Serena’s last Pristiq lies on the surface of the kitchen bench, right where Mother used to set our dinner down. It lingers clean like an empty plate, the only item on the counter. The pill is square but with rounded edges, smooth enough to trace your fingers over without having it scratch you. It is waiting for Serena, ready to be placed on her tongue and then flung down her throat with a flick of her neck. Serena always flicks her neck when she takes medication – long hair flying back behind her, hitting her back like a slamming car door. Despite watching our Mother chase her medication with orange juice for years, Serena and I always swallow our pills dry. We enjoy the scrape of the tablets down our throats, the evidence of the pill lasting long after it has travelled. But even though both of the diagnoses Serena and I share are the same, medication is the only thing we haven’t shared since we both inhabited Mother’s womb, where we breathed in darkness and warmth at the same time. Now we share a cold existence in the world. It is a feeling of being filled with twigs rather than flesh and bone, a sensitivity to the world around us, everything too still and languid.
Serena and I sat in the psychiatrist’s waiting room, eyes averted from each other. Our appointments were booked consecutively, both of us waiting for a short, middle-aged man named Peter. Peter leaned in too closely when we were speaking, and wore tortoiseshell glasses in the biggest frames we had ever seen. His shoes were always too shiny. I didn’t like Peter at all.
Serena and I would wait until we had both seen Peter, and once we were finished, we’d walk across the road to Baskin Robbins and look at the ice creams in the display tub. The girls behind the counter would raise their metal scoops and ask us what we wanted, but we’d always shake our heads and avoid their gaze. Serena and I would stare at the pastel colours, trying to think only about how soft and how synthetic they appeared, and not about anything else. I liked looking at the mint chocolate chip flavour the best, the light green reminded me of public swimming pools somehow – chlorine dripping down my face, the sound of skin hitting water, girls shivering with their towels pulled tightly around them. I always felt cold after seeing psychiatrists, as though I had spent too long treading water.
Depression and anxiety, words that we had heard for years but never knew a definition of, until we spoke what we felt and had it relayed back to us. A classification we suddenly fit into, a new method of living.
On the fifth Monday afternoon, Mother was called into the clinic, and we all sat around Peter’s room, feet tucked under our chairs.
“I’ve seen these girls on a few occasions over the past few weeks,” Peter said, pausing to clear his throat and push his glasses further up his nose before continuing, “and I really think that they would benefit from some form of medication. As you are their parent and legal guardian, I have to consult you before I prescribe them so.”
Mother sat, picking the dirt out of her fingernails. She then placed her fingers in her mouth and began chewing at the nails. The cracking sounds rustled the room. I looked down at my own nails. They were also chewed, I had been doing so ever since I could remember.
It took a few moments before Mother spoke again.
“I don’t know if I can afford the medication costs for both of my daughters,” she said. I saw her hands slide under her thighs, and her neck craned up to look at the family photograph Peter had hung on the wall. Two teenage boys and a young girl standing next to Peter and his wife, in front of a beach. Smiles, hands around each other. Completion. The photograph seemed almost obscene, like seeing a peace sign in the middle of a battlefield.
“I’m sorry, but the girls already receive ten free counselling sessions through the Mental Health Treatment Plan, there is nothing else I can offer you free of charge. Through your Health Care Card you can receive a discount, but it does not eliminate the cost altogether.”
Mother nodded and looked down. I could tell she was thinking. She used to run her hands though her hair when she was thinking, but it got so dirty that she never did so any more. So she just looked at the ground, hands pressed flat against the tops of her upper thighs.
“Have a think about it,” Peter said. He closed his notebook and stood up. He walked over to the door and held it open for us as we exited the room. I didn’t say thank you to him.
After a few weeks of not speaking, Mother made her decision. She caught the bus down to the clinic and came back with a packet of Pristiq in her hands that had a prescription for Serena on the cover. Mother left the box of pills on the bench but did not say anything to either of us. I should have expected such a reaction. Serena was the smallest and the most delicate. People were always confusing her for a skeleton rather than a person, nothing of defence or activity. Serena got her medication and soon enough, all of my sessions were over, and I had to carry on and act as though ten one hour sessions were enough to erase all traces of my mental illnesses.
The pantry door is wide open, and most of the shelves are empty except for the top one. It is filled with empty prescription bottles and sheets of spent medication shells. We do not have a bin, have not had one since I can remember, and everything we discard gets chucked wherever there is room for it. This means that dirty plates are left on the bench and pizza boxes cluster the lounge room. But the most prominent grouping of litter consists of the prescription containers left in the cupboard. I pull out an empty bottle and turn it over in my fingertips. Prozac, one of the first antidepressants that Mother started taking. The bottle is white, and made of a plastic that is hard to stain. The grooves of the lid make indents in your fingertips when you touch their bumps. Pressing my fingers hard against them, I wait for my hand to go numb. It does not take long. I hold my fingers there for a little while longer and then remove them. I use the nail on my thumb to trace the indents in my fingers. It feels strange, yet satisfying somehow, like picking at a scab. I place the bottle back where I picked it up from and close the cupboard.
