If people were like colors, Ramona Walters was a riot of blood red, thick muddled blacks, olive and streaks of snowflake. James Brooke was confused in hues of flame, deep brown, federal blues and warm green. He was a rainbow, and she was a tragedy. And together they could make a masterpiece.
Ramona stared sullenly at her therapist, who was giving her a patronizing smile. Co-operating with Ms Valerie was not something she had been ready to do, but James had convinced her that the more difficult she was, the longer they would keep her there.
What was the harm anyway? It wasn’t like she believed a thing Ramona said, it was like telling the lilacs about her problems. Only, the lilacs were distracting.
“Did you have the dream again?”
Ramona swallowed hard. “No,” she lied dryly. Her knuckles were turning white.
“Listen Ramona, I’m not stupid. You have to tell me the truth if you want me to help you,” Ms Valerie insisted.
There were different voices, telling her how to react but she couldn’t listen to any of them. She knew the weaker she was, the easier it would be for Ms Valerie to ensnare her. This had happened before. If there was something that the Greendale Asylum had taught her, it was playing normal. The more frustrated you are, the better time the doctors had.
Don’t lose your head. Don’t shout. Don’t throw things. Ramona gave her a brittle smile. “It’s okay, I didn’t have any dreams last night,” she said evenly.
Ms Valerie seemed to relax, shifting back in her chair. Ramona glowed inside; she was getting better at this every day. Her eyes strayed to the clock: half an hour left.
The session stretched on. When Ms Valerie finally let her go, Ramona felt exhausted. It was dark outside, the trip home was going to be unbearable and lonely. Therapy sessions always left her feeling like she was gaping open, weakened and raw. There wasn’t anything wrong with her really. Hadn’t the medical exam at Greendale six months ago shown that she was completely normal? Then why was she in therapy? Stupid doctors. If they couldn’t trust their beloved machines, who could they trust?
Ramona entered the lobby, expecting it to be empty. None of her fellow sufferers suffered enough to have weekend sessions. There was a boy sitting near the doorway, soft blond hair falling over his eyes.
“James!” she exclaimed before she could stop herself. The receptionist looked up irritably.
James strode over to her, patting her back lightly. “Were you nice to her?”
“What are you doing here?” she asked, as they walked outside.
“We’re supposed to have dinner with Eliot today, remember?”
Ramona gasped, looking down at her plain jeans and sweatshirt. James shook his head. “I knew you’d forget, so I stopped by your apartment and picked up a dress. Is the white one okay?”
Ramona sighed. “You know I have only one white dress.” Her heart thudded in her throat. That was the dress she had worn to the Youth Gallery event, where everything had gone wrong. She couldn’t even look at it now. How could James forget about that?
She felt sweaty even though the weather was freezing. She knew how important the dinner was to him, especially after she had messed it up the last few times.
“Why does he want me to come anyway? I’m supposed to be crazy.”
James exhaled sharply, his breath fogged into clouds in the cold night air. “I don’t know.”
His car was warm and comfortable, and it smelled like him. But there was a frosty kind of silence. She couldn’t disappoint him again. This time it was her turn to compromise. It was the only nice dress she had, despite the suffocating smell of medicine and blood and ammonia it carried.
Ramona smiled, feeling like an adult, and turned her attention to his driving: smooth, perfect, linear. It wasn’t fair. Greendale had banned her from driving for a whole year. It was starting to rain. Ramona felt her insides swell with bitterness.
“If the tests came out fine, why are they doing this to me?” she broke the silence suddenly. Her chest felt tight.
“Just to be careful, or something I guess,” he shrugged. “It’s not so bad. You only have to visit her thrice a week, and in six months you’ll be allowed to drive again.”
“But it happened so long ago! It doesn’t even matter!” she cried.
James gripped the steering wheel tightly. “Then why do you still have dreams about it?”
Ramona clenched her teeth, trying to ignore the clamor of voices at the back of her head. James said something, but his words were jumbled. There was a drumming momentum of nervousness building up inside her. Like something might happen to the painting, if she saw it anywhere outside her studio.
