3:09 p.m. | JUNE 3RD
The little girl looked like someone had taken her to the butcher shop and ground her face into hamburger. One of her pigtails was crooked, making her scars appear even less symmetrical. She looked up at me from where she was coloring in a book on the coffee table. Her crayon broke.
“That’s quite a grip you’ve got there.” I crouched down and gazed into her dark brown eyes. “Could I color too?” She hesitated. “Please?”
When she pushed the box of crayons over, I gave her my electric smile.
“Ellie.” Mom’s voice had the professional tone she always used around prospective clients. “I’m so glad you’re volunteering in the clinic today because I’d like you to meet Katie.”
“Nice to meet you.” With a contented sigh, I plopped my butt on the floor right next to Katie, and the little girl giggled. I selected a brown crayon the same shade as her skin. “Maybe you could give me some pointers?” I inspected Katie’s depiction of a princess attacking a dragon. “You look like you know what you’re doing.”
Katie smiled at the compliment, but her parents didn’t notice. They both sat in wooden chairs in front of Mom and Dad’s double-wide desk on the other side of the room from where Katie and I colored. Katie’s father clutched a brochure with an iron grip. His wife stared at the wall of diplomas and medical degrees that dominated the room.
Mom smoothed her French twist. Her red hair was the same color as mine. “Ellie’s highly trained at counseling new patients and making them feel at home.”
“She’s the Narcosis Clinic’s version of a candy striper,” Dad added. “Aren’t you, sweetheart?”
“Yeah, except you never let me eat candy.” I pretended to scowl and leaned against Katie. “Does your dad let you eat sugar?” Katie froze at the contact. I rushed on. “My dad’s a dermatologist. That means a skin doctor. He thinks ice cream and candy are bad for my complexion.” I sat up straighter and did my best Dad impersonation. “‘Modern medical miracles are no substitute for proper nutrition.’”
My parents both chuckled, and then Katie’s parents laughed too—with the wheezing sound of people who had held their breath too long.
I chose a green crayon from the box. “You have no idea how many vegetables they make me eat.”
“I don’t have to eat vegetables,” Katie whispered. “I used to, before the raccoon, but now I can eat anything I want. Even ice cream for breakfast.”
The adults stopped laughing, eyes trained on Katie.
I turned my body to shield her from view. “Ice cream for breakfast sounds delicious.” I shaded in the tail of her dragon. “If you come here, you won’t need to worry about breakfast for three months.”
“That’s what they told me.” Katie set her crayon down, forehead furrowed. “But I still don’t understand.”
“Want me to show you?” I glanced up to Mom, seeking her approval.
“That would be excellent.” Mom leaned back in her chair. “Ellie can show Katie what a narcosis room looks like while we go over the paperwork.”
“Come on, Katie.” I held out my hand. “Let’s go.”
Katie’s tiny fingers sweated in my palm as I led her into the hall, through the locked doors, down the glass staircase, and into the heart of the public lobby. Since the Narcosis Clinic was only a few blocks from the Space Needle, we often got tourists who wandered over from the Seattle Center curious to take a peek at the medical facility famous for making dreams come true.
A seven-minute documentary played on repeat in the foyer. “Narcosis rooms have been around since the 1960s when Dr. William Sargant first used them in London to treat depressed housewives. Despite the dutiful attention of Nightingale nurses, Dr. Sargant’s early experiments in narcosis sometimes caused death and insanity. Thanks to the pioneering work of Doctors Belinda and Warren Savage, narcosis is now safe. If you struggle with any of a variety of health issues, the Narcosis Clinic can help. Patients wake up three months later thinner, happier, and with smoother skin. And they don’t remember a single painful surgery.” I’d heard the spiel so many times it was seared into my mind. “Sleep for three months and make your problems go away. At the Narcosis Clinic, dreams really do come true.”
“We don’t need to watch that,” I told Katie, hurrying her through the metal doors into the staged narcosis room that tourists viewed. “I’ve got something better to show you.” The scent of lavender greeted us, and light filtered in through clouded windows.
“It’s beautiful!” Katie skipped over to the brass bed piled high with silk cushions. When she turned to look at me, her maimed face gouged my heart. “Can I jump on the bed?”
