Authors: S. K. Falls
Tags: #contemporary fiction, #psychological fiction, #munchausen syndrome, #new adult contemporary, #new adult, #General Fiction
SECRET FOR A SONG
2013 by S.K. Falls. All
This book or
any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without
the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief
quotations in a book review.
For N. and M.
ate my first needle when I was seven.
think something like that would be preceded by a major emotional moment,
perhaps the slowing of time itself or some other heavy-handed bullshit. But no,
there was nothing. I just remember thinking it was much too quiet in our
seven-bedroom house. My mother was present—in a physical sense anyway—but I
hadn’t seen her since she’d put out my breakfast. I was out of school, it being
another glorious summer here in tiny, bucolic Ridgeland, New Hampshire. The oak
tree, bowed over the roof like a curling hand, tapped on my bedroom window.
opened my drawer, the one where I kept all the goodies I found—discarded
plastic gemstones, spent toy gun pellets, dried earthworms—that I thought, for
some unknowable kid reason, were worth saving. There lay the sewing needle, a
perfectly small, lethal sword. I wanted to be a sword swallower, like the ones
in the circus. I knew people came from all over the world to see them.
I put the thing in my mouth. It was cold, and the sharp point pricked my tongue
on the way down my throat. I imagined it seeking the softest spot of my stomach
to pierce. I imagined my stomach filling with blood, imagined it gushing out my
mouth and nose and ears, and then who wouldn’t be looking at me? Even my
would be forced to look.
I waited and waited, and nothing of the sort happened. I couldn’t feel the
needle anymore. I opened my mouth, knelt on the tufted stool before my painted
white vanity, and peered into the dark cavern of my throat. I didn’t see any
rips. Where the heck had the needle gone?
went searching for my mother, my (sadly un-bleeding) stomach twisted in knots
of excitement and dread. What would she say? What would she
away in the corner of the dining room, she was reading the newspaper with a cup
of tea at her elbow. She was East Indian on the surface and English at heart,
my mother. I don’t think she’d ever forgiven my dad for whisking her away to
the States when they married, though from what I understood, she’d gone
willingly enough. Her black hair was pulled back into a sleek ponytail—the kind
of thing that my mass of curls refused to be even back then. She didn’t even
look up when I slid into the chair beside her. I remember grabbing her sleeve
Saylor?” Yanking her arm away, she turned a page and kept reading.
swallowed something.” I wiggled in my seat. What if it came out of my butt when
I pooped? Would it hurt?
swallowed a needle.”
was a pause. I thought maybe she hadn’t heard me. But then her head turned, and
I saw her eyes: the deep brown coated with a mixture of fear and anger and
irritation. An actual
grabbed my shoulder. “You
? Why on earth would you do something like
shook my head, still astounded at the sheer weight of her hand on my skin, the
warmth of her breath on my face.
pushed her chair back and ran for the phone.
rest of that episode came back to me in waves every now and then. An image
here, an image there, scattered through the trails of my memory. I remembered
going to the hospital. I remembered them putting me in some scary machines,
looking at pictures of my stomach. I remembered Mum reading to me in the
waiting room, out of some kids’ magazine, her breath still sweet and metallic
from her tea.
remembered I never wanted it to end.
stood with my hands in my hoodie, looking down at the street below. New
Hampshire was pitching a hissy fit complete with sleet that refused to be rain,
the kind of weather that made people want to curl up inside with coffee and a
book. I, of course, was a different story.
did love this kind of weather, but not for the reasons most people did. I liked
it because the lines in the hospitals were usually small, as sick people
decided to risk taking their at-home medications another day. I liked it
because the doctors lingered longer in my room; the nurses were more likely to
make small talk. I liked the way rain sounded against Plexiglas windows.
double-parked, so hurry. We don’t want to be late.”
I nodded at Mum. I trailed my hands along the boxes the movers had arranged by
the door. My first apartment, and I was leaving it already. I’d honestly
planned to stay here more than six months.
supposed I should’ve seen this coming. My grades had taken a steady nosedive
since the beginning of the semester. The freedom had, quite literally, gone to
my head. The credit card my parents had given me, and probably never checked
before paying off, had been going to medical supplies more often than not.
they thought to check, they’d only have seen my charges at
the local pharmacy and assumed I was buying condoms or tampons.
were cheap and easy, and my condition baffled the doctors. I’d forgotten the
kind of high I got from seeing a new doctor—the one in my hometown was so used
to seeing me. That wide-eyed sense of honest to God wanting to help was so rare
to capture anymore.
they’d done blood tests. Of course the laxatives had showed up. I thought they
metabolized quicker than they actually did. It had been a mistake on the
website I’d used as my guide to getting sick; a website I definitely wouldn’t
be using anymore.
car purred as we crossed downtown, spraying parked vehicles and light poles
with muddy slush. The steady squeak and drag of the windshield wipers was
lulling. I inhaled deeply, breathing in Mum’s tea rose perfume.
it a left here?”
we parked, she got out and slammed the car door behind her. I tried to hold in
a smile. She was angry. She was
mannish college psychologist stood when we walked in, her hand outstretched,
stubby fingers waiting. Next to my mother, she looked ridiculous in her cheap
black pantsuit and gelled cropped hair.
