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The Truth of Water

cw: psychosis, suicide/suicidal ideation, hospitalization

        I’ve gone insane. I don’t know what is real anymore. I think about prisoners of war using rocks to scratch the date into a limestone wall, tracking time with tally marks to try to stay sane. Jessica Willingham was here. 9 days, 20 hours, 35 minutes.

        I can’t help but wonder how things would be different if I had cancer. I can imagine the sudden stream of support from back home in rural Oklahoma—texts flooding my phone, friends bringing over food and hugging my mom’s neck, whispering, “We’re here for y’all.” There would be Facebook groups started in my name, called “Support Jessica” and “Fight for Jess.” T-shirts would be made, wristbands ordered and decorating the arms of acquaintances and strangers alike. BBQ fundraisers and fish fries would dot the county, big-bosomed women in capris and clunky flip-flops collecting $5 at a time, passing out paper plates and square napkins. Everyone would bow their heads, a local pastor asking God to heal my body and soul.

        Or maybe if I was a soldier. I’d disappear for my tour of duty while everyone back home prepared care packages and tied ribbons around trees. They’d talk about how brave I was for going to war and how much support I deserved when I returned. I’d do hard and terrible things in the name of my country, and everyone would call me a hero. 

        “Cory, what day is it?”

        “It’s Tuesday, June 20th,” he says. 

        I’ve lowered myself to the porch floor. I watch the clouds above swirl and change from blue to pink and wonder if every shift of the weather pattern is orchestrated by God.

        Helicopters whoop whoop whoop above my house, a common occurrence in a military town. Boeing AH-64 Apaches, feeding my delusion. Am I hallucinating? Are they watching? Do they know? I grip the steps where I sit. 

        “Cory, what day is it?”

        “It’s Tuesday, June 20th,” he says. 

        A black car drives by the house, slowly. Are they coming for me? I imagine POWs signaling to each other without the enemy knowing. Pretend Cory is your partner and together, you’re at war, I tell myself. It’s just play-pretend.

        War used to be my favorite game. My theater teacher would stand in the middle of an empty opera house and yell, “Okay, now you’re all at battle in World War II!” The room would erupt with kids scattering, hollering faux commands and scraping metal folding chairs across the floor to build make-believe trenches. I could hear the whizzing of bullets, the thundering bombs. I imagined my boots sucked into the mud as friends around me acted out their own deaths. Not me. I was going to survive the battle, so I grabbed my invisible helmet with one hand and pretended to radio for backup with the other. The teacher would call out another skit, and the class would switch in an instant. 

        Maybe this can be like that, I think. Play along until someone calls the scene. I take off my shoes and toss them out into the yard. I tell Cory I’m going to lay in the grass, arms and legs spread. This will be a sign. They’ll see me out here, whoever they are, and they’ll know I’m surrendering. I close my eyes, internally reciting a passage by Thomas Paine, one I had to deliver in the 9th grade:

        These are the times that try men's souls...

        Perhaps there is no God, and the military controls everything: the weather, the people, my life. Maybe they’re testing me. What do they want? Why now? I lay in the sunshine and listen to the breeze. The neighborhood is quiet with the heavy heat of summer, a squirrel rustling near the bottom of the cottonwood standing over our yard. Maybe he’s trained by the military, too, I think. No wonder we keep losing wars — we’re busy training squirrels just to mess with mentally ill twenty-somethings. A woman walks along the sidewalk across the street. 

        “Cory, what day is it?”

        “It’s Tuesday, June 20.”

        “Okay. Let’s go inside.”

        I’m restless, uncomfortable, like my insides are bursting apart. Maybe this is what labor feels like. Maybe I’m having a baby. I run a bath, as I remember laboring women do, and I crawl into the tub, begging Cory to come sit with me. He’s already sounded the alarm, and each of my best girlfriends begins to call me. I listen to them on speaker, laughing into the phone, but I won’t remember what we talk about. Take her to the ER, they beg him. Something is wrong. I think about the water, about pirates and mermaids and the poets and music makers. Maybe Cory was a pirate, and I was a siren, calling out to him until he drowned with me.