“Of course you can; just let me move these sensors out of the way first.” I slid some tubing aside and made sure the machines housed in stainless steel boxes behind the bed were disconnected. It was real equipment even though it was just for show. “Go for it!”
Katie leaped into the center of the pillow-top mattress and vaulted herself like it was a trampoline. Squealing, she bounced up and down until the comforter tangled and all of the pillows fell onto the floor. When she finally collapsed in a heap of exhaustion, I pulled over one steel container with a small monitor sticking out the top.
“See this computer?” I flicked a switch on the side of the box and the monitor turned white. “It monitors patients while they sleep.” I pointed to a smaller box next to it that had headphones attached. “And that’s the computer for psychic-driving.”
Katie sat back up so she could see. “Like driving a car?”
“More like driving a brain. If a person comes in here feeling sad, my mom plays a psychic-driving tape that says, ‘I love my life. I am happy all the time.’ Or something like that. Then, when the patient wakes up, she’s all better.”
Katie wrinkled her scarred forehead. “What will the tape say for me?”
“I don’t know. What do you think it will say?”
Katie looked down at her hands. I hadn’t noticed before, but a chunk of flesh was missing from her left elbow. Mom could heal that too. In addition to being a psychiatrist, she was a plastic surgeon.
“Maybe the tapes would say something about the raccoon,” Katie whispered. “About how not all of them are bad and I don’t need to be afraid all the time.”
I swallowed hard. “Hold on a sec. Your pigtails are crooked.” I reached over and adjusted the offending hairdo. If only everything were so easy to fix. “Much better.” Katie’s smile made me glow inside. “Do you have nightmares?”
Katie nodded. “It’s hard to sleep. The other doctors said the only thing they could give me was medicine.”
“Well, those doctors don’t know everything. My parents are brilliant.”
“Really?” Katie looked up at me under a fringe of long eyelashes.
“I promise you and your beautiful eyes that you’ve come to the right place.”
Another smile burst across Katie’s face even as her brown eyes welled with tears. “Nobody says that word about me anymore.”
My eyes became wet too, especially after I kissed Katie on her hamburger cheek. “Don’t worry, Princess Katie. Three months from now, everyone will say that you’re beautiful.”
A couple of hours later, my parents and I were upstairs in our residence making an early dinner. “You’re remarkable,” Mom said to me as she stood at the kitchen counter grating carrots for a salad. She’d traded her heels for slippers and wore an apron that said “Surgeons know how to slice.” “You’re so poised and helpful. Every day you make your father and me proud.”
I flushed at the praise and took down some plates so that I could set the table.
“No, really.” Mom dumped the veggies into a bowl. “The way you handled that patient today was exceptional. By the time you brought Katie back into the room, she was begging her parents to sign the papers.”
“I can’t believe they were nervous in the first place.” Dad adjusted the burner, where he pan-fried salmon. “If Katie were my daughter, there’d be no way I’d let her live like that. Ninety days of treatment will fix everything.”
“Now, Warren, let’s not judge.” Mom rinsed lettuce over the sink. “Subjecting your child to elective surgery is scary.”
I shook out the placemats. “I don’t think reconstructing Katie’s face counts as elective.”
Dad nodded in agreement.
“And I hope they killed that raccoon.”
“Ellie!” Mom chided me.
“You can’t honestly hope the raccoon is still alive?” I set three plates on the kitchen table then sat in my usual chair.
“The only thing we can control is what happens inside the clinic.”
“Always the objective scientist.” Dad kissed Mom on the top of her head on his way to bringing the salmon to the table.
“I can’t help what I can’t help.” Mom took off her apron and hung it on her chair before sitting down. “So I don’t bother worrying about what’s beyond my control.” She picked up her napkin and placed it on her lap. “Speaking of which…”
I stared at my empty plate. “I’m not sure what I want to do.”
“We could still send you to camp this summer like you told your friends you’d be doing.” Dad broke off a piece of fillet and slid it on my dish before serving Mom and himself.
“Archery and canoeing sound like a blast,” I said sarcastically.
Dad shrugged. “Starting another round of narcosis is entirely your decision.”
“I’d psychic-drive all the AP prep directly into your head,” Mom said with a tempting tone. “Wouldn’t that make senior year easy? But there’s nothing wrong with studying the old-fashioned way too. We could send you to camp with flashcards instead.”