Grayson, it’s nice to meet you. Have a seat.”
call me Sarita.” Mum grasped the collars of her cream-colored coat and pulled
them together at the base of her throat, as if she was trying to protect
herself from what was coming next.
sat next to her, positioning the toe of my boot so it was right next to her
shoe. I looked at our feet, side by side on the threadbare carpet. They were
the same size.
Dr. Milton looked down at the folder on her desk, shuffled a paper or two, and
then sat back. “Are you... aware of the nature of Saylor’s ailment?”
glanced at me. “I’m aware she’s been lying about her health again. She’s been
doing that since she was small, exaggerating how bad things are.”
and anger turned my blood to molten lava. Just the
she said it—as if
I was intrinsically broken or had come defective without a receipt.
unfortunately a bit more serious than that.” Dr. Milton cleared her throat like
she’d done the past couple of weeks every time she was uncomfortable. I wanted
to rip her folder into pieces and shove the pieces down her throat. “Saylor has
what’s called a fictitious disorder. That means she creates symptoms in order
to play the role of the sick person. But the thing that concerns me most, as a
mental health professional, is that she could put herself at some serious risk
if she’s not careful.” She paused, itching her chin. “As I said in my phone
call, the campus clinic found traces of laxatives still in her bloodstream,
which explained the seemingly untreatable upset stomach she reported. But
Saylor still denies her involvement in her disease. In addition, she’s doing
poorly in all of her classes, something that’s to be expected from someone with
such a chronic condition. I’m afraid it’s only going to progress and get more
serious until she accepts help.”
refused to look at me, but I saw the lines bracketing her mouth. The lines that
emphasized just how disgusting, how disturbed, she thought I was. “We’ve made
her a series of appointments with one of the best psychologists in her home
city.” She rose.
Milton stood too, speaking quicker when she saw we were about to leave. “While
that’s excellent, I’d really like to encourage you and Mr. Grayson to go to
these sessions too. Fictitious disorder is really a disorder of the family system,
you. We’ll look into it.”
strode out, me at Mum’s heels, breathing in her scent. Behind us, Dr. Milton
cleared her throat.
ex-new apartment was about an hour away from my parents’ house, the same one I’d
grown up in. When we pulled into our gated community, I felt that familiar
feeling of breathless excitement, sort of the way you feel before a ride at an
amusement park begins. It was how I’d always felt in my own skin, in my own life:
heady, giddy, as if I could fall at any minute and never get up again.
watched our giant two-story Southern-style house get closer, its siding more
gray than light blue under the spitting sky. As Mum pulled neatly into the
garage, I watched with my head tilted back against my seat. It looked like the
house was swallowing us whole.
turned the car off and we sat in the suffocating darkness, listening to the
as it cooled down. My eyes adjusted and I saw
Mum take a swig from the water bottle in her cup holder. The sound of her
swallowing was thunderous.
you miss your friends?” she asked after a moment. “We had to pull you from
school. What are you going to tell them?”
my forehead against the window, I laughed. The glass fogged up, obscuring my
reflection. “What friends?”
a pause, Mum got out and closed the car door behind her, a soft, final
followed her in the darkness, neither of us bothering to turn on the lights.
house still smelled the same, like glass cleaner and paint, even though I’d
been gone half a year.
had to do my freshman year at New Hampshire State as a commuter student. My
parents insisted on a trial run because, according to them, I wasn’t “reliable”:
the politically correct term for “batshit crazy.”
gone all of last year with only a few incidents because I’d wanted out that bad.
Even crazy chicks dig their independence. But once I got what I wanted—a place
of my own without a pink bedroom—I’d given in to the urge again. Why?
Attention, love, curiosity. Take your pick.
might think it’d be hard to disappear in a state the size of a freaking bread
crumb, but it’s not. It’s actually really easy to be overlooked.
you’re an only child you spend all your younger years worried that, when you
finally go out into the big, bad world, people won’t like you. You haven’t had
years and years to practice social cues with a sibling. You haven’t been honing
your manners or reactions or whatever the hell it is that keeps humans so
well-separated from the other animals on the totem pole.
a solid thing to worry about, really. But the problem is it never occurs to you
that there’s something even worse: that people may not even know you
You could be as substantial as smoke hovering in the air. People could walk
didn’t like being insubstantial.
took my wet boots off in the mudroom, discarded my coat on the hook. Meandering
through the kitchen, I walked to Mum’s craft nook. It was where she spent her
days since deciding four years ago that she wanted to take up dollhouse-making
as a hobby. She spent thousands of dollars a month on those little creepy
things. I saw the bill once.
the moment she was working on a bright yellow house with a tall, pointy roof
and white scalloped trim. It looked like she’d been laying wood plank flooring
inside. A tiny bottle of glue sat neatly capped on the table.
real mahogany,” she said, coming up behind me. “3/8-inch thick.” She stroked a
plank, caressing the wood grain as if it could feel.
