Imagining Happy


One week until my appointment with Dr. Shaw and I keep seeing glimpses of blue, the sort of blue that sits at the heart of a fire, so hot and bright it hurts to look at. I should tell. I should confess my pills aren't working anymore. I won't. I want to see Jonah too much.

"Rachel! Don't forget your pills." My mom's voice whips down the hall, catching me at the door. I want to ignore her and bolt outside. But it's too easy to picture my mom chasing after me, yelling about my pills in front of everyone at the bus stop. There are enough whispers at school already.

"Got them." I snag the tiny brown bottle from the corner of the entry table. She keeps the bottle well stocked, plus another in the kitchen and one in my bathroom as well. Wouldn't want to miss my daily doping. I pop the top with a quick twist, dump out two pills, then swallow them dry. Taking pills with water is for pussies.

In the entry mirror, a flash of blue darts past my shoulder and I squeeze the bottle tighter. For a moment, I see Jonah's face, the gap between his front teeth as he smiles. I want to say his name but Mom might hear so I swallow the sound instead. His name tastes dry and bitter, sticking in my throat like the pills never do. The pills slide down as if they're nothing, as if they're making me into nothing.

"Have fun at school," Mom calls. I hear the familiar snick, snick as she flicks the catches open on her briefcase and the rustle of her case files being shoved inside. She has a court date today, prosecuting some third-offense drug dealer. The irony of it kills me. She shoves pills on me every day and gets away with it. Of course, mine are prescribed.

I pull the door open and dash outside. The air feels clean and sweet, wrapping around me like Jonah's arms. Maybe this time he'll be stronger than the pills. Maybe a week is enough for those glimpses of blue to become something more.


I was ten when my mom decided having an imaginary friend wasn't cute anymore. She found me a psychiatrist, a diagnosis and a 'cure.' According Dr. Shaw, I have type three delusional psychosis. I can't distinguish reality from imagination.

It took six months to find the perfect drug cocktail to short circuit Jonah out of my life.

My first memory is of sitting on the playground making sandcastles with Jonah. He's scattered across every memory of my childhood. Dr. Shaw erased him from my life and turned me into a shadow girl.

A year ago, when I was fifteen, I stopped taking my medication. Jonah flickered in and out for two weeks before he finally came back. My Jonah. So different from the boy I'd been forced to let go.

As a child, Jonah was skinny and tall, his Popsicle blue hair wildly curly, a dusting of blue fur on his hands, feet and chest. Little horns curled like perfect snail shells above each ear.

When he came back, Jonah's shoulders were wide and muscled. He was a head taller than me, but still with that same wild hair. His horns curved down to the bottom of his jaw, white streaked with bands of heather gray. Golden eyes, brighter than when we were children. He was beautiful.

I didn't know what to say, tongue-tied. But Jonah laughed and pulled me into a hug and then it wasn't awkward anymore. We talked and talked. I felt like I hadn't spoken in years.

I had two weeks with Jonah. Dr. Shaw knew I was off my meds the moment she saw me. Maybe I looked too happy.

She had me committed to the psychiatric ward at Country General for a month. The nurses shoved an IV in my arm and this time there were no pills to skip. No way to stop them from stealing Jonah. I still have nightmares about that room. White. Sterile. Reeking of industrial cleaner and the acid taint of vomit.

I can't face that room again. I am a good little lab rat, I always take my pills. And I always miss Jonah.


Four days until my appointment. At lunchtime, I dutifully swallow two pills in the nurse's office before heading to the cafeteria. I slouch through the lunch line, pointing at limp french fries, an apple and something that resembles meatloaf. A flash of blue in the side of the polished metal cash register makes me whip my head around.

Carly Benson has a sparkly blue headband perched on her perfect dark curls.

"What are you looking at?" Carly snaps, pretty pink lips drawn into a sneer.

I duck my head, turning away. "Nothing, sorry."

Where are you, Jonah?

"Freak," Carly mutters. She bumps my arm as she passes, knocking my french fries into the mystery meat. A few feet away, her friends, all three perky blondes with bland cookie cutter faces, snicker. Lunchtime as usual.

I head for outcast central, a table close to the outside doors and, more significantly, the overflowing trashcans. The usual rejects are already present: pizza-face Marie, Alice the amazing 300-pound-girl, tiny little Grace-Lynn who barely speaks English and Mallory, who's so severely autistic, I don't think she's ever spoken.

Marie smiles and scoots over. "Carly is such a bitch."

I sit, snatching up my apple and taking a bite. One day, Marie's acne may clear up and then she'll be over there with the other girls laughing at us. I can see it in her too-bright eyes.

"She might not," a familiar voice whispers in my ear. I drop the apple and swing around. No one's there.

"Is something wrong?" Marie asks.

