hand into the tight space between them, smoothing it along. She bit her lower lip and stared, unblinking, at Ashe.
Ashe was very careful not to shift her legs or hips; there was an ache she didn't want to betray. The cold, sterile clinic room felt hot and humid all of a sudden. She stopped to daub perspiration from her throat. On the television a woman's soft but frantic moans sounded:
Lily reached out with her free hand, murmuring, "Let me," and then…
Ashe stood and switched the TV off. Lily sat back, suddenly rigid. For a moment they stared at one another. Then Ashe said: "As I was saying, attraction can be a valuable insight into your own person. The things you see in someone else are often what you want to see in yourself. That's why it's such a personal thing. It's something we can talk about at length when you feel comfortable exploring the subject further. But as your doctor, there are certain limits to what is appropriate, and these limits are for your own good. Do you understand?"
Lily's face was impossible to read. Ashe pretended to make a few notes. She did not look at the mirror. Finally she said: "If you'll excuse me, I need to get a little air. We'll continue our conversation from yesterday when I get back. All right?" She smiled as wide as she could and left without seeing whether Lily returned it.
In the corridor, once out of sight, she wiped her palms on her sleeves. She was still sweating when she left the building.
Lily's Diary, Day 33:
I watched one of the nurses for a long time today. I wanted to see what he did when I was not around. But then I realized I did not know if he really did not know if I was around or if he was just pretending. So I asked him whether he knew I was there or not. He screamed and fell and did not get back up.
The other nurses said that I should not scare people like that. I told them I have always scared people. They said that I should learn to be decent. I said that I was trying, and that is why I wanted to see what the nurse did. Then they told me to go away.
They say that the nurse will not come back to work. They say he is in another hospital and is very sick from screaming. I wish I could see what he was doing now that I am really not around. Maybe one night I will.
Ashe only owned three real dresses and she had no idea which of them was the nicest, so she just picked one. When she arrived at the restaurant she realized it didn't matter, as she would have looked underdressed in any of them. The AD sat across from her, surprisingly sharp in a tailored suit. She was only just now realizing she did not remember his name. He did have one, didn't he? Or maybe ADs were grown in jars in hospital basements and given numbers instead of names. Maybe if she looked close enough she could find where his number was stamped on the back of his head. She tried not to laugh at the thought.
"So why medical school?" he was asking.
Ashe swirled the ice in her glass. "I guess because I never really knew what I wanted to do with my life. I figured if I became a doctor at least no one could tell me I hadn't done enough. What about you?"
"Tradition: All the men in my family are doctors. Except for my great uncle who drives a bus. We stopped inviting him to Thanksgiving over it."
Ashe laughed. She was pretty sure it was a joke. It was reasonably funny in any case. She toyed with her hair; she hadn't been sure what to do with it, but she supposed it didn't matter. I'm not here to impress him, she told herself. Why she was here at all was a mystery, but when he'd asked her (for the third time) the idea of a night out became appealing. And he wasn't all that bad company, really, once you talked to him for a while.
He wasn't her type. But then, who was?
Dinner came. Ashe ate roast duck and tried to remember the last time she had a meal that didn't come right out of a can. Her stomach growled. She wondered if it was acceptable to order seconds. The harp player in the corner changed songs and Ashe shifted in the tight dress. The AD peered over the rims of his glasses, seeming to come to a kind of decision.
"Well," he said, "no sense putting it off any longer: We have nothing to talk about except your case, so let's talk about it."
Ashe's relief surprised her, and also disappointed her. She blotted her mouth with her napkin to hide it.
"It's been six weeks," the AD continued. "Do you feel like you're beginning to grasp the fundamentals?"
"For the most part," Ashe said. "It's really hard to know exactly where I stand with all of my predecessors' files sealed. But I'm confident that going forward we can move into some really promising territory." She tensed. The AD was ready for her.
"And you have something unorthodox that you'd like to propose, right?"
She exhaled slowly. This was it; now or never. "Yes. I'd like to take Lily out of the clinic. A supervised leave. In my custody."
The AD sawed his knife through a braised haunch of lamb, still peering at her. "You realize that'll be a tough sell?"
"Yes. That's why I'm asking for your help convincing the director."
"What makes you think I'll help?"
"You've already demonstrated that you're also willing to explore unorthodox avenues of treatment with her." She let her fork slide against her teeth as she took the next bite, keeping eye contact with him, daring him to back down. He switched tactics.
"And how will this help Lily?"
"I think that the clinic itself has become the centerpiece of her complex. It's the focal point of her self-stigmatizing behavior."
