WHEN DORA, ELENA’S older sister, is diagnosed with depression and has to be admitted to the hospital, Elena can’t seem to make sense of their lives anymore. At school, the only people who acknowledge Elena are Dora’s friends and Jimmy Zenk—who failed at least one grade and wears blackevery day of the week. And at home, Elena’s parents keep arguing with each other. Elena will do anything to help her sister get better and get their lives back to normal—even when the responsibility becomes too much to bear.
An Excerpt fromBlack Box
On Sunday right after breakfast we went back to the hospital.
We walked through a sudden rain to the double doors of the main entrance, then shook the water from our clothes and crossed through the emergency room waiting area, where people with dislocated arms or broken fingers–things that were probably easy to fix–waited their turns the way we had done two days before.
My mother pushed the button for the elevator and turned to me as if discovering my existence for the first time. “Are you sure you’re up for this?” My mother was short, like me, and I worried I would grow up to be a lot like her: determined, chubby, and a pain in the neck. “That was traumatic yesterday,” she said. “You can wait in the lobby if you don’t want to come.”
“Of course she wants to come.” My father put his hand on my shoulder. I felt like their private puppet. Let me make her talk!
The elevator opened. Everyone else who filed in with us was carrying flowers and GET WELL! balloons. A little girl was dressed as if she were going to a birthday party. We got off on the fourth floor (no one else got off with us) and nodded to the security guard.
“Let’s not say anything to upset her,” my mother said.
“We ’ll just be ourselves.”
Who else would we be? I wondered.
We stowed our jackets in a locker, walked through the metal detector, and buzzed the bell by the door.
I had brought Dora’s favorite pajama pants and a sweatshirt that said IOWA SURF CLUB, but the nurse who answered the door and let us in said Dora couldn’t have them because the sweatshirt had a hood on it and the pants had a string. “No ropes, no strings. And nothing sharp,” the nurse said. “I’ll keep these behind the desk so you can take them home.”
Beyond the desk where the nurses worked, I saw a group of kids–maybe a dozen of them–sitting in gray plastic chairs in a semicircle. One girl was asleep sitting up. The others didn’t seem to be doing anything. A boy lifted his head and stared at me blankly, and I thought of the animals at the zoo, living their lives behind glass while a series of spectators either ignored them or hoped they would get up
and do something worthwhile.
The nurse–her name tag identified her as Bev–said that Sunday mornings weren’t technically set up for “socializing,” but since we hadn’t been able to see Dora yet, she supposed we might stay for a short visit.
Where is she?” My mother hugged her arms to her chest.
One of the kids–he had short blond hair and what appeared to be fifteen or twenty stitches in his forehead–pointed toward a set of open doorways on the right: “She’s in her room.”
My sister’s new bedroom, like every other bedroom on the adolescent psychiatric ward at Lorning Memorial Hospital, had two narrow beds, both of them bolted to the vinyl floor, two wooden cubbies bolted to the wall, a gray smeared window that didn’t open, and a bathroom door that didn’t lock. She was reading a comic book on the bed nearer the window, her long legs straddling the mattress. She was wearing jeans and a hospital gown. The gown was printed with teddy bears holding stethoscopes.
“Dora,” my father said. “Hey. It’s great to see you.”
My sister turned toward us where we were clustered in the doorway. There was something different about her, I thought. There was something new about the way she looked at us, as if we weren’t the family she had expected.
I thought my mother was going to cry again; instead, she rushed forward. “We tried to visit you yesterday but you were . . . upset.” She sat down on the bed next to Dora and touched the side of her face, her arms, her hair. “You look good, sweetheart.”
Dora put down her comic book. Her skin was blotchy and her hair was braided. Dora never wore braids. “They locked me up,” she said. “I wasn’t ‘upset.’ I was throwing a fit. They wanted me to eat something disgusting and when I wouldn’t
eat it they decided I was anorexic.”
My father told her that throwing a fit was probably a bad idea and that she might want to maintain an even keel. One of the nurses from the desk poked her head through the doorway, seemed to count us, and nodded.
“Ten-minute checks.” Dora picked at her fingers.
“Someone sticks their head in here and stares at me every ten minutes, even at night.” She tugged on the hem of my T-shirt. “What do you think, Lena? Nice place, huh?”
“Great,” I said. “It’s really elegant.”
Dora’s expression changed slowly; she almost grinned.
“Let me show you around.” She swung her leg over the bed and stood up. “Closet,” she said, pointing with a flourish at the wooden cubbies. “For all those up-to-date hospital fashions. And look in the bathroom: no hooks. And no shower rod. They don’t want you to hang yourself. I can’t even hang up my towel.”
My father was standing in front of the window, facing out, even though there was nothing but a parking lot to look at.
“No blinds on the windows,” Dora said, still posing like a game-show hostess. “No shoelaces, no razors, no scissors or pencils. No cell phones. No music.”
I was waiting for her to say that she didn’t need to be there; I was waiting for my parents to tell her it was time to come home.
“I know this is hard,” my mother said. “Just do what the doctors and the nurses tell you. We’re supposed to meet with the doctor on Wednesday.”
“Why aren’t we meeting with the doctor until Wednesday?” my father asked without turning around.
“Because,” my mother said. Her voice was taut. “That’s when they told us we could get an appointment.”
Dora sat down on the bed again. She flopped face first against the sheets and let my mother scratch her back. Dora loved to be scratched. “I wanted more clothes,” she mumbled. “I thought you would bring some.”
“We’ll bring them next time,” my mother said.
“And I want my hairbrush.” Dora’s eyes were closed.
“And I want underwear and socks and a pile of T-shirts. And some gum and a book. I need something to read.”
“Your father’s writing this down,” my mother said. My father searched for a pen.
“And bring me a sandwich?” Dora asked. “The food here is terrible.”