"I'm fine." To hell with lunch. I leave the table and dump my food on top of the trash pile. My backpack smacks me in the butt, I'm moving so quickly. Outside it's cold and loud and there are kids everywhere enjoying the clear fall day. Another flash of blue, but I don't turn to look this time. I don't want to find out it's Carly's headband again.

In the parking lot things are quieter, a sea of multi-colored cars dropped like confetti on the grey concrete. Breathless from rushing, I crouch beside a battered old Buick, pressing my back against the side door and sliding to sit on the ground.

I shut my eyes and whisper, "Jonah?"

There's no answer.


That night, over a plate of mushy mac & cheese, Mom begins the awkward tap-dance of our nightly dinner conversation. "How was your day?"

"Fine." I shove a bite into my mouth so I won't have to say anything else.

Mom sighs and rests her elbows on the table. "Did you hang out with anyone? Make a friend like Dr. Shaw suggested in your last session? I'd be happy to give you some space if you want to invite anyone over. I won't hover."

She looks so earnest and concerned. The cheesy noodles stick in my throat, but I choke them down. "I'm good, Mom. You don't need to worry about it."

Another sigh.

"A girl your age should be on the phone constantly, hanging out at the mall, driving me nuts by mooning over boys and giggling with your friends."

"The mall sucks, I'm too old for giggling, and all the boys at school are assholes."

"Language!" Mom glares before continuing the interrogation. "There must be someone you talk with."

I hold in a scream. There is someone, I want to yell at her, you drown him in a bottle of pills every day. But I don't say the words. See? I'm not crazy. I know when to shut up. "I talk with Marie Gordotello, okay. We're not like besties or anything but I guess she's a friend." Technically Marie did talk to me today.

Mom's face lights up brighter than a Las Vegas marquee. "That's wonderful, Rachel! Do you guys want to have a sleepover?"

"I'm seventeen, not five, Mom." I shove the plate away, unable to choke down any more. This whole conversation is barf-worthy.

"I just thought," Mom begins.

I shut her down before she can get any further. "I've got a ton of homework."

Mom's still sputtering when I dump my plate in the sink, snatch my backpack and dash upstairs. My bedroom door feels solid and comforting, a physical barrier between me and the Spanish Inquisition waiting downstairs.

Sometimes my mom is pathetically transparent. I bet she lies awake at night wishing she had a normal kid.


Three days until my appointment. I dream of Jonah. We're laying side by side on the riverbank, bellies pressed into the damp sand. I can see our reflections like dark ghosts in the water. The two images blur and blend together, then break apart. I plunge my hands into the freezing river, trying to hold the reflections together. The water just trickles between my fingers. When I look to my left Jonah is gone and I'm alone.


Two days. I haven't had a single glimpse of blue since Monday. Blue is the only color that matters anymore.

I'm sitting in Algebra, lost in a problem set when Jonah returns. One moment it's just me and the pencil scratching on my paper. The next, Jonah is sitting at the empty desk beside me. He taps my paper with one long-fingered hand.

I jump and drop my pencil, rearing back in my seat. My paper flutters to the ground.

"Are you okay, Miss Baker?" Mr. Thorpe's voice from the front of the room drags my eyes away from Jonah.

"I-I'm fine. Sorry," I rasp.

Behind me, Carly Bensen sniggers and whispers, "Schizo."

I grab my pencil and paper from the floor, peeking at the seat beside me as I do. Jonah is still there, grinning at me. He gives a tiny wave, wiggling his fingers. It's impossible not to stare at him. He's so solid, so real. I glance around, but no one else is looking at the blue-haired boy. He fills the room. Why can't they see him? Jonah raises a finger to his lips and shakes his head at me.

I can't think. I can't breathe. I jump to my feet, knocking my chair into Carly's desk. She gives a muffled shriek, but I don't turn. I can't stop looking at Jonah. "I think I'm going to be sick," I say, fumbling for my backpack, grabbing up my books. I bolt for the door, almost running Mr. Thorpe over.

"Miss Baker! You need a pass to be in the hall!" His annoyed words chase after me.

The girls' bathroom reeks of hairspray, perfume, and the fake pine scent of floor cleaner. It's a toxic waste dump of bad smells this late in the afternoon, but where else can I go? Not to the nurse. I don't want my mom getting a call about this. I go into the handicap stall, the only one with a working lock, and shut myself in. The metal wall is cold against my back.

Why did I run? I've been waiting for Jonah so long. But I don't know what to say or do. Why did he have to appear in the middle of class?

There's a soft knock on the stall door. I freeze, holding my breath.

"Rachel?" Jonah says.

My breath whooshes out and I slowly open the door. Jonah looks sad and upset and all of a sudden it's too much. Tears pour down my cheeks and Jonah reaches out and pulls me against his chest. He is warm and solid and real in a way that no one else is. I can't catch my breath I'm sobbing so hard.

