Home > The Eighth Girl

The Eighth Girl
Author: Maxine Mei-Fung Chung

Prologue

 


The Voices come and go. Like flu. Weather. Weekend shags. I’m unsure how long they’ve been here, or if they intend to stay. I want to say they’re friendly.

Alive to their company I scale the scene, first noticing the cars. Then the backup, close to a mile, crawling under my feet—snaking the strip—my eyes crimping from their blaring white lights. Families escaping the city’s hum, men heading home to their wives. Girls in studied dresses switching heels for flats as they drive across town, ripe for a big night out. Everyone going somewhere, doing something, meeting someone.

Not me, I tell myself.

Not me.

There is no small corner of the world I wish to claim and delight in. No one who knows the stir in my gut. The burn. All my mistakes frozen in the tight lock of my face.

I inch forward enough to feel a surge of adrenaline, part of me always knowing it would end this way: me, the Voices, balancing on the ledge at Jumpers Bridge.

I grip the railings behind me to steady my shake, urging myself to remember how I got here—why is there a key in my left hand? I, after all, am right-handed. Still, nothing unfolds, my mind turning blank like a page erased of its words.

How long have I been here, strangling the bars? White-knuckling as if on the ride of my life—a roller coaster, a ghost train—my bare arms pimpled with cold like the skin of poultry. An ache in the base of my back.

Losing time is never good. It’s an expression of the insane. An indicator of how close I am to completely losing my mind. Concentrate, I order myself. Focus.

The Voices clear their throats. A rise of phlegm foaming in my mouth, now spat down at migrating cars, a cool lick of wind guiding its direction. Like all good enforcers, they seem to engulf me tonight, pointing fingers of blame, their message both hateful and threatening.

 

I stare down at the ready dark—

Flash.

Dusk stealing me for a beat—

Flash.

 

And not unusually, an image of my father flares up in my mind.

He is sitting in the corner of my bedroom, his legs crossed in the high-backed wicker chair we bought from a car boot sale. When I open my eyes I notice he is wearing a black Crombie, a blue tie—the colors of bruises. His faint eyes and bristled chin payback from the night before. Floating from his left hand is a Hello Kitty balloon.

Flash.

“Happy birthday, my sweet Xiǎo Wáwa,” he whispers.

“Thank you, Baba,” I say, rubbing crusted sleep from my eyes. “I’m too grown-up to be your little doll anymore. But I am sweet. Sweet as kittens.”

Flash.

 

Not wishing him to be the last person I relive before letting go, I picture Ella instead. The two of us are sitting in her backyard wearing denim cutoffs and cotton halters, jelly shoes rubbing the soft balls of my feet. The smell of jasmine in the afternoon air. I move a pitcher of beer around the shaded table to avoid the glare of sun. A bowl of salted nuts lassoing our thirst.

Suddenly, Ella surprises me with a silver box, a matching silk bow—which I pull, very gently, its twin loops coming apart. Inside: a stunning pair of gemstone earrings.

“Green ones,” she says, “to match your eyes.”

The memory calms me, and for a second I favor climbing back to safety. My helplessness eased. But then a single tear escapes, acting as a reminder of what she did.

Nerves turned on, I look down again.

How could she? Cunt.

Numb, forlorn, grief drenching my empty body, I loosen my hands. The Voices whispering softly in my ear: Jump, you fucking crybaby.

 

 

1

Daniel Rosenstein

 


I walk toward my desk and gaze out the open window at the amber evening, August light spilling through a veil of drooping wisteria. I check tomorrow’s diary: Thursday 8 a.m.—Alexa Wú.

Normally I wouldn’t start so early; certainly not before nine, but I have bent rules to accommodate her. A minor allowance because she’s looking for full-time work, has several job interviews lined up, and also works nights—did I have availability early morning, because she could do any day of the week if it was early? This she spoke to my answering machine, her voice trembling at the edge. I’d wondered about this. Imagining it may have been difficult for her to ask for something—the possibility that it might be refused.

My receptionist returned her call the following day, saying I had space on Tuesdays and Thursdays. That maybe she would like to come in then? She agreed; they fixed a day and time; I added Alexa to my roster of patients.

Other psychiatrists might steer away from bending their daily routine, but I have learned such gestures go a long way in the encouraging and building of relationships, am convinced that those who experience some adjustment will eventually learn to compromise.

 

Outside, patients are fighting signs of fatigue. With tight yawns they shuffle about, heads limp, shoulders down—their last attempt at exercise before one of the nurses will escort them back inside the ward before supper. Earlier they appeared disorganized and manic; eyes darting, movements awkward. Handicapped as much by the medication they take as the neurosis that makes the medication necessary.

Gathering on the solid timber bench, four patients decide to rest, but reluctant to engage with one another, they stare at the huge oak and surrounding island of grass. Hands cupped in their laps as if waiting for loose change.

In the distance a flock of lively blackbirds have landed, unruffled, on the copper power lines and at once appear like musical notes. Their song is enchanting until they migrate to the blushing apple trees, their chorus now moved to the shelter of leaves.

I open the top drawer of my desk and pull out a packet of M&M’s, allowing myself six candied yellow peanuts with what remains of my coffee. This I take black with three sugars—a long-standing ritual that commenced shortly after I was appointed Glendown’s consulting psychiatrist eight years ago. I rest my mug on the ceramic coaster; on it: a circular hand-painted picture of Aesop’s fable “The Tortoise and the Hare”—a gift from a former patient. A bipolar chef who, from the tender age of eleven, fantasized about setting objects alight. On her thirteenth birthday she set fire to her mother’s entire wardrobe: the smoldering Chanel kindled to a pile of ashen confetti. I like to stare at the coaster, replaying the hare’s boastful behavior and foolish confidence in my mind. Moral of the story: Never sleep on the job. Especially when your pyromaniac patient has access to a lighter.

Some clinicians claim the eroticization of gift-giving is meaningful because of its connection to the libido; that often the gift represents love and affection that is not always verbalized in the room. Even Freud, in his overzealous theories, believed a child’s first interest in feces develops because he considers it a gift given up upon the mother’s insistence and through which he manifests his love for her. Further insights led Freud to discover this unconscious link between defecation and treasure hunting, but in this I have to wonder. Maybe sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, a gift just a gift. A poop just a poop.

Evening drawing in, my thoughts turn to supper. A sudden rise of hunger spurs me into the tidying of clinical notes, Post-it reminders, mail, and my letter opener—also a gift, from Lucas, a recovering alcoholic who every evening had a strict one-hour OCD ritual that involved elaborate checking for serial killers in the cutlery drawer. “Oh no, not the flat ones again,” I would tease. And Lucas would smile, rolling his eyes, acknowledging his need for control and obsessive compulsions before tapping the sole of his oxford lace-ups eleven times.

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