“Sorry,” he mutters, but they both know he doesn’t really mean it. He never really means it. The word is always just a placeholder for the things he can’t tell her, like it’s been since he was thirteen.
He won’t meet her gaze, eyes fixed intently on the floor tiles he’s busy counting, and his hands are dead weight among the crisp hospital sheets.
She takes a breath, shakes her head as she lets it out and scrubs tired fingers through her hair. It comes loose in her grip, tangled midnight hues tumbling to cover her face, and he’s oddly reminded of the polluted waterfall downtown. Sinking into the chair at his bedside, she gives him a pleading look.
“Don’t apologize,” she says, soft and choked and full of all the things he doesn’t know how to feel. “It’s— I’d never blame you. You know that, right?”
He doesn’t, not really, but it’s a nice sentiment nonetheless.
The problem isn’t that he doesn’t believe her, and it’s not that he thinks she’s the kind of person who’d hold him responsible for the illness wracking his brain. It’s that he hears what she says, lets the words into his head, and somehow they end up twisted on their way to his mind, everything distorted by the field of self-destruction that surrounds him, warped to fit the thought patterns he’s stumbled into.
Eli doesn’t know how to explain that to his mother, though, so instead he shrugs and turns his head and pretends he’s trying to rest. The pillow is marbles cloaked in deceptive plastic, but he barely registers the discomfort. He hears her breathe deeply — once, twice, six times — before her hand falls to his leg and she leaves the room.
He swallows, eyes finding the walls again.
When Eli closes his eyes, he finds himself back there again, reliving the crash. His hands are on the steering wheel, his foot pressing the pedal to the floor, his lips quirked in a delighted grin. The walls aren’t white and angry anymore, but red brick and exhilarating as they fly quickly towards him. It’s not the hard mattress he feels beneath him, instead the dark leather of the driver’s seat and chaffed rubber of the car mat. There are no restraints keeping his arms locked down beside him, nothing holding him back from doing anything he wants.
When he closes his eyes, he’s invincible again.
It doesn’t matter that, realistically, he knows his body is breakable and his mind is a fragile thing. In the moment where his car is speeding towards a solid brick wall at eighty kilometers an hour, it feels like he’ll just ghost right through it unharmed. Even when the hood of the vehicle begins to crumple, slow motion kicking in as the airbag explodes to life, the conscious part of him thinks he’ll emerge unscathed. He’s indestructible.
His therapist calls them grandiose delusions, but Eli hates the label. They’re not delusions, not in the moment, and even when the moment passes they still feel like they must have been true at the time.
When Eli opens his eyes, everything has shifted and the world no longer makes sense. It’s easy when he’s invincible, when he’s racing towards a wall and thinking it won’t stop him, but it’s hard when the car has crashed and there’s blood on the windshield. It’s hard to lay here with his arms trapped so he doesn’t hurt himself, with a nurse who calls him ‘sweetie’ and looks at him as if he’s the stray dog she peeled off the pavement and gave a loving home. It’s hard when he’s back in reality, where his brain is normal enough to realize how crazy he actually is.
When he opens his eyes, he’s unstable and afraid.
It doesn’t matter that his mother runs her fingers through his hair and tells him how much she loves him. A part of him is so suddenly aware of his every defect that he couldn’t believe her if he wanted to.
He doesn’t want to, either, because another part of him can see the bags under her eyes and the cast on his arm and the guilt is a monster devouring his insides.
He hates the moments when he’s sane because they’re always the same, always like this. They’re always guilt for what he did when he was manic or loathing for what he didn’t when he was depressed, always crippling terror at his next episode of insanity.
Sometimes, in the deeper, darker seconds that no one else will ever witness, Eli kind of wishes he didn’t have any sane days at all.
They’re fighting, again. Eli sighs, wondering how thick they think cheap hospital walls are, and turns over to bury his head in the uncomfortable pillow. His mother’s voice rises a decibel to reach him, desperate and upset as his father murmurs gently at a lower frequency.
“We can’t help him,” he says, gravelly and guttural as always. The undertone of resolution is a stark contrast to the vocal tremor that accompanies the statement. “He needs help we can’t give.”
His mother sounds more shaken, less rational and composed but just as definitive. “No! We’re his parents, Daniel. We can’t just give up on him.”
Eli scoffs, rolling his eyes for no one else to see.
Words significantly softer this time, Eli can almost picture his father pulling his distraught wife closer. “We’re not,” he affirms. “We’re doing what’s best for him. Getting him the help he needs.”
A beat of silence. The door swings open, a nurse slipping through with a glass of water in hand. Eli meets her eyes a little guiltily, her expression making her opinion on eavesdropping pretty clear, but she doesn’t say anything as she sets the glass down beside him and leaves. He wonders briefly how he’s meant to drink it with his hands tied to the bedrails, but it’s an absent thought that vanishes the moment his mother’s voice fills the still air.
“Okay,” she concedes, shaky and sounding on the verge of tears. “Okay. Will you tell him? I don’t want to upset him any more than I already have.”
When Eli was fourteen, his mother told him they were going for ice cream. He wasn’t allowed to refuse the offer, dragged from bed with a persistence he’d never seen from her before.
She packed him in the car, made sure he had his seatbelt on, and pulled out of the driveway with a sunny smile on her face. He stared out the window listlessly for the entire ride, mumbling something incomprehensible when she asked which parlor he’d prefer.
She hadn’t lied — they did get ice cream — she just hadn’t told him the full truth.