"And leaving will snap her out of it?"
"I think it's the necessary first step."
"You do realize that there's more to her case than the psychological? Her physical abnormalities--"
"You can't continue to ignore the facts. She's not normal. She's not--"
"I didn't say that."
"But that's what you think. That's what everyone thinks. You're afraid that if you let her leave the clinic that she'll run wild in the countryside and terrorize the villagers."
He paused. "You know I can't reveal anything about your predecessor's specific treatment recommendations…" Ashe's ears perked up. "But let's be clear: You think Lily is just a severe case of autism. She's not."
"That's a small--"
"Lily is not autistic. It's an easy mistake to make, but she's not. Her problem is entirely different."
"How do you know?"
"I can't reveal the specifics. But we know." He forked a bite into his mouth. "Anyway, you know you'd need her consent to take her anywhere. She won't like it."
"I'll convince her."
"You think she trusts you that much?"
"Yes," Ashe said. She pushed her plate away. The harpist had stopped playing. The AD examined his cufflinks very closely, not meeting her eye. "You like to gamble?" he said.
"This isn't a gamble."
"No, I mean there's a casino on the upper floor. Are you a blackjack kind of woman?"
"Oh." Ashe blinked. "Yes, I think I am."
He pushed her chair in for her and escorted her to the elevator. "So where do you propose to keep her for the duration of this…sabbatical?"
Ashe smiled. "I have somewhere special in mind," she said.
Lily shrank against Ashe for protection, looking around. Her electric blue eyes mirrored the grass and the trees and the grey-gold of the sunlight through the clouds. "Is it all real?" she said.
"Very real," Ashe said. She kept one arm around Lily's shoulders as she closed the car door. It was a cold, foggy morning and she wore a heavy coat for protection. Lily wore only a light shirt and slacks; Ashe had bought the clothes for her herself. Lily had never worn anything but clinic-issued clothing for most of her life and she found her new outfits funny.
Ashe guided her up the driveway, toward the house. "Is this yours?" Lily said.
"It was my father's," said Ashe. "Which I suppose means it's mine now. But I don't live here normally."
"And…how far are we from the clinic?" She had asked that many times. Ashe had tried to answer in a way that would make sense to her, and even showed her several times on a map, but it was hard to make anything sink in. She pointed to the nearest copse of trees.
"Well, if you hike through there, you find yourself just on the edge of the headlands, and if you hike a little ways further you can see the bridge." She paused. "The Golden Gate Bridge." She waited for Lily to react. Lily just stared. Ashe sighed inside. "Never mind," she said. "You don't need to think about the clinic while you're here. That's the point."
She had to let Lily go to pick up both of their bags and unlock the front door. The girl all but clung to her back. The house was dark and quiet in that way that only old houses long unlived in can be. Once inside Lily seemed a bit better; she at least let go of Ashe, though she always hovered a few feet away. She seemed not to know what to make of the house's dark corners and wood paneling and soft carpets, so different from the glacial white environment she'd grown up in.
Outside, the black, curling roots and branches of the old trees and the long, winding paths looked like a dark, fairy tale forest. Ashe thought the atmosphere suited Lily. It was easy to imagine her making a home in the forest like a fairy creature or gliding, silent and ethereal, along the house's long dark hallways in the middle of the night, like a Victorian madwoman. But the imagery was not frightening; she imagined she could watch Lily here endlessly, days going by without her even noticing.
She bit her lip, admonishing herself.
Lily found her way to the library. She had a fascination with books and read much, but rarely more than a few pages of any one thing. She did not understand fiction at all, and only a few nonfiction works kept her interest. But Ashe knew she could leave her here, crouched on the floor with a thumb running back and forth over the leather-bound spines of each volume, for hours.
Then Lily stumbled on the VHS tapes. "What are these?"
"Movies," Ashe said.
"Like the ones we watched?"
Lily picked one up. It was James Whale's Frankenstein; Boris Karloff's face glowered from the cover. Ashe flinched; she'd meant to remove that one. Red letters under the title declared: "The Man Who Made a Monster!"
"Can we watch this one?" Lily said.
"…sure. Yes. Let's go to the TV room."
They sat on a small sofa, the same one where Ashe had sat on her father's lap first time she watched this same movie. Lily leaned against Ashe a little, bare arm to bare shoulder, the smallest square inch of skin to skin contact. It was the first time they had ever been so close. It was hard to gauge Lily's reaction to the film, or to anything, really. As the movie neared its end Lily asked, "Will the doctor hang himself?"
"Why would he do that?"
"Because that's what my father did."