“Ramona, are you listening to me?” his voice was unnecessarily loud. Ramona stared at him. James frowned.
“I want to see my painting,” she said breathlessly.
“That’s why we’re here,” James gave an uncomfortable laugh.
“Now.” Her voice had suppressed urgency in it.
The museum was huge. It took several minutes to navigate to the Youth Gallery, cold, well lit room, that exhibited works of emerging artists. Her painting was near the back. Ramona froze. There was something horribly wrong with it. The beautiful figure of the violinist was crooked, and his face was replaced by a pale, frigid woman’s face with staring black eyes that haunted her at night. Below her chin, in blood red letters, it was written: ‘Whore’. Ramona let out a violent scream, lunging forward at the painting. Shrill alarms filled the air.
Ramona sat up in bed with a gasp. The ghost of her screams chimed around the room. She wrapped her arms around herself, rocking back and forth, her throat choked with tears. It had happened so long ago. Why did it still disturb her? Six whole months, but the dreams only grew worse every night. Some mornings she still woke up thrashing and sweating, expecting to find herself back in the white room at Greendale.
After the outburst at the museum they had locked her at the Greendale Asylum to take some tests on her, but it had been the worst week of her life. It stank of bitter medicine and laundry, the walls echoed with the miserable cries of the patients. Prisoners. The place was like jail, but worse because you got sent to prison only if you did something bad. There were no rules like that for mental hospitals. It seemed, the more sane you were, the worse they treated you.
All of James’ visits and all the nice fellow patients couldn’t chase the nightmares the place had brought. Sometimes the frustration of being locked in the same room for so long would overcome her and she would have scratched herself so bad, and the fits were so strong, they would tie her up, and give her electric therapy. On cold days, it felt like the shocks were still pounding in her veins.
Roses are dead, violets are blue. You’re in the hospital, I’m coming to get you.
It was just past 4 am. The first gray streaks of dawn were edging up from the horizon. Everything outside was perfectly quiet. The world always looked haunted at this time; the trees were black claws, stretching towards her. Ramona could hear her heartbeat rattling around in her chest like a caged animal. She could see the dark, terrible things lurking in the shadows, ready to catch her by the throat. It was like she was never alone anymore.
She reached over to the night stand, fumbled with a cigarette and managed to light it. Smoking was the best way to calm down. The narcotics entered her bloodstream slowly, dissolving into the steady thrum of raindrops at the windows. The sound of rain was nice; it made her feel like she wasn’t the only one who was sad.
Ramona rubbed the sleep from her eyes, trying to wipe the whispering voices away from her brain. Hadn’t James told her even he had the nightmares sometimes? Ramona took a drag of her cigarette.
Poor James. She was a terrible friend. When he came back to Chicago, after four years, he had taken her to the famous Art Institute so they could go see her painting at the Youth Gallery together and she had ruined everything. He didn’t seem to mind as much, but James had always been good at hiding his feelings. He was the science student: methodical, precise, calm and an achiever – had gone to Yale and everything. She always had this feeling that he secretly despised her, in spite of the years they had. It felt like the world had gotten in between them: success, careers, hierarchy and pretenses fed a gap that could no longer be sealed.
Who liked artists anyway? Disturbed, starving artists with no talent and too many breakdowns. And why would he even move back to Chicago? He had a great life at Yale. The questions haunted her every night, the kind that thrived on insecurity. She knew if she were him, she wouldn’t have come back.
By the time she was awake again, it was past noon. The cigarette ashes were stained all over the bed sheets and a burning migraine pounded in her head. It was so hot. What a miserable time to wake up. Too late for coffee. Ramona ran up the hot water in the bath. No matter how warm the weather was, bathing in cold water was always out of question. Roses are dead.
She lowered herself into the bathtub gingerly, feeling the hot water bite at the open cuts all over her arms and thighs. It was cold from shoulder up. Ramona slunk down further into the water, irritated. She felt goosebumps trickle across her arms. She splashed water onto her face, fingers shaking. The water closed above her face and everything went quiet. It was so soft, peaceful underwater. She wanted stay submerged forever, away from the pain, the reality. The world was a horrible place.