Jonah pats my back. "Shhhhh, it's okay. I'm here now. I'm here." His voice is low and rough.

"I missed you every day," I whisper into his neck.

"How long have I been gone?"

"A year," I whisper. "It's been over a year."

Jonah's shoulder tenses under my cheek and his arms tighten. It feels good. Maybe if he squeezes me hard enough, we'll merge into one person and I won't be alone anymore.

"I'm here now," Jonah says. "Don't cry. Don't cry."

I pull back a few inches and all I can see is his wild blue hair. I can't help giggling, though it sounds soggy and thin. Jonah smiles.

"All this time and the first thing you do is laugh at me?"

"You came back."

Jonah strokes a hand over my hair. "As soon as I could."

"I'm sorry!" The words tumble out, pressed into the crook of his neck. I'm crying again. "I had to take the pills. I can't go back to that ward, Jonah. You don't know what it's like. People scream for hours in the middle of the night, or they sit crying. And everyone you talk to, everyone, treats you like a child. Those stupid nurses, the stream of asshole doctors. Every single one pitying me and laughing on the inside. I'm not crazy!"

"Shhhhh," Jonah soothes, rubbing my back. "Of course you're not crazy."

It's a long time before I can say anything. "How?" I whisper finally.

Jonah doesn't have to ask what I mean, he just knows. He shrugs. "I don't know. For the longest time it's been nothing but black. I searched for you, calling. Sometimes I could hear your voice - like you were on the other side of a door. But then, I started getting little glimpses, like lightning flashes, one moment nothing and then your face. You've been so sad, Rachel. It was awful seeing you and not being able to say anything."

The bell rings, signaling the end of class and I jump, taking a step back. Jonah lets me go with a quick squeeze. I mop my hands across my eyes, trying to hide the fact that I've been crying. In a minute, this bathroom will be filled with girls checking their hair and makeup, trying to look perfect before meeting their boyfriends after school.

"Come on," I say, motioning Jonah to follow me and we dive into the mass of students eddying through the halls.

I stop at my locker to pick up the rest of my books, cramming them into my backpack, and head for the bus. It's a long way home. I can't talk to Jonah during the trip in case someone sees and it gets back to my mom or Dr. Shaw. It gives me time to think.

I can't go through another year like this one. I'm so tired of the pills and the way they make the world feel like a computer screen with the brightness set too low. I want more than a handful of days with Jonah. But I don't know how to keep Dr. Shaw from switching my medication, from stealing Jonah away again. I have two days to figure it out.


At dinner that night, Mom's stilted comments flow over my head. Jonah sits cross-legged on the floor beside my chair and I steal little glances at him. He pokes a cautious finger into my lumpy Salisbury steak. It's hard not to laugh.

"Are you listening, Rachel?" Mom raises her voice and my head snaps up.

"What?"

"I asked if you had lunch with your friend today?" Mom sounds impatient and I get the impression she's asked a couple times already.

I stare at her for a long moment, little bubbles of panic kicking my heartbeat into overdrive. How does she know Jonah's back? But then, her tone of voice registers, not angry and ashamed but hopeful. Who the hell is she talking about?

"Mary, wasn't it?" Mom prompts.

The pieces click together and I smile, relieved. "You mean Marie. Yeah, we sat together at lunch." Technically true, we did occupy the same table.

"What did you guys talk about?" Mom rests her elbows on the table, giving me her full attention, as if this is the most important part of her day. I know my mom loves me. But I also know that I'll always be a disappointment. I'm not normal. I glance at Jonah again. I don't want to be normal.

"This and that." I wave a hand as if shooing away the topic. "How was your day?" It's a masterful redirection.

Mom doesn't bite. "It was fine. I am so glad you're making friends, Rachel. Make sure you tell Dr. Shaw about Marie at your appointment tomorrow."

I drop my fork and it clatters on the table. No. I have two days. I need those days. "The appointment's Friday."

Jonah gets up and rests a hand on my shoulder. "It'll be okay," he whispers.

But I know he's wrong.

Mom glances at the calendar and frowns. "I thought I told you, Dr. Shaw is going to a conference Friday. She asked if we could reschedule for tomorrow. I updated the calendar."

I think I'm going to be sick. The air feels strangled in my chest and all I can do is stare at Jonah.

"Honey, what's wrong?" Mom says. "It's just one day. I didn't think it'd be a big deal."

"Breathe," Jonah orders me, squatting down so I don't have to look up at him. "You have to act normal or she's going to figure it out and haul you to Dr. Shaw tonight."

He's right. I squeeze my hands into fists under the table and force in a breath. My heart is racing. "Can we reschedule for next week?" I ask. My voice is too high. I try again. "I have an algebra test I've been studying for."

Mom smiles, reaching out to pat my shoulder. "No need to worry, your appointment isn't until 4:30 so you won't miss school at all."

