I See Me (Oracle 1): Chapter 1, part 2
For those of you who haven’t had a moment to read I See Me (Oracle 1) I started sharing a few chapters yesterday as a lead up to the release of the final book in the trilogy, I See Us (Oracle 3) on October 6, 2016.
Begin reading here: Chapter 1, Part 1
I See Me (Oracle 1)
Tyler gave me the peony tattoo as a birthday gift. He was cool like that, though he could easily get a hundred and sixty an hour for his tattoo work. I was pleased with the results. I’d drawn a section of the peony’s petals like they were pierced by the barbed wire, so it looked as if the flower was hanging over my shoulder blade by that precarious attachment alone. I could extrapolate that the placement reflected life, or could read something boring and tenuous into it like I was the black peony and the barbed wire was life, but that was hokey as hell. I wanted it to look that way, end of story. Though obviously I wouldn’t be flashing the new tattoo to my shrink or social worker.
And it wouldn’t be any of their business in a few more hours anyway.
Cue stupid grin plastered across my face. I was riding high on life today. Again, I wouldn’t be mentioning that to anyone who took notes in a thick file folder. Like, never.
I slipped out the back door of Get Inked into the alley to avoid the guy out front, though I hadn’t seen him there for over an hour. It wasn’t raining yet. The sky was still a light, overall cloud gray as I skirted the metal recycling and garbage bins. Alleys in Kitsilano were cleaner than any alley I’d ever seen east of here. Even the alley behind the Residence, where I’d lived for the last two years in the Downtown Eastside, had to be cleaned every day, and that block had been updated only a couple of years ago. Part of the revitalization of the parts of Vancouver that freaked the tourists out. Picking up garbage was one of the crappy lottery chores a resident could pull as part of their room and board at the Residence every month. I’d been there two years and only gotten stuck with it once, though.
Anyway, the buildings in this part of Kitsilano were a big mixture of old and new. The tattoo parlor occupied an older two-storey block of concrete, but it was freshly painted, clean concrete. Some trendy coffee shop, a florist, and an interior design place filled the brand spanking new multistorey building next door. I couldn’t believe the money people blew on things like that. Crap that they just consumed or threw out after a couple of years. Though I secretly lusted after the white orchids in the front window of the florist.
The brilliant snow-white blooms were as big as my hand. The plants were planted in pots that looked like they were made out of ash-gray concrete. Little smooth black and white rocks nestled among the moss on top. I hadn’t even bothered to check the prices. They probably cost as much as my tattoo would have if Tyler had charged me, and the blooms lasted like all of three weeks or something.
I had to take two buses from the tattoo parlor to get to my next appointment — the much-anticipated social worker appointment of my year — and I was going to be late now. But there was no way I was going to waste any money on a taxi. I had a plan for every cent in my pockets today.
I pulled my mittens out of my bag. I never went anywhere without my hand-painted satchel. I wore it slung across my chest, against my left hip, and filled with my art supplies. The mittens were hand knit in ivory-white cashmere and worn to hell. They’d been a gift from my last social worker three years ago. A gift given when she’d told me she was going on maternity leave and had to transfer my file … again. No biggie, really. I’d had so many social workers and caregivers — their term — that I didn’t bother to count anymore. They were all genuinely nice people who couldn’t do more for me than they already did. Guilt gift or not, the mittens rocked, especially because it was actually cold in Vancouver today. It got chilly this time of year when it wasn’t raining.
I crossed out of the alley onto West Broadway a couple of blocks away from Get Inked. I didn’t think the guy from out front was following me or anything. He was just annoyingly chatty.
And now he was standing next to the bus stop on the corner of Arbutus Street.
“Hey,” he called, lifting his paper coffee cup to greet me. Geez, either that was the same coffee he’d been drinking hours ago or the guy was seriously caffeinated.
I forced myself to continue walking toward him. Obnoxious guy or not, I really needed to catch the next 99 B-Line.
“I was just thinking about you,” he said. His accent was full-on American, though I didn’t know the difference between the States.
“Yeah?” Ignoring his cheesy attempt at a pick-up — if that was what was actually going on — I looked over my shoulder for the bus. I wasn’t religious, but I’d been having a good birthday so far and I’d pray for it to continue without this guy chatting me up to whatever God would have me.
“Rochelle, right?” he said. “I’m Hoyt, remember? You heading downtown?”
“Sure,” I answered, completely lying.
“Maybe we could grab that slice?”
“Nah, thanks. I’m not big on pizza.”
The 14 bus pulled to a stop in front of us, and the other bus stop occupants shuffled into line around Hoyt and me. I went along with the crowd, making a show of digging into my bag for my bus pass.