Ashe groped for words. "No," was all she came up with.
Lily's Diary, Day 60:
I like the movie. I have watched it every day since we came here. Dr. Ashe usually watches it with me.
I asked why the movie was made. She said, to scare people. I asked, do people like to be scared? She said, sometimes. She said there are people whose entire job it is to make books and movies that will scare other people. I never thought that you could make someone happy by scaring them.
I wonder if people are happy when they are scared of me? I hope they are. I am glad for the nurse who screamed when I talked to him. He must have been very happy.
I have a surprise for Dr. Ashe. To thank her for what she taught me.
It was the feeling of being watched that woke Ashe. The room was pitch-black, and she fumbled for the lamp. It flickered on, revealing Lily at the bedside. "Hello, Dr. Ashe," she said.
"Lily." Ashe sat up, hugging the covers; the room was cold, but Lily wore barely anything. "Are you having trouble sleeping?"
"I don't sleep."
Ashe had read that in the file too, but of course it couldn't be true. Some severe insomniacs claim not to have slept in days or even years but really they had sleeping spells so brief weren’t aware of them. These facts tumbled through Ashe's head as she tried to dispel the late-night confusion. Then Lily climbed up onto the bed with her.
"I was watching you sleep because I was worried," she said. "I thought you might have died. Dead people and sleeping people look a lot alike to me. I can't ever tell the difference."
"I'm fine, Lily. You should go back to bed. In the morning--"
Lily took Ashe by the hand. She ran her manicured fingers over Ashe's; she'd seen a model's hand in a magazine and asked Ashe to treat and paint her nails the same way. Now they looked like tiny pools of blood on her fingertips. "Do you always sleep alone?" she asked.
"That's…a personal question, Lily. But there's no one else here but you and me."
"I know," Lily said. She placed Ashe's hand against her chest; she was wearing only a thin cotton nightgown. "Do you feel my heart beating? It's very, very slow. One of my first doctors said my heart beat so slowly it would be a medical record, if they were allowed to write about me. He would listen to my heartbeat every day. Once he did it for a whole hour."
Lily's skin was hot and flushed under Ashe's fingers. She felt the curved sides of Lily's tiny breasts and squirmed, crossing her legs under the comforter. Lily leaned in.
"Do you like being my doctor?"
"Yes." It was barely a word.
"But you don’t want to be my doctor forever."
"I…want you to get better so that you won't need anymore doctors in your life. But I always want to be someone in your life even after that."
"What would you be if you weren't my doctor?"
"I've never had a friend. Do friends do this?" Lily kissed Ashe on the cheek. It made Ashe think of strawberries and dew on grass. She let out a quavering breath.
"Yes," she said. "Sometimes."
"And this?" Lily kissed the ridge of Ashe's ear. Her tongue darted out. Ashe squeezed her legs together harder.
"Yes," she said. "Sometimes they do."
Lily pressed Ashe's hand even harder against her chest. Her heartbeat became so slow Ashe could swear it wasn't there at all. But the promise of Lily's milky white flesh was very real, and very apparent, and very, very warm.
"Kiss me here," Lily said, pointing to the place between her breasts, just above the bow on her nightgown. She clambered up onto Ashe's lap and thrust herself forward. Ashe's lips touched Lily's bare skin; a feeling like electricity tingled across her skin. She kissed the spot again; Lily hung her arms around Ashe's neck. Her legs wrapped around Ashe's body, strong and lithe. Then she pressed her mouth to the side of Ashe's neck; her kisses were awkward in their eagerness, like a teenager. She ground her body against Ashe through the flimsy fabric of her nightgown.
Ashe resisted the urge to put her hands on Lily. She even resisted the urge to kiss her more. But she did not push Lily away either. She let Lily clamor over her, remaining still as the girl's lips slid down her neck, over her shoulders, across her collarbone. When Lily pulled the blankets down Ashe's body, Ashe did not protest. She was naked under the sheets and Lily's mouth followed a line down the center of her body, from her throat to the space between her breasts and then across the plane of her stomach, tickling her navel for a moment and then going even lower, Lily's mouth glanced against the light thatch of pubic hair where Ashe's hips converged. Her lips were so soft they barely felt real; like a butterfly's wings.
The feel of Lily's fingers on Ashe's bare skin was barely there too. Just the tips of her fingers glided up and down the center line of Ashe's back, and then across the spread of her bare shoulders, and down the sensitive skin of her forearms, stimulating the tiny, invisible hairs there. She felt like a ghost; Ashe thought that any sudden movement would banish Lily completely, scattering her as if she's never been there in the first place, so she kept still. The bedside lamp provided just enough dim yellow light to silhouette Lily's figure. Ashe felt like she could hide in that little light and the world would never see either of them again.