“The school bit would be a nice bonus, but that’s not the reason I would do narcosis.”
Dad set down his wine glass. “Your nightmares might go away with time.”
“I’ll find you a new therapist,” Mom offered, “to help you with your phobia.”
“But what about my lost memories?” I accidentally dropped my fork, and it clattered to the table. “How would I get those back?”
“Even with narcosis, there’s no guarantee,” said Mom. “Retrograde amnesia is hard to cure.”
“But you said if my brain can rest and feel safe for three months, there’s a good chance my memories will come back on their own.”
“Maybe.” Dad twisted his napkin. “We never should have sent you to boarding school. I wish I knew what happened that is making your brain forget.”
“At least I came back speaking French.”
“Not worth it.” Mom’s voice shook. “I’ll never forgive myself.
“Me either,” said Dad.
I hated when they beat themselves up like that. “Guys, it wasn’t your fault. Dad didn’t go wacko when he went to Remington Prep.”
“Don’t say that!” Mom slapped the table. “Not only is it politically incorrect, you’re doing great now. When your brain is ready to remember, it will. Another summer of narcosis might help you remember faster, but I can’t make any promises. That’s why this is your decision.” Mom took my hand in hers.
“Thanks, Mom.” I squeezed her hand. “I think I want to go for it, but I’ll let you know in the morning for sure.” I looked at Dad. “Okay?”
He reached for my other hand. “Absolutely.”
CHAPTER TWO: DEAN
3:09 p.m. | JUNE 3RD
I was bored brainless. I woke up in Boise, stopped for a mall appearance in Spokane, and was now inching toward Seattle. The tour bus smelled like armpit even though the backup dancers rode in the van. The bus was reserved for equipment, my stylist Maxine, my manager Gary, the bus driver, and me. Nobody climbed aboard unless they were trustworthy.
Not that Gary was loyal. If his 15 percent cut of my earnings wasn’t enough to keep him in toupees and Corvettes, he’d dump me. That’s why he’d followed me instead of Sam when the Heartacres had broken up. Sam last’s album had dropped like a turd, but I was in a new city every night selling out stadiums across America.
“Would you look at all those trees!” Maxine pressed her nose against the glass. Her hair was frosted pink this week, and she looked like an aged wood sprite. “Did you know they call Washington the Evergreen State?”
“Tho I’ve heard,” I lisped.
Maxine glanced up at me. Even sitting, my six-foot-two frame towered over her barely five foot one. I loved her like she was my grandma. Learning facts about each state we visited was one of Maxine’s favorite things about being on tour. She sent postcards to her grandkids from every town we stayed in. I taught her how to FaceTime them on her iPad too.
“I hope our hotel is by the Space Needle,” Maxine said. “I read that—”
My phone buzzed, interrupting Maxine’s latest bit of trivia. When I saw the notifications scroll across the screen, my heart dropped into my stomach.
Sam Anders and Pansy Williams elope. See pictures of their Vegas wedding.
What the heck were they doing getting married? Sure, Sam was twenty-one, but Pansy was the same age as me—nineteen. When we were together, she could barely commit to dinner reservations. Now she was all “’til death do us part”? Sam might have been in love, but Pansy was using him, just like she’d used me.
“Did you see the news?” Gary burst into our sitting area from the back of the bus.
“What news?” Maxine looked at me accusingly until I held out my phone so she could see. She slipped her rhinestone glasses onto her nose. “Oh. My. Gosh.”
Gary bounced on the balls of his feet like the bus floor was lava. “I can spin this to your advantage. If anyone asks, you’re focusing your angst into your solo career.”
“For sure,” I answered. Painting me as a lonely boy sold records. But the truth was, Pansy had done more than unleash a torrent of celebrity gossip. She’d shaken me up from the inside and done immeasurable damage. Case in point, my lisp had returned with a vengeance.
I’d met Pansy on the set of American Dance Party when I was sixteen. It had been love at first sight—at least for me. Sam had been there too, of course, flirting with every groupie he could. Six months later Pansy and I had still been going strong, until one day I’d boarded the tour bus and discovered her and Sam playing tongue hockey. Breaking up the Heartacres had been her ticket to fame. Now instead of Pansy begging for bit parts in movies of the week, Hollywood jumped at the chance to cast the girl who’d broken up the most popular boy band in decades. She’d left me with my heart ground to bits by the spike of her stiletto shoe.