“Pasta then, or Mexican?” Hoyt was glancing around like he was worried about someone seeing him talking to me.
We shuffled along to the front door. Hoyt stepped up on the first stair and I took the opportunity to peel away from the line.
“Sorry,” I called as I jogged to the back of the bus. “I just remembered I’ve got somewhere to be.”
The 99 B-Line pulled up, and I cut to the front of the line that was forming for it so quickly no one really noticed.
“Cool,” Hoyt called after me. “I’ll catch up with you later.”
I didn’t answer. I flashed my pass and made my way to the back of the bus, pushing through the annoying people blocking the aisle.
I noticed that Hoyt hadn’t gotten on the 14. He was standing to the far side of the bus stop, texting. He looked up to scan the windows of the 99 as it pulled past him, and I turned my back. I really wasn’t interested in exchanging waves — again, if that was what was going on. What someone like Hoyt wanted with me, I had no idea. Nor was I interested in finding out.
My day was unfolding perfectly, as planned. And that never happened.
Even though it was one of those double-length accordion buses, I had to stand because the bus was crazy-full of school kids. Standing was cool. I preferred not to sit by anyone anyway, but the kids were annoying. Sure, they were only a couple of years younger than me, but still. School didn’t make them any less oblivious. Predictably, most of them got off one stop later at Granville Street, either to shop or transfer to downtown.
I still didn’t sit down. Honestly, I liked the way I had to counter the pull and push of the bus’s momentum. With my feet solidly planted, I hung, swaying from one arm. My right hand gripped the chrome bar overhead. I was actually left-hand dominant, but I never used my left hand for such menial tasks. I reserved it for art.
Vancouver — or at least this part of it — sped by outside the wide bus windows but I didn’t bother to look. I knew this street and these people more than I wanted to know it or them already. I knew every part of Vancouver that I could get to by bus or SkyTrain. I’d never been anywhere else. Not even on school trips, because I never bothered to track down whoever was currently my official guardian to get permission slips signed. I would just camp out in the school library and read and draw on the days my classes went anywhere.
I should have put on my earphones, but I didn’t. So when the hallucination struck, I had nothing to disguise my reaction. Listening to music was a good cover for involuntary spasms. I hadn’t had an incident in months, though, so I’d relaxed.
Six years of ‘incidents’ and you’d think I’d be smarter. I wasn’t.
I could still feel the sway of my body as the bus driver tapped on the brakes, as well as my hand gripping the overhead bar far too tightly now. The bones of my hand pressed painfully into the metal. But as the familiar headache rolled up over the back of my head from the top of my spine, I couldn’t see anything but white … endless rolling mists of white. The pain settled across my forehead. I tensed every single muscle in my body even while willing myself to relax … even as I silently begged my mind to let it go. Just let it be. Please.
A dark-haired man appeared out of the mist, obscuring my sight.
He was tall. Maybe slightly over six feet. Pale-skinned and wearing a dark suit but no tie. His short black hair was neatly parted and combed. I had no idea who he was, but that didn’t stop me from seeing him in my broken mind. I’d been seeing him like this for years now.
I squeezed my eyes shut, though I knew it would do nothing to stop the hallucination as it threatened to overwhelm me. The delusions were always threatening to break me, just as they’d broken me last fall.
The dark aura that radiated from the man was what had first inspired me to favor simple charcoal on paper for my artwork. Each time I offered a new sketch of him for sale in my online Etsy shop, it was purchased within the hour.
Other people wanted to be haunted by my imaginary friends so much that they willingly paid hundreds of dollars per sketch. My shrink would point that out as a silver-lining, but I’d prefer working at McDonald’s over delusions, any day.
Today, the man’s hair gleamed with the moonlit inky blackness that surrounded him. He was standing by a pile of stones, or maybe by a stone wall? He wasn’t ugly, nor did I think he was evil, but he was blackness. Could I call a figment of my imagination evil? He turned his head to look at someone I couldn’t yet see.
Oh, God. I didn’t want to see.
As he raised his hand to touch the crimson stone amulet he always wore concealed underneath his crisp dress shirts, I dug blindly through my bag, frantically searching for a pencil or a piece of loose charcoal.
I reminded myself of what the world actually looked like right now. Of the chrome bar I was still gripping … of the aisle in which I was standing … of the bag I was digging into with my left hand, which was a gift from another Etsy seller — an online friend — who repurposed it out of an old army duffle and painted it with black ivy reminiscent of my arm tattoo. While I was still attempting to not appear frantic, my edging-on-desperate digging through the bag caused the new tattoo on my shoulder to sting.
If I could just hang on to my surroundings … if I could just ground myself here on the bus, I wouldn’t end up screaming on the floor and being dragged to the psych ward … again.
