Susan, a perky Remuda staff member picked us up at the airport. Dad swung both of my suitcases into the back of the van, then climbed into the back seat. Irritated, I sat in the front next to Susan. The thermometer on the dashboard said it was 65 degrees.
It’s the middle of February, I thought absently, at least it’s warmer here. I tried to eavesdrop as she and Dad made small talk on the short drive to The Ranch, but despite valiant efforts I kept dozing off. My chin dropped to my chest and my head lurched violently to the side when a bump in the road jolted me awake.
“I know she’s really excited about the horses. We had a couple at home,” Dad said.
“Well, she won’t be able to go down to the barn for at least the first week,” Susan had explained. “For the first week we restrict all exercise, including walking beyond the yard, just until we have a full medical evaluation and each patient proves compliance with all the rules.”
After we turned off the last road, the gravel drive to the main lodge seemed eternally long. No trees waved, no breeze, just a blinding sun leaning toward the western horizon. Dad unloaded my bags, but Susan took the handles of both as soon as he set them down.
“I’ll help her carry them inside,” she said. “We ask that the parents say goodbye outside instead of coming into the treatment center.”
“Why?” My hope that Dad would change his mind and take me home with him was slipping away.
“It’s easier actually,” Susan said. “When we get inside we need to start the admissions process right away, let the doctor see her, check Abby into her room and dinner is in less that two hours. It’s less emotional if you can say goodbye out here.”
Five wide, sandstone steps led toward the lodge. I took the first one and turned so that I was closer to eye level with Daddy. But I couldn’t look at him. Instead, I scanned the yard. It was mostly lava rock. I recalled Daddy saying once that he wouldn’t mind having a rock yard, less maintenance. One or two cacti looked as lonely, bleak and barren as I felt.
Fear rushed into my heart, overflowing its banks and pushing the anger aside. “Daddy, don’t leave me. Please, please don’t leave.”
My usually sympathetic father kissed my forehead, drew me into his chest, whispered, “I love you,” and walked away. I watched him fold his long frame back into the van where another staff member waited to drive him to Holiday Inn for the night before he caught a 9 a.m. flight back to Oklahoma tomorrow.
“Come on, Sweetheart.” Business taken care of, a motherly side of Susan emerged. “Chad will come get your bags, let’s take you inside and get you settled in.”
Comatose, I followed her.
An eternity passed in those twenty feet to the double wooden doors that opened into the lodge. We stepped into a long, rustically decorated hallway. Along the right wall, a full length entry table held stacks of mail, each pile with a different girl’s name on it. At the far end, the entryway T’d below a waist-high window. Black, wood-burned letters above the window designated it as the nurse’s station.
A small figure leaned into the window from the outside.
“Hey! Come on it’s time for evening meds! Dani, I didn’t get my Citrucel at lunch.”
The little one had a big voice for someone so small. Lavender sweats hung from her shoulders, pooled at her ankles. I thought perhaps she was five years old. But this was an adolescent unit. No one under 12 was admitted. With a huff, the child turned around and leaned back against the window, arms crossed.
“Oh, hi!” Her friendly tone was a full octave higher than her demanding one. Chestnut colored hair swung scraggly around her face, less than half of it remaining dutifully in her ponytail.
“I’m Alicia. Are you new here?”
She moved toward me and only then did I notice the five foot metal pole that she clutched like an oversized staff in her right hand. Dangling 10 inches above her head was a large plastic bag with a tube, like an IV. It was filled with a clear fluid. The tube snaking down the pole was taped to her cheek just below her nose, then turned sharply upward and disappeared into her right nostril. I’d been threatened about feeding tubes.
Alicia rolled the rest of the way toward me and addressed Susan.
“Where are the nurses? I want my Citrucel or I’m not eating dinner. I haven’t crapped in two days.”
“I’m sure Dani will be there soon,” Susan promised. “You’re still 30 minutes too early.”
“Whatever.” Alicia turned to me. “Hi again.” She smiled a cherub smile, like the kind my youngest sister, Rachelle, gives. They light up a room and tell you that you’re the only person that matters in the whole wide world.
I wondered how on earth she could seem so instantly genuine to me, a stranger. The new girl. For a year now, I had been given sideways glances by those who first met me. A walking skeleton, everyone gawked as if I was a piece of angular modern art. Oh God, don’t let me get a feeding tube.