“You know,” Gary said. “This could be perfect. It’s a ready-made excuse for why you’ll be out of the spotlight all summer. Instead of that bit about the ashram in India, we’ll say you’re holed up in Bermuda writing songs about being dumped.”
I tapped my foot to a melody stuck in my head called “Soul Crusher” that I was still in the process of composing.
“Oh, honey.” Maxine’s pencil-thin eyebrows knitted together. “That girl was no good for you. I knew it the first time I met her. How she kept that little yippy dog in her purse and let it crap all over the place. It wasn’t right.” Maxine patted my hand. “Why don’t you call your mama? You know she’d love to hear from you. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if she called you right now.”
As if on cue, my phone started ringing.
“No way.” I chuckled.
“See?” Maxine winked.
With a little wave to Max, I answered the phone and carefully walked to the rear of the tour bus. The blue curtains on each bunk bed swayed with the movement of traffic. I climbed into my berth just as Mom’s worried voice blasted my eardrums.
“I saw the news, honey. How are you holding up?” I could hear Mom’s concern all way from the big house in Toronto that I’d bought for her and my little sisters.
“I’m fine. And I told you not to call.”
“I wanted to hear the sound of your voice.”
“You heard it. I’m hanging up.” I swiped the screen closed and opened up my messages.
Much better, I texted.
This is ridiculous, replied Mom. Just take your time like you did when you were younger.
I’m not a kid anymore, I typed back. I need to handle my lisp my way.
By letting them cut you open?
Nobody’s cutting me open. I decided it was better not to tell her about the doctors removing those weird lumps on the bottom of my foot. I’ll listen to some tapes while I’m asleep for a few months. It’s called physic-driving.
I know what it is. I read People.
So why are you fighting this? You know it works!
But it doesn’t last, Mom texted.
It did for a year and a half, I answered. And this time the doctors hope it will be permanent.
Just tell the world the truth about who you are.
Put it in a song, Mom pressed. You never lisp while singing.
I’m turning off my phone. We’re done here.
Love you! Mom’s words flashed across the screen, and I waited longer than I probably should have before I replied.
Love you too.
Ten minutes later I was sitting in the styling chair as the bus lumbered past Walla Walla.
“About what Gary said,” Maxine began, waving her rat tail comb back and forth. “I don’t want you to let him bother you.” She pointed the comb at me. “You got lucky if you ask me.”
“I don’t think that’th what getting lucky meanth.”
Maxine harrumphed and grabbed my hair by the roots. I grimaced as she teased it into place. “High school romances never last.”
“I didn’t go to high thchool.”
“Don’t be smart.” Maxine teased my hair higher. “You know what I mean. You started dating that girl at sixteen and haven’t seen anyone else since she broke your heart.”
“Who am I going to date?”
“Anyone!” Maxine reached for some gel. “There are girls lined up outside of your hotel every night who’d be happy to spend time with you.”
I rolled my eyes. “You want me to have a meaningleth relationship?”
“I want you to have fun. I want you to enjoy being nineteen instead of being this mini-adult who takes care of everyone else.”
“I don’t take care of everyone. I bankroll them.”
“Same difference.” Maxine worked a dollop of gel through the back of my hair to achieve the fullness the audience expected. “Gary, the dancers, the tour company, me—we’re all living off of your talent. But what about you, Dean? Can you honestly say you’re living?”
I shrugged underneath the hairdressing apron.
“So mix it up,” Maxine coaxed. “Kiss a girl. Ride up to the top of the Space Needle. Go for a joyride. Be everything that you are: young, handsome, successful, and the kindest entertainer I’ve ever had the privilege of working with.”
First Mom and now Maxine. It was like they were tag-teaming me to tell me what to do.
Maxine whizzed the can of hairspray all around me in a cloud. Then she set it down with a definitive clink. “Be free, kiddo,” she told me. “You earned it.”
“No,” she insisted. “You deserve to start living right now.” Maxine set down the canister and spun the swivel chair so that I could face the mirror. Dean Mathews, pop star extraordinaire, stared back at me. And he looked miserable.
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