There was buzzing in her head, she sat up quickly, gasping for air and opened her eyes. The same woman’s face was staring at her. The Queen. Ramona screamed and put her hand to her face, soap stung her eyes. She could hear the door creaking, nearly drowned by the sound of her own heartbeat. She looked around the bathroom wildly, she was just there!
The water felt stale. Her back was stinging. She touched the place gently: streaks of red dropped down into the bathwater. Ramona scrambled out of the bathtub, shaking and looked into the mirror. There were several long red scratches running down her back.
I didn’t do that, I didn’t! But it felt like she did.
She examined her fingertips; the skin was wrinkled from the long exposure to water, there were red stains in the nail beds. The Queen was troublesome: she never stayed on the canvas. She was her masterpiece, woven in her soul, clawing in her brain, but she was the masterpiece. Ramona had been painting her for as long as she could remember. The Queen was a part of her, lingering in her thoughts, at night, in her dreams, in the bathtub, tiptoeing through shadows, screaming in her brain, sending her heart racing. Ramona loved the Queen, but she was terrified of her. The Queen had always been around, every single memory was laced together with her somehow.
The doorbell rang. “I’m in the bathroom!” she yelled shakily. If it was James, he had a key and would let himself in. Ramona drained the bath. The water looked more discolored the longer she stared at it. She put her hand over her mouth, trying to slow down her breathing.
She wrapped a towel around herself. There was movement outside. “James?” she called.
“Ramona, where were you?” James asked, coming into the bedroom.
“What’s that on your nails?”
“Nothing,” she quickly retreated into the bathroom. “Just biting my nails.”
James followed her in, his eyes going to the spills of pale red on the drain immediately. “That’s blood in there!” he exclaimed.
“No it’s not, go away!” she cried, pushing him out.
“Ramona –” but she slammed the door.
“Lauren is coming over too, we’re going to talk about this,” he shouted through the door, smacking his palms against the wood.
Ramona tried not to panic. She dabbed salve on the cuts quickly and put on a long sleeved shirt. The bathroom still stank of blood. She washed her hands quickly and went outside. James was in the kitchen. She opened the door of the studio.
The edges of the Queen’s face were blackening. She must have made a mistake. Ramona grabbed the washcloth and a brush and painted over the marks slowly, savoring them. Lately, she seemed to be making too many mistakes.
She locked the studio with fumbling hands. She never left it unlocked nowadays. Even though she lived alone, not locking it felt reckless. She felt out of breath.
She heard James and Lauren’s voices in the hall.
“– don’t know. I might take her to Greendale again, just to see what the doctors say.” It was Lauren. Ramona scowled. She didn’t hate her sister, but Lauren’s burgeoning need to control everything all the time infuriated her.
“I don’t think we should do that, she really hates that place, maybe we should listen to her,” said James.
It was getting more difficult to hide things from them. She stalked past them into the kitchen. It would be fun to get rid of them somehow, but ever since James had turned up from New Haven, Lauren’s visits had increased too. The fight about whether Lauren would have a key to her apartment too had been a terrible one and the victory was bitter, but at least she had won. And after what happened at the museum, she was running out of arguments to get them to leave her alone.
It was depressing weather. A wind was kicking up dead leaves around the skeletons of the trees mockingly. The sky had become a dull green, and it looked like the clouds had descended right onto the pavement. James’ apartment was next to the forgotten Hildestone Park. The neat green grass they had trampled over in the glory days of yore had choked into weeds and thrushes. The park had been abandoned around the time James had left for Yale, which was perfect since that made it easier to avoid. She could still hear the childlike shrieks of laughter from forgotten memories echoing hollowly inside her whenever she looked at the drooping trees. They used to be so happy.
“Do you want to go down there again?” James followed her gaze down at the marshes.
“How do you manage to live here?” she asked a little forcibly. She hadn’t wanted to come over at all, his apartment reeked of bittersweet memories. The last time she had been here, everything had been scraped into cardboard boxes and packaged. Just like him. But now he was back, and so were the boxes. He had moved in four months ago, but he was still unpacking.
