The sunlight petered away as The Fog descended, and with it went any hope of further rational thought.
Britney sighed. It had been so nice in the sun, so close to a clarity for which she longed but could no longer remember, and she silently cursed her defective brain yet again. Everything was so crisp in those moments, so vibrant and authentic, and she mourned the light even as The Fog made everything numb.
“What’s wrong, dear?” asked Dr. Shapiro inquisitively, looking up from her tablet and her notetaking. The psychiatrist had become finely attuned to Britney’s swinging mood over the years, on alert like a service dog waiting for a seizure in its epileptic owner.
“Nothing,” said Britney dully. She didn’t have the words, now that The Fog was back, to explain her melancholy. After more than a decade of everyone else telling her how she felt, Britney had ceased trying to describe, or even identify, her own emotions.
“Did you take those pills yet?” Dr. Shapiro responded, glancing at her watch and adding some numbers to her notes. “The blue one, too?”
“Yes,” she grumbled, loathing The Pills, loathing the routine, loathing every person on the planet with more autonomy than she could ever hope to have. They said it was because she was sick; they said they knew better than she did. They said the early 2000s proved everything they were saying, and Britney, unfortunately, could not disagree with that particular point.
“Well, if you don’t have any other symptoms or side effects to report,” said the psychiatrist cheerfully, “I think we can just see each other next week!”
“Yup,” Britney replied, and wondered – not for the first time – why she had a standing weekly appointment with one of the best psychiatrists money could buy. She had been taking the same medication for ages; nothing ever changed. And yet, without fail, Dr. Shapiro would arrive Monday mornings at 8:00 with a cornucopia of prescriptions for the week, then take half an hour of notes while Britney sat silently, immersed in The Fog.
It was only in the moments of light, those rare occasions when her brain whirred to life and she was suddenly rich with insight, that Britney did this wondering, however, and they were few and far between. Most of the time, she just…existed.
Britney woke with a start, unable to discern for a moment if it was the howling wind or the commotion outside her door which ripped her from sleep.
“I don’t care if it’s a goddamn hurricane!” she heard a deep voice shout. There were several seconds of silence; then the same voice roared, “Has she forgotten what will happen?!?!”
She squinted at the illuminated clock on her bedside table; it was only 6 a.m. She typically stayed in bed until the last possible moment on Mondays, stumbling to meet Dr. Shapiro with pajamas and uncombed hair. Then the number changed to 6:01, and Britney found herself rather disoriented to even glimpse such a number upon waking.
“We don’t have that much time!”
She blinked sleepily and glanced out the window at the driving rain. The storm had kept her up half the night, and it only seemed to be building in ferocity; the television said it was the worst weather event in 20 years.
Britney slowly sat up and pushed away her blankets. There was no use trying to sleep any more, what with the monstrous gusts banging against her shutters, so she might as well get cardio out of the way.
They said she should always do cardio.
Before long, she was sweating along to Janet Jackson a lá 1998, enjoying the endorphins not so much as she enjoyed actually feeling anything at all. The clock edged closer to 8, the wind screamed against the windowpanes, and a ray of light pierced her consciousness through the heavy yoke of The Fog.
“Dr. Shapiro is running late, Britney,” she heard from the hallway. “She’ll be here soon. Just…hang out, ok?”
“Ok!” she called back, riding the high of serotonin and lactic acid and the sweet taste of lucid thought. She switched to the Pilates machine and Whitney Houston as 8:00 came and went and the sky remained dark and roiling.
Inside her cerebrum, however, sunlight continued to shine. Britney felt better than she had in ages; she felt as if a veil had lifted from…well, everything.
It was as Britney was climbing into the shower that the truth hit her like a lightning bolt, perception bordering on clairvoyance, and it stopped her in her tracks.
“They’re drugging me,” she said aloud.
The past decade flashed before her eyes – the mania, the depression, The Fog – and she suddenly realized why her team was so insistent on The Pills. Pills and cardio, they said, that was the ticket to keeping her healthy. She had never thought to inquire why the brightest doctors in their fields couldn’t manage her Bipolar Disorder; she never thought to ask what the hell they’d been doing this whole time.
The hot water was pouring from the showerhead, filling the bathroom with steam, but Britney remained frozen.
“They’re drugging me,” she said again, and that was all it took.
She screamed with rage, tearing down the shower curtain, throwing shampoo bottles, beating her fists against the bathroom tile. She remembered the wasted years and wept; she remembered the gaslighting and began to scream all over again.
It took longer than it should have for her to notice the smoke.
Not steam, her inner monologue tried to warn her, interrupting the rapid-fire thoughts of pain and vengeance bouncing around her skull like pinballs. This is not steam.
Through the daze of her fury and the haze of the smoke, Britney finally glimpsed the first licks of flame poking out of the trash can like snakes called by a charmer.
“Shit!” she squealed, adrenaline coursing through her limbic system as she searched for something to throw over the can. Then the curtains were alight, all the way on the other side of the bathroom, and as Britney whirled to look in the direction of the burning window, the bathroom tiles themselves began to splinter and crack.
Get out, suggested her inner monologue. You’re only going to make it worse.
