Paper Magic

Psychiatric hospitals didn’t smell the same as the regular hospital, but it was close. There’s that cloying antiseptic smell that makes your eyes water, and the general smell that occurs when humans in various places of ability congregate. What was missing is intermittent bursts of fresh air from the windows to help blend the scents like bad eye shadow dispersed into beauty.

The nurse at the front desk tried to hide her staring as I curled up in the stiff plastic chair. Despite my fourteen-year-old mind nagging me to make some sort of comment and get her to stop, I clenched my jaw tight enough to make my teeth ache and pulled a paperback from my backpack.


“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

It was the twelfth day I had curled up in this waiting room.

The first day, a nurse, not the one at the desk today, but one I had seen eight times, asked what I was doing there. “Trying to gather my nerve,” I giggled out, voice thin and too too high pitched. That day was Return of the King, and I wished so fervently that their bravery could weave through the words into my heart.

My mother had left soon after my littlest brother was born, leaving us with her mother and our father, a man who had graduated high school with a constantly screaming toddler and the grace of God. We had seen her a few times over the years. She would try to settle down, marry another man, and then disappear again. My father and Nanny, my maternal-grandmother turned mother once again, tried their hardest to get along and get us through life safely, and to their talent, they succeeded.

But they were not great with technology, and I was a precocious fourteen year old asshole in the era of landlines. The words “assault”, “schizophrenia”, and “Vista” seemed to echo as I silently crouched next to the living room phone.

The copy of Dune was ratty, a nickle copy from Snooper’s Barn. We were poor, but a dollar would buy twenty books from the storekeeper, either with the covers stripped or the spines so creased you could no longer make out the lettering.

The bike ride from the school to the mental health facility was relatively short — definitely within the three-hour span of my Quiz Bowl team.

Icy fingers gripped my guts as I walked in the door though. So I hid in my books, keeping an eye on the time and trying to work up my nerve.

“I must not fear.”

Paul and his family make the journey to Arrakis.

“I must not fear.”

House Harkonnen attacks.

“I must not fear.”

Jessica becomes a Reverend Mother.

“I must not fear.”

I slammed the book into my backpack and threw it on, marching towards the front desk. If I stopped to think about it, the iron of my spine would rust and surely I’d break into pieces on the floor.

I must not fear.”

Hello ma’am. I’d like to visit my mother if that’s allowed, please.”