by Tamuira Reid

Mary hears voices. Voices that awaken her from a deep, dark sleep. Voices that pull and laugh and tug. Voices that make her lock and unlock doors. Wash clean dishes. Fold and unfold clothes. Voices that make her tired.

There's an orange one. A tan one. A red one. A handful of white ones. She knows them by heart. Their purposes. Their functions. Her dysfunction. Standing over the kitchen counter-top, underwear but no bra, she faces the breakfast of pills staring back at her, a little army of soldiers going off to war.

There's a three-year-old somewhere in the back of the house, knee-deep in a pile of dirty clothes and linen, searching for his dinosaur, Pickles, who he'll flush down the toilet, because not only is he missing a leg, but a tail too. His daily routine consists mostly of flushing stuff down the toilet and hiding things from his mom. Car keys are buried in the soil of houseplants. Lipstick goes under a mattress (only after it is noted that “Rock Star Red” looks as good on his forehead as it does on the wall). Photo albums are dismantled, displayed, black and white pictures colored-in with a half-broken crayon. Baby dolls dismembered. Credit cards and day planners and unbalanced checkbooks stashed inside a toy box, under a bathroom sink, in the exhaust pipe of a life-sized motorcycle.

The voices make mornings hard.

Scrambled eggs take an hour to cook, shaking hands pick out bits of shell, burnt toast going unnoticed until the wail of a smoke alarm cuts into her consciousness.

She's making the day's “To Do” list, a mental log of errands to run, phone calls to make, appointments she won't keep. Her back and arms ache, the dark circles around her eyes intensifying, making her look old. L'Oreal concealer is added to the list of “Things To Buy”, and she massages the circles with the tips of her fingers, trying to rub the age out.

The boy wants cheese.

“No cheese for breakfast.”

“But I wancheeze mama! Cheeze! Cheeze! Cheeze!”

She plugs in the old Hoover, the one she bought at the flea market last year, while he triumphantly bites into a block of cheddar, legs stretched out in front of him, sitting intently on the cold morning linoleum. Mama's cleaning things again.

The voices make living difficult.

Long nights of drinking take a toll on the house. Empty bottles crowd coffee and end tables, tipping over forgotten ashtrays and discarded cups of soda, smashed butts and brown liquid falling to the floor. She'll later wrap these wine bottles in tissue paper and give them as Christmas presents to her family and friends, erasing any doubt there'd been about the status of her drinking. I'll quickly stuff a tapered candle into mine, Look – It makes a great candleholder. After dessert I'll offer to drive Mary home only to detour at the corner bar, a dank, smoky room and I won't think twice about buying her a beer, and I won't think twice about buying her another one and I won't think, just don't think about it, that this is wrong, that there is something inherently terrible about watching her drink. Because this is what friends do. This is normal.

They whisper.

When we were little, she'd disappear on the spot. Slip out of windows and doors. Escaping from the sleepover, the birthday party, the dinner table without warning. I saw her once, standing in our front yard with her nightgown on, a matted head of blonde hair blowing-up in the moonlight. Black holes for eyes, hands balled into fists. She was talking to the sky, face tilted up towards the stars.

In the summer, we'd spend long hours by the pool, our reprieve from the suffocating gloom and gray skylines of a valley winter. It never snowed in our town, but it always rained; big thick rain, the kind that pelts your skin, makes you raw.

Her mother hid under a fake palm tree in the corner of the patio, Michelob Light in one hand, magazine in the other. She didn't have the patience it took to read books, even the sexy Harlequin ones we saw other mother's picking-up at the grocery store. But she liked magazines, their glossy covers reflecting the sun, full of celebrities and gossip to get lost in.

When I think back on those days we spent cannonballing and racing and laughing until our guts cramped, you look so pretty when you laugh, I never see her banging her head over and over against the bottom of the pool. I don't see her mother jumping out of her lawn chair, magazine and beer crashing to the ground, her face shifting from confusion to complete understanding. I don't see how she pulls Mary out, motionless, a single stream of blood falling out of her hair.

The voices speak in colors and shapes.

I have only two pictures of my Mary. One is tacked to the wall above my bed. Her pupils are so dilated that they look like two shiny marbles, peering out from a pale, thin face. She's wearing a tight black shirt, exposing her sunken midriff, and jeans that hang real low. It was my eighteenth birthday and I think I was the only one who knew how high she was at the time. She'd found a way to stop the voices. For a while anyway.

Most of the pictures I have of Mary are like this. She looks posed and awkward, messing with her earrings or forcing some ridiculous smile. Trying to look sober. Resisting the urge to run out the door and disappear for another week.