She ran for hallway, wincing as the shower door shattered, and tore out of the house, plumes of smoke beginning to rise from the furniture and the carpets. The echoes of porcelain fixtures exploding followed her into the torrential rain, mixing with the panicked shouts coming from inside the house like a DJ was spinning the soundtrack of the fire.
Britney stayed out in the rain, her hair growing sodden, and watched things burn.
She stood in the downpour as people milled about and Dr. Shapiro arrived and the epic battle of man versus nature unfolded. She talked to the firefighters and accepted a blanket from a kind neighbor and fought the urge to claw out Dr. Shapiro’s eyes when the psychiatrist, feigning concern, brought her a paper cup filled with The Pills.
For the first time in a decade, bathed in sunlight from the inside, her brain was actually working. Plotting escape routes, planning her revenge, considering what the hell had happened in the bathroom, Britney nonetheless had the presence of mind to realize she was essentially still powerless.
Just wait, she heard deep in her wise mind. This isn’t the time.
Then they whisked her away to the nearest hotel and showed her its fitness center and simpered at her like she was a child; like she was fragile.
She only pretended to take the medicine.
It still took several more weeks, and several more fires, before Britany began to understand; then it took even more time, and even more fire, for her to start learning.
“Good morning, Britney,” chirped Dr. Shapiro, bounding into the room, her black back rattling with pharmacological Skittles.
“Hello,” said Britney absentmindedly, her mind still churning over the case studies she’d been reading of late, desperate for information like a man in the desert is desperate for water. Her search had covered everything from particle physics to gossip websites; she spent one night huddled under a blanket, painstakingly translating Tagalog one word at a time, a child reading clandestinely in bed after lights-out. The insurance adjusters came and went, the house was repaired and redecorated, and still she studied; still she practiced; still she bid her time.
“How are you feeling today?”
“Fine,” said Britney, prescient enough to sound as apathetic as she had appeared for the past ten years. She had grown quite adept at hiding pills in her mouth until she could spit them out; faking compliance, it turns out, wasn’t actually that different from any other kind of performance.
Soon, whispered her inner monologue. The time is soon.
Britney had been terribly patient; she was exhausted with the labor of waiting. The psychiatrist typed away on her tablet and petered out The Pills and Britney pretended she was not seething with hatred. This hatred, originally birthed for Dr Shapiro, had since grown to include…well, everyone. Everyone had played a part in her fall from grace; everyone was complicit.
Everyone would pay.
“Well, dear, if that’s all…,” said Dr. Shapiro predictably, “…I think we can just see each other next week!”
“Sure,” Brittney responded listlessly, still pondering the Filipino child about whom she’d read with the rumored ability to predict small fires. “See you next week.”
“Oh!” exclaimed the psychiatrist. “I almost forgot – I have an important commitment next week at this time, so I’ll be coming by the night before.”
Now. Now is the time.
It was not a whisper from her inner monologue but a shout, and Britney knew immediately she could not have asked for a better opportunity.
“Ok,” she agreed, masking her joy with a yawn. “See you on Sunday.”
Are you ready?
“I am,” Britney answered aloud, pacing in small circles with nerves. The anticipation made her feel manic; manic not with dopamine, but rather with purpose. With potential.
Britney had rested all day. She had meditated. She had hydrated. She had skipped cardio, and was that why she felt energy thrumming in her muscles and in her mind, a steady stream of tiny electric jolts that hurt so good? She checked her phone; Dr. Shapiro would be arriving at any moment.
They had left her alone today, as they usually did on the weekends. The cumulative effect of a week of The Pills usually left her nearly catatonic by Sunday night; there was no need to pay attention to a barely-sentient vegetable. This evening, however, she had been free to roam the house and the grounds without much oversight to complete her work.
And, oh, had she worked.
Britney heard a car approaching down the long, sinuous driveway and tensed. It was here, then; she was finally strong enough, and her now her chance had come. She knew she would not get another. The dry season was almost over; all of the eyes would be back on her soon; she could only fool everyone for so long before she would make a pivotal mistake. And if she had to go back to living in The Fog…well, that wasn’t really living, was it?
She cracked her knuckles and sighed deeply; then she walked over to the gaudy armchair next to the front door and sank into its cushions. The car slowed on the driveway outside and
Britney closed her eyes; the engine turned off and she steadied her breathing; footsteps echoed on the gravel, and she thought of her children.
She felt it in her fingertips first.
Sorrow and frustration and fury and hate filled her capillaries and synapses and arteries. Warmth traveled up through her fingers and wrists and elbows, spreading fast, leaving a pulsing current in its wake. Images flashed before her mind’s eye, scenes of birthday parties and dance classes and the Louisiana bayou, and Britney let herself grieve what could have been even as she gathered her strength.
Then there was a knock at the front door, and she stopped thinking coherently after that.
“Hello?” called Dr. Shapiro impatiently, pushing open the door, tired of knocking, expecting the housekeeper, unaware that Britney had already seen to the rest of the staff. “Britney?”
The psychiatrist entered, shutting the door behind her, managing a few steps into the foyer before she was met with a pungent wall of gasoline fumes.
“What is that?” the doctor exclaimed aloud, reeling backwards and wrinkling her nose.
Britney rose from her chair by the door and silently approached Dr. Shapiro, channeling her rage at a world that had watched her drowning and laughed at her pain.
“It’s Britney, Bitch.”
And the skyline blazed like a phoenix that night.