The unexpected arrival of Lily's mouth on one of Ashe's nipples made her tense up. She felt like a closed fist. Then it happened again; the soft touch of Lily's bubblegum-pink lips and strawberry red tongue on the erect point of Ashe's left nipple, and then, just as unexpectedly, on the right. She clenched again and this time couldn't unwind no matter how hard she tried. She was wound almost to the breaking point. Her breasts had always been particularly sensitive. She risked opening her eyes to peak for just a moment and the sight of Lily's electric blue gaze staring up at her while her pert mouth closed over one of Ashe's full, large breasts sent a dark, hot flush down her thighs. She was aching wet in a few seconds.
Lily's fingers slid under the covers, groping up and down Ashe's legs. Ashe spread them a bit. Lily curled around Ashe's body, pulling the straps of her nightgown down so that their bare skin touched. Ashe fixated on Lily's mouth. It was like a tiny pink bud, wet with dew. She wanted to touch it but it seemed too fragile. Lily's groping fingers went higher. She touched the wet spot and Ashe groaned and rolled her eyes. She spread her legs wider. Lily pressed her cheek to Ashe's and whispered, her tiny voice almost smothered by the dark: "Maybe you don't want me to call you just a friend?"
Ashe's mouth was too dry to speak. Lily was rubbing against her now, grinding the heel of her palm against Ashe. She whispered again:
"Maybe what you really want me to call you is…Mama?"
Ashe's eyes snapped open. Lily's breath was hot on her ear.
"Is that it? Do you want me to be Mama's bad little girl? Do you?"
She remembered the day in the clinic, the dialogue on the movie, the one her eyes had lingered on for just a second longer than the others. Too small a thing to notice, or so she had thought (and just how would Lily know when her back was turned the whole time…), but now Lily's small, sweet voice poured the same words into her ear, each one shaped like a pearl by her utterly exquisite mouth:
"Punish me. Punish this bad little girl. Punish me Mama. Teach me a lesson."
Lily's small fingers moved quickly now, rubbing in a circle. Ashe felt paralyzed; the world, she was certain, was crashing down around them. But she couldn't staunch the urge to thrash and churn or stifle at least the hard edge of her moans. She was coiled up like a spring and she couldn't hold it forever; the tension threatened to shake her to pieces.
Finally Lily's hand found the right spot. She pushed…and Ashe fell back, helpless, lost, weak, screaming, struggling, blind. Her body was on fire; the pointed tips of each of her nipples tingled like lightning. Her hands balled into fists so tight they hurt. When she finished she found she was crying, and Lily wrapped her up in her arms, cradling Ashe's head against her chest, whispering:
"Shhhh. It's all right. It's all right."
Ashe cried. She slept. She woke. She cried then slept some more. Lily was already awake each time. All through the night, Lily never slept.
Ashe woke to Lily's screams.
Her arms were around the girl before she knew what was going on. Lily thrashed, hugging the sides of her head with her hands, screaming until her lips split. Ashe couldn't believe how loud she was; she thought her eardrums might burst.
Lily kicked the covers away and Ashe saw blood painting the sheets. Lily tried to rub it away with her hands but all she did was stain her fingers. Ashe took her by the wrists and shook her. "Lily! Lily, stop, Lily!"
She stopped screaming immediately, like an alarm turned off with the push of a button. She remained brittle and tense, eyes wide, pupils shrunk.
"It's all right," Ashe said. "It's just your cycle. You should have told me you were close."
"Close to what?"
"Your time. It's nothing to be afraid of; it happens to everybody."
"It doesn't happen to me."
Ashe looked Lily in the eye. "Do you mean…you never menstruate?"
Lily shook her head.
"Do you even know what that word means?"
Another head shake. Then: "I want to go back to the clinic."
"Lily, there's nothing to be afraid of. Let me explain--"
"I want to go back!" The last word was so loud it made Ashe's skull ache.
"But the clinic is hours away," Ashe said. "There's a closer hospital in Mill Valley."
"No," Lily said. She squeezed Ashe's hands; blood smeared both their fingers. "The clinic." Ashe heard her own heartbeat in her aching ears. It made her feel crushed and helpless.
"All right," she said. "If that's what you really want..."
Ashe sat with hands folded in her lap. The AD would not look at her for some time. Maybe he was waiting for her to say something? But she wouldn't let herself be trapped that way. Instead she waited.