Mother is staying in hospital again because she says she is too sad. She does this every few months,
sometimes she stays for a week, sometimes she is in there for six. The first time Mother was admitted it was autumn and Serena and I were twelve. We visited her on a Saturday. Mother sat in the courtyard smoking the entire packet of cigarettes we’d saved up to buy her. She ignored both the ‘no smoking’ signs and the rest of the people around her. Every now and again the other patients would walk up to her and ask for a cigarette or for a light or to ask us what our names were. There was one lady who always spoke in Spanish but only ever spoke in English when she was asking for something. Mostly she just asked people for their jewellery or if she could eat their dinner that night. Mother hated her, said she was an ugly person because she never said please or thank you. I didn’t mind her though, she told me I was pretty.
We left when we were ushered out by the doctors because the visiting hours had finished. Both of us promised Mother we’d visit after school the next Monday. Mother kissed us each on the cheek and told us we were lucky that we left before dark because that was when the screaming began. I thought about the spikes on top of the barrier between the courtyard and I hoped I would never end up there the way Mother was. I wondered what it would be like to lay in a stiff bed at night and listen to that screaming over and over, ears scratching just like a worn-out throat.
The kitchen window shares a view of the brick wall belonging to the apartment block across from us. Patches of grey concrete smashed between dark bricks. Outside is silent, it is a weekday and the world is air and space. No light comes in through the kitchen window. This apartment has always been shadowy.
I turn on the tap to see if the water is still connected. Surprisingly, it is. The phone line has ceased, and electricity was cut off months ago. Mother can’t stay in a job long enough, and her government funding barely covers rent and food. Serena and I do odd jobs every now and again to get money together like delivering catalogues and working at market stalls, but nothing steady has ever really come up.
“Serena!” I call out, but nothing sounds in response.
I walk into the bathroom, knees cracking. I know Serena is likely to be in there because she always hides in the bathroom cupboard. Both of us used to fit into it when we played hide and seek as children, but as we grew older, it only ever got opened when we were looking for items we thought somebody else had hidden. Then Serena began containing herself in it because she realised she could still fit inside.
I open the cupboard door.
“I don’t want to go visit Mother,” Serena says, as soon as I pull on the handle. She places her hands over her face, left hand covering her left eye and right hand covering her right cheek. I can see drips of tears on her face, covering the surfaces of her face that aren’t hidden.
I nod. Her face is pale, and her right eye looks mouldy. We are both starving, but I can notice only now how much her bones stick out, appearing as though they want to pry themselves out of her body. They are too tired of existing inside of her.
I sit on the tiles facing the open cupboard doors, where I can look at her directly and not from a downwards angle. Her hands stay in the same position.
“Why not?” I ask.
“I’m too sad,” she said. Too sad, we are always too sad. Mother’s too sad, Serena’s too sad, I’m too sad. There is never anything else. Serena removes her left hand from her face and pulls on the cupboard’s door handle, moving the door backwards and forwards. The rust on the handle goes deep, there is more of it than there is metal. The door makes a creaking sound when it opens and closes, almost like somebody who is in pain. I cannot stop looking at Serena’s bones.
I consider going to visit Mother just because we can get some food from the hospital cafeteria when she eats her dinner. Mother always asks for a little extra food so that Serena and I can have some. The people serving the food hesitate when she asks but then they look at us properly. Our hollowed out eyes and our down-turned lips quickly strike them, and they pause to give Mother an extra spoonful or two, looking away from us as though we are not worth being seen more than once. Serena and I put a fork of food in our mouths as soon as our backs are turned from the staff members. The hospital food tastes like nothing at all, but we eat it anyway.
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Mother always says, seeing the distaste on our tongues as we leave our mouths open after a forkful, cutlery still trailing what remains on the plate. Sometimes I want to smile back at Mother when she says that, but I think if I smile my lips will crack, they have never stretched so far. So with every mouthful we keep the food in our mouths for a few seconds longer, pressing the soggy pieces of carrot into the roofs of our mouths until they squish and settle into a liquid. I swallow and feel it travel down my throat, hitting my stomach too quickly.
Serena closes the door of the cupboard abruptly, and a moth which had settled on the counter flies away. I follow it down the hall and back into the kitchen.
I stand at the kitchen bench and pick up the Pristiq pill. I turn it around through my fingers, thinking about how white it is, like a hospital wall. I lay the pill flat on the palm of my hand and look up at the clock. 11:54 a.m. The next bus to the hospital leaves in twenty minutes. I think of Mother still in the hospital bed, blankets pulled to her chin. Her eyes only recognising me after I’ve been there a few minutes, and her cold body around me as she hugs me. We pretend that the nurse standing by the door isn’t there, that we are as unmonitored as we are at home.
I open up my mouth and bring my hand to my lips, dropping the Pristiq onto my tongue. I leave it there for a few moments, expecting it to taste like chemical. It does not release any flavour at all, and my tongue begins to feel paltry somehow, stripped of sense. I flick my hair back and swallow it, feeling the edges of the pill scrape my throat.
Carly Smith is an emerging writer technically based in Brisbane, but finds herself frequently relocating. She has been published in Cow, Hide Journal, Scum Magazine, Barking Sycamores Journal, and was long-listed in the 2015 Scribe Non-fiction Prize.