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The three of us are sitting around the same table, leaving one empty seat in the left corner, diagonally from myself. We are all shifting our eyes pointedly in very different directions, each avoiding contact, trying to pretend we are each alone. If I avert my eyes far enough to the floor, maybe they will disappear. Maybe I will be left on my own—just how I like it.
"Miss? Miss, are you all right?"
That voice—where have I heard that voice before? It sounds muffled, as if I am underwater and the speaker is standing on dry land, looking in.
I finally brave their curious stares. The man directly across from me looks sad, his eyes a pathetic, watering blue, like pool water in the dead of winter—his hair the grey colour of damp leaves. He looks in pain and he looks lost, like a child in a crowd. Even as I search his physique, he lifts his eyes to the ceiling, and I get the impression that this child is watching his balloon drift away into the clouds. He is forlorn; he doesn’t understand why, when he let go, that beautiful red sphere trailed away from him to meet the sky.
The woman next to me, I discover with a sidelong glance, is disheveled. She is tired, the perfect picture of a working mother, or the parent of a newborn child. She hasn’t slept proper in days—I can see this from the dark craters under her eyes, her slow tired blinks reminiscent of the rest she used to get at night. Her perm is lank, her clothes plain and stained with something orange on the shirtsleeves. Baby food, I surmise. She is a new mother. I judge her to be about thirty.
As for myself, I am eighteen, a freshman at university, getting my degree in English literature.
"What’s wrong with her? She won’t answer me."
"Karen? Karen, are you all right?"
"She’s been like this for almost ten minutes."
"Is she breathing?"
Two voices now, but whose are they? I don’t know how I’ve come to find myself here in this empty room, at this table, with these people. I don’t even know them. We have nothing in common.
"She’s shivering—look, she’s shivering."
"Feel her hand. Feel how cold she is."
"I think she’s in shock."
Where are these voices coming from? I see a ladder now, leading up to a wide gap in the ceiling. Why didn’t I notice this before?
I get to my feet and look around at the other two. They both watch me with wistful eyes, but neither moves to join me. Wordlessly, I cross the floor and grip the ladder with both hands. I place my foot on the bottom rung, take a deep breath, and begin to climb. I can feel their eyes on me but I do not look back.
As I make my way to the hole above me, I have the strangest sensation that I am growing larger. My foot slips and I feel my ankle twist. “Ouch,” I mutter.
“Did she just say something?”
“Karen? Can you hear us? The ambulance is on its way.”
Ambulance? My ankle will be fine; I can walk it off—and my name is not Karen. I notice that the voices are louder now.
I’ve reached the top of the ladder, and I don’t hesitate to place my hands flat on top of the edges of the opening and push myself out into the bright light.
I don’t see anything but this light for a long time.
Then I begin to see blurry shapes. I try to blink, to wet my eyes, but my eyelids are impossibly heavy. The muscles feel unfamiliar and stiff—my fingers don’t move easily, my head aches, and I can feel my neck creak when I try to turn my head.
“She’s trying to move.”
“Is she paralyzed?”
“No, look, her fingers are twitching. She’s just in extreme shock.”
“Get her on the stretcher. Careful, now.”
“Karen, if you can hear us, it’s okay. Don’t try to move. Everything is going to be okay.”
I couldn’t move if I wanted to, but why are they calling me Karen? My name isn’t Karen.
What is happening to me?
As my surroundings grow clearer, I see that I am sitting at a kitchen island. The empty room has disappeared. How did I get here? The faces I see are unfamiliar and etched with panic and fear. I don’t recognize any of my former companions from that brightly lit room. I can see flashing lights as they ricochet off the wall erratically. My heart begins to race, and suddenly I feel a collar being clamped around my neck.
“It’s just in case,” says an anonymous baritone. “Don’t be scared, Miss Partridge. This is all routine. You’ll be fine.”
Who is Karen Partridge? Why does everyone seem to think that I am her?
Everything quickly begins to run together as they lift me onto the stretcher. I am wheeled outside in a whirlwind of chaos—people dashing between the ambulance and the house, chattering violently in a medical tongue about blood pressures and syringes and dilated pupils, none of which I understand.
A paramedic is nodding slowly as a young, ashen-faced man talks, gesturing frantically. “It was never her fault, she just—had a troubled childhood. Things she never talks about, not even to me.”
“You are her boyfriend, correct?”
“So, Mr. Patterson, what is it that she’s afflicted with?”
As they move my stretcher into the ambulance, I hear his answer.
“She has MPD.”
“Multiple personality disorder? To what degree?”
“Fairly severe. She has at least three other personalities that we are aware of—a mother, a mentally challenged middle-aged man, and a college student.”
College student. English lit—that’s me. I go to university.
Suddenly it makes sense.
Suddenly I want out.
I struggle against the stretcher ties, feel a pinprick in my shoulder, and it all slips away…