The phone rang. The AD listened without saying anything; he looked at Ashe now. When he hung up he had to clear his throat twice before he could speak.
"Lily is fine," he said.
Ashe nodded. "I told her she was just menstruating, but--"
"She doesn't menstruate."
"Never. Not once in the entire time she's been here. It's in the file. But it seems there were a lot of things in Lily's file that you never took the time to become familiar with."
"There were serious errors in it."
The AD leaned back in his chair a little. "The blood came from two incisions she made on her thighs with a pair of nail clippers from off your nightstand."
Ashe blinked several times, trying to grasp what she'd been told. "She's never shown any self-abusive behavior before."
"And she didn't this time either. She did it so that you would bring her back here."
Panic. Ashe pushed it away.
"She told us some…unusual things, about her time in your care. Although you are not a doctor, you are still bound by certain basic ethical obligations when it comes to the patients here. Lily said that you…took certain advantages of her. She said--"
He broke off. Then he swore under his breath. "Are you really going to make me drag this out? Just come clean and tell us everything that happened. It'll be easier." He looked very tired, and surprisingly sad.
Ashe considered her words carefully. "I'd like to see Lily."
"Not a chance."
"I'm her primary."
"Like hell you are. You're lucky we don't have you arrested."
"Did the director tell you that?"
The AD paused. "She's not in."
"I know. In fact, I haven't seen her in weeks. She has final word on everything to do with Lily's case. Only the director can order me removed."
"Maybe. But until she does Lily is still my patient and you can't bar me from attending to her. So I want to see her. Right now."
The AD's ruddy face had gone pale. Ashe realized she had never seen him get angry until now. With stiff movements he picked up the phone, dialed a single number, and said, "The woman is coming down. Admit her." He turned his chair away when he hung up.
Everyone stared at Ashe as she walked down the halls. Or maybe it only seemed that way? They couldn't possibly all know, she told herself. She kept her eyes on her feet.
There were, as usual, orderlies at Lily's door, but Ashe was admitted. She felt their gaze on the back of her neck. The room was not Lily's ordinary room: Monitors and medical equipment was stacked up on either side of her bed, but most of them didn't even seem to be turned on. There was, as always, a one-way mirror. Lily smiled at Ashe. "I'm feeling much better now," she said. "The bleeding stopped. I'm sorry if I worried you."
"That's…all right," Ashe said. She fumbled with the chair in the room. Her knees quaked even as she sat. Lily still smiled. It pierced Ashe's heart. "Lily," she said, "did you tell them…"
The words wouldn't come. She licked her lips and tried something else:
"I think this is goodbye, Lily. I think I'm not going to be your doctor anymore."
Lily's smile flickered. "Of course."
"Not because I want to," Ashe was quick to add. "They're making me go away."
Lily nodded. "Yes, I know. I'm sorry. It must be very hard for you."
Ashe nodded. Then she started to cry. The room blurred into a single blinding white smear. Lily touched her hand.
"Dr. Ashe…are you in love with me?"
"Oh my. Do you love me more than anyone you've ever known?"
Another nod. Lily leaned in.
"Do you love me so much you could die?"
Ashe pushed the word from her mouth: "Yes." She felt empty once it was out of her. Empty, and relieved, and ridden with grief.
Lily became thoughtful for a moment. She closed her eyes and kept them closed, something Ashe had never seen her do. For a second the corners of her mouth twitched, though Ashe could not tell if she was about to smile or about to cry. Then, in a tiny, soft voice she said:
"Oh. Well. I guess you had better hurry up and do it then."
Lily's Diary, Day 62:
There was so much screaming today. You would think the people here had never seen someone hang themselves before.
Lily's Diary, Final Entry:
I will meet my new doctor today. He is a man.
Dr. Ashe must have loved me very much. And I think, at the end, she was very scared of me too. I am glad, because that must have made her happy. I will work hard to make my new doctor just as happy.
I heard the director and the assistant director talking today. They were behind the mirror, but they never realize that I can hear them when they are back there. The assistant director was very upset. He is still new. I think he liked Dr. Ashe a lot. He asked why they let it happen. The director said that it was the whole point. She said they had to keep studying me to find out why the people who love me always make themselves die. She said it started with her parents and it never stopped.
The assistant director asked, does that mean we will bring in someone else for her? The director said yes. The assistant director asked, how many will it take? The director said, until we understand her.
I do not know what I will do with this book now. I do not think that I should keep writing it in it now that Dr. Ashe is not my doctor anymore. Perhaps I will have them bury it with her. That way, she will have something to remember me by.