        “Cory, what day is it?”

        “Jess...It’s Tuesday.”

        “What’s the date?”

        “June 20th.”

        I leave the bath and sit at the kitchen table, naked. Blood runs down my legs, but I can’t figure out why.

        “Cory, what day is it?”

        “Jessica, you’re scaring me.”

        “Cory, tell me what day it is. Please.”

        “It’s Tuesday, June 20th.”

        I go to bed, burrowing into a white down comforter that, by the morning, will be stained with blood. I beg Cory to take the day off and stay home with me.

        “Are we getting on a plane tomorrow?”

        “No, Jess. I’m staying here with you. I’m not going anywhere.”

        I press play on the TV, Steven Spielberg's Hook filling the screen. I just have to fall asleep, and it will be over

        “Cory, what day is it?”

        “It’s Tuesday, June 20th. Babe, please try to go to sleep.”

        In the morning, Cory helps me dress for the ER—a crewneck hoodie, denim shorts, and plastic flip-flops. I take my rings and bracelets off and leave them, along with my phone, on our kitchen table. I think of POWs, or Jews boarding the train to Auschwitz, American journalists huddled in a cave, a beautiful celebrity being robbed of her jewels in Paris. Young men shuffling into maximum security, a coed being shoved into a car, leaving behind nothing but the squeak of a scream and the soft tink of a class ring on dark pavement. Keys, rings, phone — I know that leaving these items behind is a bad foretelling. They always make you take your jewelry off before they kill you. I may never come back here. 

        I sit and wait quietly while Cory checks me into the ER. I’m immediately separated from everyone, and finally feel my sanity fall away with my sense of safety. And like an avalanche, I heard the crack snap from somewhere deep inside, and felt an instant and miraculous, pummeling release. The brilliant, white-light force of what’s still alive, and been still too long. What won’t melt inside you will still find a way to move. That is the truth of water.

        A psychiatrist walks into my fluorescent-lit room, introducing himself as Michael. He pulls a chair up to the single twin bed and begins asking questions. “Do you think of harming yourself or others?” 

        This is a joke. A bit, a skit, a sketch, a prank, for the love of God, it cannot be happening to me. This must be an audition for a movie. I decide to give him the performance of my life. If I’m already committed, I might as well commit

        “You said your name is Stephen, right?”

        “No, my name is Michael.”

        “Are you sure? Because you look like a Stephen. Like a Steven Spielberg-type. Maybe you’re really a director and not a psychiatrist.”

        “Uh, I don’t think so.”

        “Stephen, Stephen,” I tut, walking in a lazy circle around his chair, grasping his shoulder.

        “It’s Michael,” he laughs, watching me. “Can you tell me how you’re feeling? Any confusion?”

        “Ah, yes, confusion,” I muse in a thick Southern belle accent, resisting the urge to roll my eyes. “Yes. Some things are coming up for me, Stephen. I mean, Michael.” 

        I jump up, hoisting my leg over the bed’s plastic headboard. I start answering his questions in various voices and characters — a distressed debutante, a pirate ship captain, a mental patient. I shove trash I found on the floor into my mouth: a piece of plastic, a cotton wad, and a bandage wrapper. I walk across the bed, doing my very best Kate-Hudson-does-Dustin-Hoffman in Spielberg's Hook.

        “Didn’t you say your name was Stephen?” I ask again, falling back down onto the mattress.

        I think he’s trying to remain professional, but the corners of his mouth tug toward the ceiling. He leans toward me. “You know Robin Williams was a genius, right?”

        I sit up to rest my elbows on my knees, meeting him face-to-face under the humming, sterile fluorescence. “You know he hung himself on a doorknob, right?”

JESSICA WILLINGHAM is a Lighthouse Writers Book Project graduate and editor at Five South. She is a staff reader at The Masters Review. Her work appears in Hell is Real: A Midwest Gothic Anthology, Roi Faineant, Still: The Journal, Superfroot, and Variant Lit, among others. She’s received two Best of the Net nominations. Jessica lives and writes in Oklahoma. You can find her work @jesswcreative and

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