“I left New Haven, just to move back here, I think I can manage,” he said, bending down to open another box. Ramona turned her back to him sulkily.
She stared at the tub of lilacs on the clean, smooth white windowsill. They were arranged perfectly, not a petal out of place, gently tangled in a web of leaf. Like a painting. She imagined the wet leaf green paint blotting into the white background paint like bloodstains. If you didn’t wait for it to dry, they would leak into the purple buds and all the colors would weep into each other and ruin everything. Lilacs were beautiful. Ever since she was seven, she had decided that she would have lilacs at her funeral.
She looked up, startled. James held up a crumpled, brittle looking page, etched with faded water marks.
Her eyes widened. It was the first water painting she had ever done: two children swinging on the solo tree branch swing in the park. Her and James. She had given her first ever painting to James. She hadn’t seen this in years. It brought back a rushing euphoria of childhood.
“You – kept this?” she asked in a thin voice.
“It’s one of the most beautiful things in the world,” he answered, the old James smile creeping across his lips for the first time in months. It dissipated into disbelief when Ramona suddenly leaned over and hugged him. Ramona never hugged people. He breathed in her scent: blueberry, grass, paper and smoke. He had forgotten how small she was.
“You know, back in college, when I got lonely at night, or everything felt like too much, I would take the painting out and look at it and think about what you were doing. And that made me feel like you were close by again,” he whispered.
Ramona felt a warm rush of happiness expanding in her chest, the kind that threatened to flood the cage inside her. “Thank you.” It had been so long since she had felt like this.
She looked at the page again. She could remember the day she had painted it. All the feelings. Everything had been so pretty back then.
“You know what makes this one different from the ones like The Shoe-Cupboard Violinist, or Lilac’s Last Life? There’s love in it. The strokes are amateur, but there’s feeling in them. What you draw nowadays is incredible, but it’s not the same.” James straightened the old notebook page out, smoothening the weary corners.
Ramona sighed, tracing her fingertips across the crude lines. Electricity buzzed between her skin and the dried paint. The little boy and girl on the page seemed so far away. So much had changed. Her insides felt drained, empty.
“Remember all of the things the newspapers said after what happened at the museum?”
She didn’t look up, but she knew James cringed. The more he didn’t want to talk about it, the angrier she felt.
“They said lots of things,” he replied stiffly. “Things that don’t matter.”
“No, but remember what one report said about artists, about how they were a waste of money and time, and how the society didn’t need them? I liked his arguments.”
“Lies. This world revolves around artists and dreams. Everyone loves them.”
“No, you’re wrong,” she looked petulant. “Nobody likes artists. They like artwork.”
There was an ugly kind of silence.
“You don’t really believe that, do you?” he said quietly.
James looked at the painting again. Ramona was always saying things like this. And whatever possessed her, crept over him when he was near her. Her art spurned her demons. She wouldn’t tell him, but he knew that her masterpiece, it tore her apart. She hated doing this, but she couldn’t stop. It was Ramona who hated artists, not the world.
She was staring outside, with blind, sore eyes. Lately, her eyes seemed to have evolved, too much, too fast. The expression on her face was dead. His eyes fell on a wet stain on her shirt. It was dark red.
“Ramona?” he asked softly. “Have you been cutting yourself again?”
The dead expression morphed into fright, before she smiled, brittle with false brevity. It had taken him years to read her so openly.
“No, why – why would you think that?” the slight tremor in her voice gave her away. She yanked the sleeves of her sweater down, making the loose threads unravel several more inches. He had been seeing that scrapped sweater for months, watching the small tear in it grow bigger and bigger every time she fiddled with the threads.
The break was sudden. Ramona lowered her head, but he caught the sparkle of tears. Aghast, he shifted close to her, taking her hand in his; careful because Ramona hated being touched.
“Why are you doing this to yourself?”
“I have to,” she gulped. “I can’t get it right, so I have to punish myself.”
