When I was little, they called them imaginary friends. When I grew older, those friends gained the ever-so-lovely title of schizophrenia. Funny how things change with age.
Of course, if I had known talking about them would get me thrown in here, I would have kept my mouth shut. Personally, I think my mother should have taught me better. Instead, I had to learn myself. And learn I did.Which is why, when the nurse comes to give me my medication, I don’t say a thing about the yellow leopard sitting on my bed post. She stares at the nurse with her solid black eyes, her tail twitching back and forth, as the attendant places the pill in my palm. She presses it into my skin with a smile, showing me how happy I should be that I’m here. That I’m “getting better.”I give her what she wants—a smile in return. Her muscles relax a tad, but she’s still waiting. I press the capsule past my lips, keep it there, pretend to swallow. I’ve been here so long they don’t bother checking my mouth anymore.“Wait,” says the leopard, loud and clear.I stare at the far wall, the pill buried under my tongue, as the nurse sets my breakfast tray on the bedside table. I don’t bother looking at her, looking for a sign that she heard. I have long given up on getting a reaction from any of this asylum’s personnel. All of humanity is deaf.The nurse leaves, closes the door behind her. The leopard and I both wait for the click that tells us we’re alone. As soon as it comes, I spit the tablet into my hand. The leopard steps onto the bed, walks up to rest on my pillow. She watches vigilantly as I lean over, extract the compact case from under my mattress.It pops open and its mirror reflects the eight little pills that rest inside. I add the ninth, shake the case just a bit. The oblong shapes roll and knock into each other reminding me of bumper cars.“Soon,” the leopard purrs. “Soon you will be free.”I shove the compact case back under the mattress. It won’t be needed until later. They will tell me when.My breakfast tray is still sitting on the nightstand. I consider eating it, not hungry, but if I don’t, it’s a demerit.A purple-grey mouse pops out from behind the mini milk carton, his eyes stuck fast to the buttered bread. “Are you going to eat that?”What the hell? I’ve found my own way out of here. Demerits don’t mean anything anymore. I shake my head and he jumps on it.I roll back over, curl up on my side. Wait for recreation hour, then lunch hour when they’ll give me the second pill of the day, then exercise hour. My last hour in this place.I drift in and out of sleep. Voices, movement, color are everywhere. They are everywhere. Talking to me. Touching me. Sleeping against me. I breathe them in, letting their comfort fill me. I love them.The snap of the door unlocking jerks me out of sleep for sure. They all disappear, hiding. They are still close, however. I can feel them, just on the edge of there.My bare feet slip down to the ground. Shoes are only permitted when we go outside. People try to hide stuff in them. The carpet is soft against my skin as I walk across my eight by eight room, out the door, and down the hallway, an orderly trailing me.He is not my only companion. A fish so bright blue it hurts to look at swims along the wall beside me. “They’ll never guess.”I smile to myself, humming softly as I push through the double glass doors into the recreation room. The tune stays in my head as I interact with the real psychos, for once not having to pretend everything is hunky-dory. My lips stretch extra wide every time I glimpse one of them peeking out from behind someone or something, their colors so bright they make everything else look faded.My happiness is so great, I even thank the orderly who escorts me back to my room. He looks surprised, but says, “You’re welcome,” with a little grin.I dive into my lunch when they bring it. The mouse watches enviously and I throw him a bit of cheese from my sandwich. It makes him content enough.And then all there is to do is wait. I sit cross-legged on the carpet, staring at the door. The compact case is shoved down the front of my pants and I finger the bump every few seconds in between glances at the clock. A silver beetle is running around its face squeaking, “Go faster. Go faster.”Finally, the sound of the lock comes and an orderly appears in the doorway. I scramble to my feet and the case shifts against my skin, reminding me small movements are best. The orderly gives me a wary look before gesturing for me to go in front of her. I obey with gusto.The leopard weaves between my feet as I follow the hallway to the outside. I take great precautions not to step on her. A chant of, “Soon, soon,” floats around me.I have to wait for the orderly to unlock the door with a loud thud before I can step outside. Warm sunlight falls in waves across my skin like the softest blanket. I pause to soak it in, close my eyes to the fifteen feet high fences surrounding me.“Hurry,” the leopard growls.I stride over to the corner, where the rack of basketballs sits. None of the orderlies—guards—stationed around the enclosure are near. With my right hand I reach for one of the balls. With my left I pull out the case. My neck itches to turn, to see if anyone is watching. It’s an itch I cannot scratch. I cannot look in any way suspicious.I drop the ball, dribble it, act like I’m testing it. I let it slip away, roll until it hits the chain link fence. My thumb is steady over the case’s button as I run to retrieve it. I crouch down and the pills are in my mouth and the case back in my pants within nanoseconds. The week’s worth of medication slides down my throat as I pick up the ball and walk up to one of the six basketball goals.They watch me shoot hoop after hoop, going from getting every one through the basket, to getting every three, to getting none. Their colors blend together, forming a rainbow. Their voices mingle into one. “Soon. Soon.”My heart pounds loud in my ears. It gets louder and louder until I can’t hear them anymore. I can’t see them either. Everything is a blur. I don’t have the strength to lift my arms and throw the ball, but I have to. Wait, why do I have to?Why do I have to do anything? Why do I have to stand? I don’t. So I sink to the ground, let the hard concrete cushion me. The orange ball bounces away, the thump it makes as it hits the ground twice as loud as usual. Why do I have to listen? I don’t. And suddenly it is bone chilling quiet. Even the sound of my heart has dropped away. It takes too much energy to keep it running, too much energy to keep anything running. It hurts to breathe. So why do I have to? I don’t.Before I close my eyes to my last view of this place, I see the leopard. She sits on my chest. She says something that I can’t hear and licks my forehead. Then she is gone.And so am I.