I tapped on a window, traced a scalloped edge. “It looks like a kids’ gingerbread
face froze at the insult, and then she rearranged her features to exhibit
nonchalance. “I’m putting the kettle on. Would you like some tea? I can bring
some to your room.”
grinned and shook my head, pulling out a chair. “Nah. I think I’ll stay here
with you while you work. Is that all right?”
crossed into the kitchen without turning. “Of course,” she called. “But you’ve
got an appointment with your new psychologist in half an hour.”
was how we were: taunting each other, making snide comments, being passive
aggressive. But as long as my mother hurled those words at me, as long as she
provoked emotion—any emotion—within me, I felt like I was home. I felt like I
about twenty minutes, I knew it was time to go to my room and get dressed for
the meeting with the psychologist. Besides, I had something I needed to do. As
I made my way upstairs, my heart began to pound in my chest and my palms got
sweaty. I imagined that athletes probably felt the same way before a big game.
That burning anticipation, it was almost like a drug.
dumped my duffel bag on the pink-flowered bedspread and gave the drawers in my
nightstand and dresser a cursory look, but they were what I’d expected: empty.
I’d taken the best of my stuff with me to college anyway.
one eye on the door, I opened the side pocket of my duffel and slipped my
fingers into the “secret” pocket I’d created with my scissors. There it was,
nestled inside, my newest toy. Cupping the syringe in my hand, I walked into my
bathroom and closed the door with my foot.
slipped my hoodie off and stood in front of the mirror in a thin white t-shirt
and jeans. The yellow light from the sconces made me look sallow, maybe even
slightly jaundiced. There were dark shadows under my eyes but I rubbed them
with my fists anyway to make them a little redder. Appearances were important.
the plunger out of the syringe, I spat into the empty casing before replacing
the plunger. Once I’d tugged the neckline of my t-shirt out of the way, I
inserted the needle into a thin blue vein on my chest and pressed down on the
plunger. Heat and pain scorched my skin; I bit down on my lip to keep from
crying out. I set the syringe down on the bathroom counter and rubbed the spot
I’d just injected. It was red and a little swollen already.
the internet was my best friend. I’d just found out that the human mouth
contained more bacteria than the human rectum. Ergo, when you injected saliva
into your veins, it created abscesses. In direct contrast to the internet, my
biggest enemy was my body’s own immune system. It was a frustrating feeling to
expose yourself to the chicken pox or bronchitis and come away with only a
vague sense of a stuffy nose.
the internet solved most of those issues for me once I realized there were
people there just as sick as me. It was like a wonderland, but with information
on the most sick-making drugs, on which parts of your own body could be turned
on themselves. Seeing the worry on the doctors’ and nurses’ faces was a
glorious, religious experience. Sometimes I wondered what other people did with
put my hoodie back on and slipped the syringe into my pocket before opening the
bathroom door. “Yeah. Coming.”
was in my bedroom doorway, hovering like an unwanted insect. She never entered
my room when I was in it. “Time to—”
get shrunk. Yeah, I know.”
wasn’t the first time my parents had got me “help,” and it wouldn’t be the
last. The key was to go a few times, just to show them I was willing. It was
easier for them to look the other way and for me to continue to do what I wanted
to do if they thought they’d put in a reasonable amount of time to my
we got in the car, Mum turned on the radio to her special BBC station, a sign
that we weren’t going to engage in conversation. My first thought was: “Fuck that.”
I turned the dial so the posh guy’s voice muted. Mum glanced at me, her
threaded eyebrow arched above her Prada shades.
I ever going to be allowed to drive again?”
until you can prove you’re capable of acting like an adult, no.” She uncapped her
water, took a swig. It drove me crazy when she put on her “completely calm and
collected” face. I knew she did it only to make me feel like I was the most
insignificant worm to have ever crawled the earth. The worst part was that it
worked. I wished she could feel the rage that boiled through my bloodstream,
the rage that made me want to hurt her in any way I could, even if it meant
hurting myself. I wanted to grab the steering wheel from her and crash the car
into a mailbox just to see if she’d do anything besides raise her eyebrows.
settled for pinching the spot where I’d injected my saliva into my chest.