“No, listen. Ramona, listen to me.” James looked into her flickering blue-green eyes. “You don’t have to do this. You don’t. Stop thinking like this. Everyone gets bad days, and that’s okay. You don’t have to go wild just because one thing isn’t working out. That’s not how life goes. Some days you get snow, some days you get thunder and some days you get nothing. You have to accept these things, Ramona. You draw so beautifully, you’re doing so well. How many people have a painting of theirs up at a place like the Chicago Art Institute? You have people begging you for your work, how come you don’t see these things? You’re the only person who can’t see how talented you are, there’s nothing sadder than that.”
“You don’t understand, you don’t!” she screamed the last part, her eyes wild, grabbing his arm like she was drowning. “The colors are going away, they’re fading. Sometimes they come back, but I don’t see them for days. You have no idea what it’s like.”
She looked down, but he could see the tears sliding down her cheeks in between the tangles of her hair. He knew Ramona hated to be seen crying, so he just pulled her towards him and hugged her letting her hide her face in his shirt. He stroked her hair, feeling her sobs quiet down to a soft rhythm that melted into his heartbeat.
“You know, everyone has their own ideas of perfection. Mine just happens to be you.”
James stared at the dark ceiling, heaving ragged breaths. The nightmare always focused on the part in the museum where Ramona was being dragged away by the guards, screaming his name, while he watched helplessly. It always ended with them sedating her, so her cries faded away till he thought she was dead.
It’s okay. She’s right here.
But he knew that if his dreams were bad, they were nothing compared to what Ramona must have. She was still asleep, but she kept writhing and mumbling in distraction. One of her thin arms was draped over his stomach, but it felt nice, like she trusted him. His neck was cramped, but he didn’t want to disturb her, she had only fallen asleep a few hours ago. The clock read 5:48 am. He always had trouble sleeping in the mornings. Somehow, the thoughts he tried to bury during the day haunted him at this time.
James’ favorite thing to do was worry about Ramona. Lauren never worried enough, and when she did, she managed to throw Ramona into a rage and make things worse. Ever since the week Ramona had spent at the asylum, something had changed within her. She had become more brittle. Like there was something trapped inside her that was threatening to splinter her carefully built glass wall and destroy her.
His mind travelled back to high school. Ramona had always been the freak of the school, despite being one of the prettiest girls in class. There were always rumors going around about how she was crazy, but he never believed them. He had always hated the fact that she still attracted people, in spite of the rumors. Or maybe because of them. She was very beautiful: sea glass eyes, inky hair, whip thin, with a kind of dark enigma that was almost sexual. She hated everyone, had self harm issues, was neurotic and emotionally explosive, yet she had people groveling at her feet. You would think that they would have stayed away from her, but the more disturbed she was, the more she attracted them. It was like humans thrived on other people’s darkness.
James wasn’t particularly immune: he had been in love with Ramona ever since 10th grade, but there was something about her that had always daunted him. Maybe it was her intensity. Maybe it was the scars of grief that bloodied her wrists. Maybe it was the nightmares. Maybe it was the terrible evolving masterpiece, The Queen, that aged through the years of her creator’s life. The reason he hated the painting was not because it frightened him, but it had more of Ramona than he could ever have. Ramona put too much of herself into it, and too much of it soaked back into her. She was trying to find herself, but she was ripping herself apart in the process.
Ramona tossed beside him, her limbs moving jerkily. Once, she had broken down and told him about the horrible nightmares that were generated by Greendale. He couldn’t blame her for being disturbed by what she had seen in the hospital, he felt sickened too. Sickened at the sight of Ramona being drugged and doped and electrified and tied up. Sickened at her screams, the screams he still heard now, like dark water that would drown him if he just gave it the chance.
The patients at the asylum were treated like they were mad, and so they became mad. When Ramona was sleeping, he would go to different rooms and talk to them behind the doors. The people caged by society like they were animals. Some of them were incomprehensible, but the others raged at him. They all had one thing in common: incredible fear and hatred of Greendale, which was natural.
Sometimes Ramona would talk to him about them. Not surprisingly, she communicated with them better than he had. The conversations would start with the people themselves, what they liked, why they were at Greendale, then it would spiral into pity and anger until she got herself so worked up, they had to abandon the discussion.