Occasionally she'd resurface, like when she'd tell me she loved me and laugh one of her nasal, high-pitched laughs. Or when she'd make her famous chicken enchiladas, folding the meat into a bed of tortillas, excitedly talking about this and that and how life was getting better, man, getting better. But the voices would always take her back in. Even when she was sitting right next to me, in front of the TV or in the passenger's seat of my car, even then I felt alone. She was listening to something I'd never hear.

But you were a miracle.

Mary's parents had struggled for nearly seven years to conceive. Nothing. All the plans they had, the big, big plans, seemed to be falling apart with each day that passed. The photo albums would remain empty, not to be filled with pictures of a goggling baby or a rambunctious, thick-legged toddler or trips to the zoo. Days would be spent arguing over whose fault it was the house was so quiet, so empty. There would be no one to carry on the family name, to brag about to friends and co-workers, to save two people from falling out of love.

In the midst of adoption procedures, her mother started “feeling funny”, her concentration off and breasts tender and swollen. A short time later, the doctor confirmed it – she was pregnant. The woman with “a uterus the size of a pea” was with child.

Years later, Mary herself would get pregnant. She was living out of her car, didn't have a job. Hadn't in months. Everyone told her to think long and hard about her options, babies are hard, a lifetime commitment. He was born on the night of a full moon.

Sliding in and out of doors and windows.

She walks through a dark house, tripping over building blocks and racing cars, an old jack-in-the-box that no longer works, its orange accordion neck twisted and limp. Something is telling her that the stove is on. The television cord is frayed. Front door is unlocked. The carpet squishes between her toes and it's cold. A gust of wind opens the front of her nightgown, exposing two small breasts and an array of tattoos spreading like fire across her chest. They pull. Need to shut the window. They whisper. The window is already shut. But the gust of wind? And the cold – they are screaming. The boy shifts in his bed. Everything is shapes. Everything is colors.

Because this is what friends do.

“Only wine. I heard wine has lots of god stuff in it anyways. It's nutritional. I mean, it's made from grapes so it's not really bad for you.”

Since the wine-as-Christmas-presents episode, I've been calling Mary a lot more. We talk when we can. Late at night. In-between appointments. Over the phone form my apartment in New York to her house in California. We talk when we can and the only way we can – carefully. Mary and I were never very good at being affectionate, our hugs coming more from a place of habit than anywhere else. Touch being more accidental than planned.

“Wine's not that good for you, Mary. Just stick with the meds, okay?”

I remember sitting in that bar with her the night I was supposed to drive her straight home. I remember the way her body relaxed and eyes got heavy, how chunks of her long hair fell forward in her face, how her sallow cheeks filled with color. And even though I knew I should've taken her home, that the keys were given to me for a reason, that the night was over before it started, I wanted to stay in that dark little room forever, till the moment cemented into one of those happy memories you call on later in life when you're feeling down. I wanted to take her pain away.

“So yeah, just wine,” I can imagine her now, sitting there on the couch, picking at a hole in her jeans. “Things are going good, though,” she tries to convince me. Her son has shoved a disc into the DVD player and Elmo's voice comes pouring into the receiver. “I've cut back on the drinking and I take my meds all the time now, the way I'm supposed to. The doctors at the clinic said I should start feeling better soon.”

Mary's Christmas present had been a trip to a famous Bay Area clinic where world-renowned doctors take pictures of people's brains, and then tell them, very nicely, how fucked-up they are. Mary carries a copy of her scan around in her purse, as proof of her illness, Look, I really am crazy! It makes little sense to most people, just a paper full of colorful blotches and squiggly lines. But to her, it's a testament to everything she's been through — a blueprint for insanity.

“Those red areas are the ADD. That's like when I get all hyper, you know? The blue areas are the OCD, when I can't stop messing with the stove and the door and all that? And the green is the –” she's quiet when she points out this section, tapping one of her long skinny fingers against it, “that's the stuff I hear in my head,” and she laughs, but not really. She's stopped using drugs, is trying to curb the drinking, has a sponsor and a healthy child who adores her, but this is different. Her problem isn't something she can hold in her hand or flush down a toilet or stuff in the garbage. She's fighting an elusive enemy and she has to do it alone.

“I know it sounds weird, but it makes sense. These scans are for real. Now that I know I wasn't a just a loser for all those years, that I actually needed medication because of my brain, I can be a different person maybe. Like, functioning.”

Day after day, she stands in front of the kitchen counter. Half naked. Half asleep. Takes her pills, swallowing each one with a sip of coffee. Light pours through the window and there's a temporary stillness to the house. It's almost quiet.