"Here to see Alley again?" The old woman perched behind the reception desk asks me. I nod, and she types something in her computer. "Someone will be here to take you to her room in a moment," she tells me. I sit down in one of the plush cushions. Sorrow blossoms in my chest as I remember our last meeting the day before. How she wouldn't respond except to nod and shake her head.
"Jason?" I look up to see one of the clinic nurses gesturing towards me. "Jason, she's ready to see you now."
As I walk down the hall, I hear the panicked scream of another patient. One who may have lost her mind to the same degree as my Alley. Or maybe this one was only halfway there. I debated in my head what I would prefer if I could choose. Would I rather have the dead look I see in my best friend's eyes every day, or would I choose to see her scream at the unnamed horrors as they etch themselves in her vision.
We pass through the hallways, and as usual I wish I was anywhere but here. I miss the old days, when my visiting my childhood sweet-heart meant laughter and play time. As I walk through the hallways I see men and women who have been there ever since I first started to come see Alley.
"Hey honey! Come to see you're little wife again?" asks an elderly woman who I know to be Chandra. "Why don't you come here and have some fun with me, sweet-heart?" I don't bother to remind Chandra that we're not married, and I know to ignore her final comment. Ever since I first came here, I've learned to get used to the comments from people who you think would know better, until you remember where they are.
I stay close to the nurse, even though I know where I am going. I don't want to feel alone in this place, to be lost, and lose myself. We walked until we enter a different ward, the one for the people who can't handle themselves. It is the ward for the people who they think need to be looked at on a regular basis. The staff members who care for Alley tell me that it's more to make sure the other patients can't get to her. I still remember hearing Natalia, her old roommate, saying that people who entered this ward never left, because they could never recover. I didn't want to hear it then. I denied every word. Now I know the truth behind her words.
My legs can't decide whether to turn to jelly, or rush to a sprint when I see the name 'Alexandra Shaw' on the outside of the room. The nurse who accompanies me pulls out a key and unlocks the room, allowing me to enter unaccompanied. My chest tightens when I remember how someone used to have to sit in on every reunion.
Alley is dressed in a white robe, and her once warm brown eyes have a vacant look in them. All she can do when I enter is lift her head. I almost see something jump in her at the sight of me. There is a faint flicker of the old Alley there. A faint glimmer of hope that maybe it's not over. As soon as the expression reaches her eyes, it is extinguished, and I fall into a pit of despair again. It's been like this every time I'm here. She'll recognize me, she'll appear to be happy for the one moment, and as that moment ends, she goes back into a daze.
Her body is the color of new-fallen snow. And as usual, it's apparent that she hasn't seen the outside world in months. I tried convincing her care-takers that she needed to be outside once, and it worked. Everything went smoothly until Alley stopped walking. She had lost her will to be outside, to even participate in normal activities. The machinery sitting in one corner of her room reminded of that time. The very day when she lost her care to be alive. They started pumping food into her stomach. At first she resisted, and I had been there to comfort her. But now she is as just as much a zombie then as she is during the rest of the day.
"Hey there, Alley" I call out to her. She looks up again, and only barely gives me a sad smile. "How are you?" I ask. I don't know why this is the first question I ask her every day. I know her condition, and I know her routine. Nothing changes, but I always still reach to feel the old fire she had, and I always fall in to the icy numb when I realize I can't reach her.
I sit with her and ask her yes or no questions about how she feels today. She doesn't respond to me, and I have to work to hold back the tears when the cold realization that I've lost her stabs in the chest for what isn't the first and won't be the last time. She is essentially a living corpse with her white robe, and her ribs flashing out under her white skin. We sit in silence together, and Alley's eyes start to flutter. I don't know why I'm so surprised when she seems so tired. Maybe it's cause I don't know how she can sleep. I remember when Dr. Lace told me that she would only sleep when I came to see her. This surprised me and I wondered what she does all day if she can't sleep.
I hold her in my arms and whisper pleasant things to her until her eyes close. I give her hand a slight stroke, and I lay her down in her bed, as if I was her parent. I mimic the way her mother used to cradle her and tuck her in. The way her mom clung on her to when she first became ill. Now her mom wasn't in a position to see her daughter, and I know I will call her tonight to give her an update. Even though I know there isn't much to say.
When she has been asleep for ten minutes, a nurse comes in to get me. Before I leave, I give Alley's hair one final stroke, and a pang of loss hits my chest when I realize that she only looks how I remember her when she is sleeping. "Goodbye Alley, I already miss you."I follow the nurse down the halls of the institution and try to remember why I continue to hold onto her, when I know she's already done. Already dead to the world. Something in the back of mind reminds that I will never really be able to leave her. I will cling on to her until her heart catches up with her mind, and she falls asleep for the last time. As I walk out of the front doors, I let the tears fall down my cheeks as I mourn my best friend, my still-breathing corpse.