James couldn’t go back to sleep. He decided to phone Lauren. She worked at forensics, odd hour calls never bothered her.
I woke up in a cold, white room with starchy bed sheets draped over me. The recovery wasn’t hard, my senses were flowing back to me like a hurricane. I flung the bedcovers off. The pain was immediate and terrible. My floor was so far away…there was a pounding burn in my head that made everything blurry.
I remember some people had grabbed me at the Chicago Art Institute and brought me here, to Greendale Asylum. I had fought with everything I had, but they stuck something sharp in me and everything had gone blank. How long has it been?
The door had a little window on it: I peered out at the deserted corridor. I had always imagined heaven to be white, but now I knew I was wrong because this was white; this hell. Hell built by humans, for other humans. If I could speak, I would have been screaming by now. There was something woolly in my throat, and my veins were clogged with drugs.
“Let me out!” I croaked against the glass miserably. Every movement ached right inside my bones. They had no right to do this to me. I wasn’t a criminal or dangerous or a lunatic. It wasn’t fair.
You’re in the hospital.
Singsong voices echoed in my brain. Indignation was strengthening me. “Let me out! You can’t keep me in here! I want to get out!” my voice choked at every phrase. I banged my fists against the glass. Bad idea.
I could see and think as clearly as anyone, even with all the drugs they had put into me. There was a beast inside me, threatening to smash me into oblivion any moment.
“Please,” I whimpered at the door, feeling tears burn in my eyes. I wasn’t crazy. I knew what crazy people were like, and I wasn’t one of them. I could see the door clearly, I could see the white ceiling and paint splashes clearly. There was no turmoil of insanity, my thoughts were focused and sharp.
Sad white and gray faces swirled before me. It’s the drugs, it’s the drugs. If they kept me here too long I might actually go mad.
I glanced down at my arms, they were traced with black and blue and violet paint. I smiled. I had been painting something. Even if they had locked me up, they had let me paint something. What was it? I scrapped my fingernails under my skin, making the paint crumble off. It was turning scarlet.
Ramona had spent the last half hour crying and thrashing on the floor. Her masterpiece had never been uglier. It was too bad the Queen had seen her tantrum. She stared disdainfully at her out of cold, icy gray eyes. The Queen would never look like she did in her dreams. It was maddening. She relieved herself by flinging her wet paintbrushes at the wall. Ramona could feel the icy gaze scorching her face. She moved forward and scrapped her fingernails across the canvas savagely, gauging out the terrible eyes, clogging up chunks of paper and blue paint flakes.
Violets are blue. She hated violets.
Ramona opened one of the windows. It was just after sunset – the light was warped, heavenly. Like light and dark were fighting, for each cloud, each rooftop. The city inside her felt ruined, and she couldn’t do anything but hide in the shards, in the dark, waiting for the thunder and rain to come and wash her out.
The painting of her and James made her feel like she was suffocating. It had looked so beautiful last night. Now it was just a turbulence of stained ink that had no architecture, no finesse. She couldn’t blame it. That was what always happened. An effort that once made her so proud eventually drifted into the ruins, in the dustbin of history, forgotten, sore and hideous with wasted dreams.
What was the point in being an artist who couldn’t draw anymore?
And in ten years, nobody would care about what she did, who she was. There was nothing more frightening. The beating heart, the nerve impulse, brought from the non-living world, soon to be returned again. Just like every other heartbeat out there. Every rush of adrenaline that would die down in exhaustion and every flutter of a wing or eyelid would melt into oblivion. The energy trapped in a body that would no longer obey commands, defeated in its own misery.
Self pity always brings tears faster than anything else. So Ramona cried quietly into her hands and wondered if she should just rip up The Queen or shove the paper knife down her own throat.
She needed to get out of the studio. Ramona went to the living room. Her mind wandered to the last time James had been here. He had been reading Virginia Woolf. She remembered his groan of pleasure when he set the book down, closing his eyes and leaning against the arm of the sofa in a state of euphoria. Ramona had watched him in masked envy. Why didn’t people react like that when they saw her paintings?
