I left Killton Academy for the Insane at the small hours of the night. As a good girl, I pretended to swallow a few pills and put the pillow over my head and when they shut the lights out I shut my lights out, or so they thought, and I spit the pills like watermelon seeds on the pillow for the night nurses to find. They weren’t very smart. I befriended them and they thought I was their friend, or maybe they thought they were my friend, but it didn’t matter much. None of it did. I didn’t do well behind walls and gates and locked doors, and there were too many needles and applesauce snacks for me to sleep, and for the last three months, I couldn’t sleep a wink.
They thought I slept well, they thought I adjusted. I attended the doctor conferences and the group sessions and I cried my eyeballs out along with the rest of the gooseberries until they thought I was one of them, they thought I embraced their paradigms and medicines and therapies and their warm fuzzy slippers. It’s what I wanted them to think. It was a lull. I’m a normal girl in a normal cage listening to normal counseling waiting for them to punch my ticket to leave. I tore up the ticket in the small hours of the night, with my three roommates snoring away and the nurse’s station dark, probably because they were doing the naughty thing in the back room with the night physician or the night attendant or perhaps it was the night alley cat that always seemed to find its way through the caged windows and locked doors. And these people thought I was the sick one.
The door creaked as I left and I kept down a giggle by squeezing my nose and chattering my teeth. The gooseberries were all asleep and the nurses were doing their wild thing and that left me and the locked door alone for a bit. The door never had a chance and I left Killton Academy for the Insane at the small hours of the night. I followed the road for miles, wagging my finger to let it know that I would have none of its slithering and curving, that it should continue straight on and leave me about, thank you very much. It didn’t take long to find the railroad tracks, two faithful iron bars that needed no scolding to travel straight into the night and with fairy’s dust and hopes and wishes into the next day.
I waited in the bushes and pinched each arm when my eyelids threatened to lower the curtains and give away my position. The night critters and the swinging trees babbled and I listened carefully because you never know when a critter or tree will say something weighty. I was in a reverie when the ground shook and a tiny dot of light wiggled in my direction, the breeze not yet up and the toot-toot still silent. I waited for the large locomotive to pass before I grabbed the train and yanked it toward me, hugging the car close to my chest as it stampeded its way through Killton up north and the back country. I slid through the nooks and into a dark car, releasing the train to go about its business while I went about my business in the corner.
The train car was cold and stacked with automobiles, a recursive experience as I imagined the trains moving the cars moving the people moving the trains and round and round until I grew dizzy and grabbed the wall. The air was cool and paper cardboard armored the cars. I poked at the car’s vulnerable spots with my long finger, leaving marks and fingerprints along the paintjobs.
I let myself into a luxury car where I saddled up on the plastic-covered leather upholstery and made myself a good bed, where I slept for the first time in months. I knew the cure for insomnia, and it wasn’t small blue pills or darkened rooms smelling of ammonia. It was the sound of the train moving over track and the rattle of locked doors and chains as we tooted away from the Killton Academy for the Insane and into the wild wilderness of the north.
I knew it was morning when a strip of light crept along the wall. I gathered my things and poked out the door. I watched for many miles, searching my bearings, and after two abandoned stations, I realized I was close. I jumped as the train bent like a stick in the hands of a five-year child, the ground slanting and rolling me down, a film of dust forming on my clothes and skin, a welcome relief after two days in the conditioned air of the train box. I sat with my hands in front of my angled legs and watched my toes alight with the red glow of the train as it sped by. When all was left was its curvy backside, it appeared stationary for the longest time before I saw it shrink and toot and shrink until it all but disappeared. I remembered my manners just in time and jumped up before it vanished to wave my goodbye, a thank you for the fine journey to anywhere, U.S.A.
I wondered what the gooseberries at the Killton Academy for the Insane would think of me at the edge of the tracks. I looked around for the first time since the small hours of the night, and stocked the gooseberries’ heads with the overcast sky filled with the puffiest of clouds stacked one on top of another like squished marshmallows bought for the campfire, but flattened at the bottom of the sack, beneath the pots and pans and dried dinners and extra clothes. Most would think me a sight, with my sack of goodies and the train tooting its farewell. Some would think me mad, but there are worse things than to be thought mad by a gooseberry.
I followed the track until it came upon a station with two wooden benches long since abandoned, and the letters on its white-painted signpost gone the way of the station manager. An overgrown road led away from the tracks toward my destination. I had not visited Dainty since my parents moved us away, this was before they shipped me to the Kilton Academy for the Insane. The town even back then was dying and my parents believed the death throes stole my sanity. I explained patiently that towns, even dying towns, don’t steal sanity, that sanity was a gift that you had to take care of, like a pet, and if you let your guard down even for a moment, it might run away and you would spend the rest of your days searching for it, holding its leash and posting signs on telephone poles and calling the neighbors to see if they had seen it run past. I didn’t bother to explain that I held my own sanity well in hand, its leash taut as it sniffed the nearby bushes for truths. My parents wouldn’t have understood because they themselves held empty leashes, tautly walking along like the invisible dog trick.
At the bend in the road, I stopped and studied a large green sign stating “Dainty, North Dakota, pop. 135.” Someone had glued a bumper sticker emblazoned in glitzy silver that read “Fastest Growing City in North Dakota.” At the bottom of the sticker was a copyright mark with the year 1991. We had left Dainty in 1989, and even then, Dainty was becoming a ghost town, and by saying that I mean an old person town, since you can’t have ghosts unless you have dead people, and the surest way to have dead people is to stick a bunch of old people in a dying town.
I fought through the bushes and trees that had claimed the road and climbed to the top of the hill separating the abandoned railroad tracks from the rest of the town. From up here, the town looked miniature, like what you would find with a model train set. It took me a while to notice a large billboard at the top of the hill in front of the tree line. The billboard announces a new homesteading project: free land if you agree to live here for five years. They should televise it. It would be like the reality shows that some gooseberry or other would be watching on the boob tube. For me, I don’t think there’s enough land in all of North Dakota to convince me live here.
I work my way down toward town.
“Ms. Bouchard, I’m glad you made it,” the lady with the triangular bun and oversized glasses said to me. I slipped the name around my shoulders, shrugged a bit to test its weight, and stretched my neck like a cat, needing but a scratch behind my ears to find total pleasure. Snug as a rug in a mug of coffee, the name was. “We were a bit worried when you didn’t show up yesterday. We hoped you hadn’t gotten lost, these parts, they’re a bit windy until you know your way around. Have you had a chance to clean up? I hope you didn’t just arrive.”
“Afraid so,” I said with a southern accent. With a name like Bouchard, you had to be something or you were nothing, and southern sounded like something. The lady looked at me strangely and I mirrored her expression, drilling into her skull with my eyes until I could see gray matter leak out around my eyeballs. She looked away and cleared her voice and I could have sworn touched herself in that intimate place between her legs. I obliged and copied her movement and damn did it feel good. With all that good sleep on the train, I forgot how good that felt, the last time being my final night at Killton Academy for the Insane as I pushed the time past and waited for it to run out and the lights to go on and the television to warm up and the heated cereal to pop, crack, and sizzle in the plastic bowls.
The lady cleared her voice and looked away and I stifled my own cough, wiping imagined dirt off the front of my slacks. When the lady looked back, she looked relieved as if she was mistaken with what I was doing. I decided not to ruin her day. I did not recognize the woman. She must be one of the new homesteaders.