It had taken me three days to get released into the care of my social worker and my shrink last time. The hallucinations had come and gone for that entire time. They’d continued for a couple of weeks after, actually. I had just gotten very good at hiding them. When I wasn’t blindsided as I had been just now.
A woman laughed. The sound of it came from the hallucination, not from the occupants of the bus. Thankfully, I knew the difference now after so many years. That helped me hide my illness from everyone else.
A chill spiraled up my spine to follow the path the headache had taken. Not because the laugh was terrible — it was actually quite musical — but because I knew who was laughing even before the hallucination expanded to reveal her golden curls and jade-green knife. The knife looked like something out of a fantasy movie, but the blond woman almost always wore T-shirts and jeans when she appeared in my delusions … except for last fall. Now that he’d seen her, the dark-suited man’s gaze was glued to the blond, but whether he was enraptured or enraged, I didn’t know.
I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to see.
I closed my hand around a piece of charcoal. I felt the grit of it against the skin of my frantic fingers. And that was just enough to help me focus.
The hallucination faded, leaving only a residue of blurry, blank spots in its wake.
I’d headed it off before it could expand in my mind, before it could completely overwhelm me.
I was shaking, clinging to the bar like the lifeline it was so that I wouldn’t collapse to the floor. So I didn’t show my weakness to the press of people around me. So they wouldn’t know how broken I was. How utterly broken.
I’d taken my pill that morning, but just the regular dose. I should have accounted for stress. I never actually felt stressed, as far as I understood the sensation. Not until a second before a hallucination seized me. But my shrink, who was actually a psychologist, kept telling me I had to learn to anticipate the life moments that were stressful to everyone else.
To regular people, she meant.
And anyone else would find aging out of the foster care system that had raised them their entire life stressful.
Well, anyone else without an unknown psychotic disorder. Anyone else who wasn’t on meds to keep them focused and calm.
The bus rolled to a stop. I swayed forward and then back, but my feet were grounded. I wasn’t going to fall. I wasn’t going to falter further.
I looked up to see I was at the Commercial Drive bus stop, which was the best transfer point for the 20 bus. I could barely see through the hazy pain of the migraine that would still try to pull me under if I let it.
Just one more bus.
I was halfway to beginning my life.
I was going to make it the rest of the way today.
I shoved through the press of the crowd trying to enter the bus and stumbled onto the sidewalk.
I wasn’t sure how many years I’d been seeing the dark-suited man — at least six — but the blond girl, who was only a few years older than me, was new. Well, newish. I’d been hallucinating her for a little over a year now.
Her hair glowed golden, just as the wicked knife in her hand sparkled green, but I’d never drawn her or him in color.
Real life didn’t look like that. Real life was rendered in tints and blurs of gray all around me. The streets, the buildings, and car after car were gray, gray, and gray.
I pulled my charcoal-covered hand out of my bag. I was still gripping the piece that had rescued me from the clutches of the hallucination. I also grabbed the medium-sized sketchbook that I carried with me everywhere. Still trying to get my bearings, I stumbled over to the low cement wall that backed the bus stop. I sat down. I needed to catch a bus up Victoria Drive to get to my social worker’s office, but I couldn’t manage that right now.
I flipped open the sketchbook to a blank page, ignoring the pages and pages of other drawings it contained. Ignoring buses as they came and went. Ignoring the people staring at me.
Using the charcoal-covered fingers of my left hand, I began to shape the hallucination.
If I could just steal a bit of it … if I could tie this stolen bit to the page, it wouldn’t haunt me. The sketch would free me from the grip of the delusion.
I didn’t know why that was — why sketching worked to calm me. It just always had. I’d drawn for weeks after the terrible bout last fall … weeks and weeks recording and discharging the hallucinations. Weeks of acknowledging them, tying them to paper, and walking away. This is why I sold my work. I released the hallucinations from the confines of my mind into the world through charcoal and paper.
I concentrated on the knife — a jade-colored knife that looked to be hewn out of actual stone — and the way the blond woman held it.
If I could just get the knife right, I could capture the hallucination in the sketchbook, then walk the rest of the way to my appointment.
The walk would give the headache time to abate. My social workers had always made me remove my tinted glasses inside, whether or not I complained about the fluorescent lights in their offices. My eyes were always weird after a hallucination — even paler than usual — which typically made my social workers launch into questions about drugs and other garbage. I didn’t need that any day, but especially not today. Today was my birthday. Today I would be free … well, as free as my mind would let me be.
If I could just render the shading of the blade’s edge perfectly.
Chapter 3, part 1 & 2 (Oct 1)
Chapter 3, part 2 & 3 (Oct 2)
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