Because she wasn’t good enough.
The Queen looked sad. Ramona gleefully mixed her palette: green, gray and black, and started adding strokes. People always liked this kind of thing. And if she wanted to be remembered for her work, and not insanity, the madness had to be put in the paint. Transfer it. Make it great. Everyone knows art and lunacy go hand in hand.
She told herself she could always hold onto her senses: what it felt like to see, smell, hear, taste and touch. But after the first few years, the memories started to mold together. What was once an embarrassment at a museum simply scabs over into a bitter scar. What was once a king and a queen, had parted ways till it had been so long that the pain ceased to continue even in memory. It all runs together. Old loves fade and new ones bud in their places. A beautiful masterpiece is sodden down under the rain month after month until the painted memories soak into each other, bleeding in the canvas in a muddle of blues, grays and heartaches.
You’re in the hospital, I’m coming to get you.
It was the painter’s choice which colors to salvage, how to make it more interesting, choose only the best of the swirling patterns and reorder the mind into beautiful chaos. Flooded by distant moonlit nights on rooftops, cigarette smoke, ice cubes, closet kisses and ink, only the most insane make it. Only the most beloved memories crash together in a riot of colors that splatter on the canvas like physical gashes which tear the brain apart like stars on a collision course. And from this cauldron of emotion, true madness is born.
James had been sneaking himself previews of the Queen ever since Ramona had started working on it years ago so the change in the strokes were so gradual he didn’t usually notice them. The only thing he had figured out was that the portrait of Ramona’s queen had grown darker, more somber lately. If he didn’t know better, he would have said it actually looked a little like Ramona herself. She was insane about it, and he hadn’t had a chance to look at it after the uproar at the museum, so what he saw now came as a complete shock.
The Queen had been removed from her throne on the easel and propped against the studio wall. But she was so different from what he had seen before. The white and ice blue color scheme had changed to a magnificently horrible smash of dark green, steel, black and dull reds. The Queen was dying. It was gruesome. Her black hair was flustered, the gray eyes flecked with defeat and her white face drained into a mud of brown, black and red. The physical process of degeneration into madness. It was worse with Ramona staring intently at him, waiting for his reaction.
“Are you sure you want it like this?” he tried to keep the uncertainty out of his voice.
Disappointment flashed in Ramona’s cold eyes. The façade had fallen. They stood there in silence for a moment, staring at each other.
“Hey, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” the word surprised her. James swiped his fingers across the tears on her cheek. He pulled her into a hug. He smelled so safe and warm, like home. He would protect her. He always knew what to do. There was nothing better than security.
I’m coming to get you.
“You’ve been acting so strange lately, Ramona. Is anything the matter?” He led her to the living room.
Ramona clung to him like a child. She was frightened out of her wits. It felt like if she let go, she would break down and tell him everything. She knew that moment had to come, but the longer it was put off the better. Everything had been falling apart lately, and the one string that had been holding her together for so long had been cut, and she had unraveled completely.
I’m coming to get you, the voices were like death bells.
James was whispering soothing things into her ear and patting her back, but she couldn’t make out what he was saying. Maybe that was good, she didn’t deserve his comfort anyway.
“Why did you come back to Chicago?” she asked his ribcage.
She could hear his heartbeat quicken up. “I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time,” he said slowly, carefully. He could feel beads of perspiration appear at his hairline. “I’ve – I wanted to live near you…”
“I’m in love with you, Ramona,” he whispered and pried her face away from his body. Suddenly his mouth was against hers and there was a blur of passion. Ramona’s heart was shattering, crumbling down the abyss. The cage shook like there was a hurricane inside her.
He kissed her till her resistance weakened, melted away and submitted. When he pulled away, Ramona was crying again. “What’s the matter?” he asked shakily. The kiss had shocked him with happiness beyond comprehension.
She couldn’t speak, everything was slipping away from her. The horrible reality was piercing their bubble of happiness. Ramona doubled over, her crying grew wilder. James pulled her up, alarmed.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“They’re going to take me away, you know.”
