Helen takes her tea tray inside and gets her bag. I offer my rental car, which is the least I can do. She perfectly gives directions, anticipating every turn.
I park in a lot that sits half empty.
“You got far enough from the door,” she says sharply.
“I could move closer.”
“No. This’ll do.” She fusses in her bag for a few moments. I can’t tell whether she’s looking for something real or pretend, but I indulge her. “Come on, then,” she says.
The automatic door delays as we approach. When it opens, humidity and pine cleaner greet us. One employee sits at a desk but doesn’t look up when we enter. I follow Helen. Stopping outside room 43, Helen places one hand on the lever and pauses.
“I don’t know what humor my girl will be in. Might be she’ll feel civil. Might be she’ll curse us to high heaven.” She inhales. I inhale.
My stomach clenches. The sweet tea churns. I want to run away. But I don’t. My feet step where Helen’s feet go before me.
Back on the porch it became clear that Psycho Chick had been hospitalized. During the drive it became clear that this was not the first time. Now, as we pass the last barrier, it becomes clear that I am in over my head.
“Hi, baby.” Helen’s voice shatters the spell over her daughter.
“Mama, why did you leave me here?” Psycho Chick – no, I cannot call this broken woman by her Internet name – Virginia sounds many years younger than she appears.
“You’re safe here, remember?” Helen says.
“Can I come home?” Virginia braids a lock of hair, unbraids it, and braids it. She looks down, maybe at her gown.
“You will come home. Of course you will, baby. After you get to feeling better.”
“Did you bring another doctor?” Virginia says. Until this I wasn’t sure she’d noticed me.
“No, baby, this is a new friend. I wanted you to meet her.”
“My name-,” I say before Helen cuts me off.
“Names are not important.”
I nod obediently.
“Doctors aren’t my favorite. I’m glad she’s not a doctor,” Helen says.
“You know, baby, some of my friends are doctors too. Doctors help us.”
“No! Doctors poke us and test us and hate us!” Virginia grabs her hair by fistfuls. She rocks side to side. Helen moves with caution to her daughter’s side. She loosens Virginia’s fingers and whispers soothingly.
I stand still. Blood pools in my legs. I don’t want to shift my weight and risk upsetting Virginia more. All my effort goes to calming myself.
“Mama’s friend,” Virginia says, “do you like doctors?” Her voice breaks between sobs.
I look to Helen for permission. She nods.
“I don’t know many doctors, but I’ve liked some and disliked others,” I say.
Virginia collapses into her mother’s chest. She screeches and blubbers. Helen coos, stroking Virginia’s hair. I excuse myself but my words are lost to far more important things.
The air in the hallway stifles my own tears. I have no right to cry now. I’m halfway to my car when I remember that I drove Helen. Slowly, I wind my way back to the hallway outside Virginia’s door. Helen’s voice filters through other, more pained noises.
I am a jerk imposing myself on these people. What can I possibly say when I face Helen?