I'm out of excuses.

Jonah grabs my hands under the table and holds them tight. "You've got to keep it together. Tell her the change is fine and then head for your room."

My chair scrapes loudly on the tiles as I get up. "Four thirty is good." Mom is looking at me funny and I try my best to smile. "I'm really tired, and I've still got some homework to finish."

I turn to leave but Mom's hand on my arm stops me and I look over my shoulder at her.

"I love you, baby." She hasn't called me baby since I was five. It makes my chest hurt even more, but for different reasons.

"I love you too, Mom."

My eyes meet Jonah's over her shoulder and we both know there's only one thing I can do. When Mom wakes up in the morning, I'll be gone.


Jonah helps me pack a small bag. It doesn't take very long. The last thing I add is a picture of Mom and me from last Christmas. My eyes look dead in the photo but Mom beams at the camera; she's got one arm wrapped around my shoulder, holding me close. I wish I could make her understand. I wish I didn't have to choose between my mom and Jonah.

Jonah sits beside me and traces slow, soothing circles on my back as I continue to stare at the picture. "You okay?"

I nod and wipe away the tears gathering at the corners of my eyes. "Yeah. I know it's nuts, but I'm gonna miss her."

"We don't have to go," Jonah says.

I ignore the obvious lie. "Where do you go when you're not with me?" I'm still looking at the picture and Jonah's hand stops rubbing my back.

"I wander. I sit outside cafes and watch the people go by. The world is so large and so beautiful. Before," he hesitates, but then continues, "when you were taking the pills and I couldn't see you - then it was just black. But normally, I have the whole world."

I smile at him. "So you're really an adventurer and I'm a distraction along the way?"

He laughs, low and husky. It makes me shiver and lean closer, resting my head on his shoulder. Jonah wraps his arms around me. "More like a traveler," he continues. "And you're my compass, always pointing the way home. I always come back to you."

"I'm not sure that analogy works."

"Fine, you're my ... my north star. Something I'm always reaching for."

"That's a bit sad. You can reach for the stars but you'll never touch them and I am 100% okay with being touched." I snuggle closer and Jonah rests his chin on the top of my head. I can feel the laugh vibrating in his chest.

"As nothing seems to please you, let's just say that I love you and I'll always come back to you. No matter what."

My restless fingers stop drumming the side of my leg and I twist in his arms to look up at him. I want to tell him I love him, tell him how hard this year has been, but he knows all of that. So I tilt my head and Jonah kisses me. It's the sweetest kiss, hungry and wanting and endless.


I leave a note for my mom on the kitchen table, beside her favorite coffee cup. There are a million regrets folded into that note, a million wishes. Maybe in two years, after I'm eighteen, I'll come back and see her. I'd like that.

 
Dear Mom,

When I was little, you told me fairy tales about a princess who fell in love with a monster who turned into a prince. You read me books about a girl who walked through a looking glass into another world. I never understood how you could believe in fairy tales and looking glasses but not believe in me.

So here's my secret, Jonah is back and I am happy, Mom. I am so, so happy. I love him. I've always loved him and I'm tired of pretending that he doesn't exist. I'm tired of taking pills that make me feel like my brain is stuffed with cotton balls and someone has poured cement into my bones. I'm tired of trying to be someone I can't.

In science class this year we learned about Quantum Physics. It's this whole branch of theories based on the existence of tiny little particles, smaller than an atom, called Quanta. They're so small no one has ever seen them. Scientists know they exist because without Quanta a lot of other things don't make sense. If there's room in this world for Quanta, why can't there be room for Jonah as well? This world is filled with beautiful, crazy things that don't make any sense. And we can't see all of them. Jonah is like that.

He makes me happy and shouldn't that be enough? Don't all parents want their kids to be happy? If you love me, if you really truly love me, then please try to understand why Jonah has to be a part of my life. I'll send you a postcard sometimes, so you know I'm okay, but I won't be coming back for a while. I'm sorry.

Love,

Rachel


In the end, it's surprisingly easy to leave. I slip my backpack on, grab the duffle bag filled with clothes, and Jonah and I tiptoe downstairs. I pause in the kitchen, grab a pen and scratch out the appointment with Dr. Shaw on the calendar.

The bus station is two miles away and I shiver in the cold morning air when we step outside. The chill makes me think of Florida - warm and sunny. The home of Mickey Mouse and Shamu and endless beaches. It's as good a place to lose myself as any. "How do you feel about talking mice?" I ask Jonah, slipping my free hand into his.

He squeezes my fingers and smiles. "A bit creepy, but I can learn to live with them if you can."

Together we start walking toward the bus station. Jonah's hand is warm on mine and there's a whole future stretching out ahead of us. Even if this is imagined happiness, it feels as real as the sidewalk beneath my feet.