“Tell me what’s happening.” His arms tightened around her.
“I’ve done something bad, and they’re going to take me away again. And you won’t like me anymore –” Ramona broke down into racking sobs.
The rose was dead.
James watched the hazy shapes move behind the glass. His mind was in turmoil, there was too much information to process, too many emotions. Hatred, fear, love, pain; he was numb.
What did anything mean anymore? Lauren was dead. Ramona had loved Lauren, even though she didn’t show it. James was reeling. She had said she didn’t mean to, Lauren was being horrible again, and sure she had pushed her. But of course she hadn’t meant to push her into the coffee table, she hadn’t meant for the glass to fly around like knives, she hadn’t meant for Lauren to lie in the shards and refuse to move. She hadn’t meant for Lauren’s corpse to soak in her own blood for the whole day before she finally came to him. Ramona didn’t understand these things. It wasn’t her fault.
Ramona was in the hospital, and Lauren was in the morgue.
He was finally realizing why he had escaped to Yale instead of just going to the University of Chicago. He shouldn’t have come back. Or he should have watched Ramona more carefully. He should have made them retake the tests at Greendale. That was where everything had started going downhill. There was so much he should have done.
The tests had been rigged. Ramona was very sick, it was probably schizophrenia, or psychosis or mania, none of the words the doctors mentioned meant anything to him.
Apparently, a few days before the museum incident, one of the patients had broken into the Greendale lab and fiddled with the computers so that whatever the results were, they would always show normal answers. No matter how sick the patient was. Paul Haines, he was a computer freak who had been locked away to protect him from his nightmarish obsession with his machines. His plan of revenge had fired on Ramona.
To think that a person’s happiness depended on a hunk of metal!
James held on to Ramona’s white sweater like it was his last shred of sanity. After Ramona had told him what happened, there had been a struggle between them. He wanted to call the authorities, but Ramona wouldn’t let him. They would make her go to Greendale! James couldn’t believe it, she had just killed her sister and that was what she was worried about. When he finally managed to lock her in his bedroom, he called 911. When he came back, she was lying on his bed, stripped of her clothes, strangled in the bedclothes. Her skin was lashed with blood, eyes rolled back like a corpse. Greendale had given him a case of sedative drugs in case he had to use them on Ramona. She knew he had them and had ransacked his room till she found the bottle and emptied as much of it as she could into her system.
Seeing her naked had shown him exactly what she did to her body. The wounds of self harm and bruises trailed across her stomach and thighs like a disease. Her back was bloodied with nail marks. He guessed the newer cuts were from the thrashing the overdose of sleeping pills had caused. The strangest thing was the smiley faces. Several of them, etched in black Sharpie lined her ribs, calves and chest. If this wasn’t madness what was? How could he have been so blind to all this? It was his fault for not paying enough attention. It was his fault she had wrecked herself so much.
Lauren was dead.
The last few months had been nothing but darkness and longing, and worry, heartache and loneliness. He couldn’t deal with it anymore. James got up slowly. He hadn’t slept since Ramona had come to his house the day before yesterday. After they had taken her to the hospital, he had gone to her house and burned The Queen. He had also found the painting of them on the swings on the studio floor. It was crushed and torn to pieces, scattered over the wooden studio floor, staining it with the blood of its memories.
James was a person who never cried, but as he had bent over to pick up the pieces, tears stung his eyes. He had come back home and found the torn white sweater that she had discarded on his carpet and bundled the destroyed painting in it. It was the only thing he had left of her. Ramona was going to be taken to Greendale. He knew he could visit her, but he didn’t want to. The girl he loved was a dream.
His head spun a little as he stood up. He could hear Ramona’s broken screams from behind the doors. He shuffled to the exit, feeling like he had aged a hundred years. He held the sweater to his face trying to hide the tears. It smelled too sharply of her. It was in pieces by now, a weak mass of tangled thread. Just like her. James flung the sweater into the trashcan and left the hospital.
If people were like colors, James felt that he and Ramona had nothing inside them but dead, miserable gray, cruelty and withering black.