Eli only learned this when they pulled up outside the family services center, his mother’s smile considerably less sunny as she shot him a nervous glance. He hadn’t said a word as she grabbed his hand and guided him into the building, throat locked with the anxiety building inside as his fearful eyes took in everything around them.
“I’m worried he’s depressed,” she told the counselor they sat down with twenty minutes later. “He isn’t sleeping and he’s always shut up in his room and— “
The counselor cut her off, his expression placating and eyes intrigued as they landed on the teenager at her side. “Thank you, but I think I’d like to hear from Eli first. Do you know why you’re here?”
Eli could feel himself freezing under the weight of the attention, the spotlight hot and blinding and sending his skin crawling. “My mom thinks I’m depressed,” he’d repeated monotonically. It was the only thing he’d said for the entire session and the four that followed.
Eventually, they’d handed his parents the pill bottle they’d been hoping for and sent them on their merry way. His mom had breathed a sigh of relief, watched him swallow two a day with a hopeful smile on her face, and kissed his hair every night before he fell asleep.
When the pills sent him careening into a manic episode and slammed him with a bipolar diagnosis for the rest of his life, she stopped smiling.
He can’t remember if she has since.
His father’s always been the calmer of Eli’s parents, his energy more of a quiet reassurance than the high-strung worry that accompanies his mother everywhere she goes. His entrance doesn’t make Eli want to close his eyes and pretend he’s asleep, nor does it send fiery demons with venomous talons clawing up his throat. His dad’s presence is the first comforting thing he’s encountered in this room.
“Hey, bud,” he greets, nearing the bed with the small half-smile he’d passed down to his son. He rests a hand on Eli’s leg, patting it briefly as he takes up the seat his wife vacated only hours before. “So, listen. Your mom and I have been talking and we think a change of scenery might do you some good. There’s a treatment facility a few hours away that looks good.”
He doesn’t say it slowly, doesn’t hesitate or draw it out like his mother would have. It’s short and sweet, ripping the band-aid off and treating Eli like the big kid he is. He doesn’t need the agonizing torture of pulling it off carefully, kisses to his hair and his tears wiped away as he’s babied into forgetting the pain.
He’s grateful for that much, at least.
“You think I’m crazy,” he replies, and it’s not a question. They do. He is.
His dad snorts. “Not anymore than the rest of us. Your crazy’s just a different brand, you know? The kind packed full of shit that’ll kill you.”
Eli almost smiles at the humour, but he doesn’t. Instead, he sighs and settles back against the pillows to stare up at the ceiling. It’s cracked and plastered over, wonky and the type of off-white that was originally painted a brighter shade, and he feels a ridiculous connection to it. It’s some representation of how messed up everything in his life has gotten, how cracked and off-kilter his mind has gone, how much plaster they’ve slapped over everything that’s awry.
It’s stupid. He’s crazy.
Swallowing hard, he closes his eyes and asks, “For how long?”
His dad’s hand finds his, grip firm and fingers calloused from long hours spent carving slabs of wood into elegant instruments. For a moment, he squeezes and doesn’t say anything, just holds his son’s hand and tries to convey how much he loves him through a single touch. It’s easier to believe this than it is to believe his mother’s empty promises.
“As long as you need.”
The moment of impact had been the most terrifying moment in Eli’s life. The hood had started to crumple, the airbag erupting from the steering wheel, and suddenly the flick had switched. It was so fast, so sudden; in one moment he was crashing, was going to be okay, and in the next he was being crushed into a brick wall sure he was going to die.
His head slammed forwards, whiplash cracking his neck with a vicious stab of pain, and the metal of the car collapsed in around him. He couldn’t feel his legs, feel his hands, feel his body at all. His vision was black for so long he thought he’d gone blind or died, before he realized that his eyes were closed. He couldn’t pry them open.
He was certain he was paralyzed and sitting there, waiting for someone to notice him was the most agonizing thing he’d ever done. It was worse than the crash itself, in a way, dragging on and on while an incapacitating fear climbed through him. It twisted his stomach before writhing through his intestines and tangling them together, rising to his heart and sending it into overdrive before latching onto his lungs and squeezing every ounce of air from them.
It was then, trapped in a metal death box awaiting either help or the end of his heartbeat, that Eli realized the horrifying extent of his illness. He understood his therapist’s cautious tone as she’d told his mother that it might be in his best interest to be hospitalized for a time. He got why his dad would watch him like a hawk in the kitchen, where the knives were near and everything was an easy way out. He understood why his mother shoved pill after pill down his throat and sobbed when he still climbed onto the roof with a wild grin and paradise in his sights.
Eyes shut and mind detached from his mangled body, he’d never known how important his sanity was until that moment.
He was going to be ephemeral if something didn’t change.
“Okay,” he complies, voice scratchy and rough as he opens his eyes. He shifts his head, meets his father’s gaze as his heart explodes into his throat and his vision swims with liquid fear. “Okay,” he repeats, and this time his voice cracks as he chokes and starts to cry.
His dad pushes away from the chair, eyes wide but relieved as he crawls half onto the bed beside him. He pulls Eli close, presses his face into his strong chest and holds him tightly in a way he hasn’t since Eli stopped letting people touch him. They rock back and forth on the hospital bed surrounded by infuriating white walls, supporting the weight of each other’s worlds as both come crumbling down.
It’s only then that Eli realizes his hands aren’t in restraints, that maybe they never were.
He doesn’t know. He wonders if he ever will.