I met Carmen the day someone set the gym on fire. I’d known who she was before then—I’d heard the whispers of the tricks she pulled, and I’d seen her saunter up and down the clinic halls with a wicked glint in her eyes—but it wasn’t until I watched her drop an empty matchbox into a trashcan outside the smoldering gym that she let me into her incredible world.
“Mon dieu! I thought you were the nurse ready to bust me again!” she exclaimed. Then she took a moment to look me over. “Wait, I know you. Your name is Emma and you take your meds daily like a model patient. I am Carmen, by the way. Don’t believe the things you hear about me.” She smiled as though we shared a secret.
Carmen was one of those people who had an almost electric energy to her, a mixture of audacity and charm that attracted people like moths to a light. She’d barely introduced herself and I found her fascinating.
“Let’s not waste anymore time around here,” she told me, glancing up at the smoldering gym and the clinic staff racing around while sirens wailed in the distance. “We shall go to my room. Allons-y.”
Most rooms at the clinic were simple gray concrete boxes, but Carmen had given her walls a flame job. Some of the staff had tried to wash it off but within the week Carmen had redrawn the inferno. Nobody ever figured out where she got the paint.
“What are you in for?” I asked, looking at the painted fire.
Carmen shrugged. “Kleptomania, pyromania, psychopathy, sociopathy, lupus, hubris—if it’s in some textbook somewhere, I’ve got it.” She flashed a triumphant smile. “You?”
“Suicide attempt,” I mumbled. My parents had walked in too early.
Carmen tsked, tsked. “Pity. I’d pegged you for paranoia or anxiety. You always seem so frightened. So what finally pushed you over the edge?”
I picked at my cuticles. When Mom had asked, I’d said stress. When the doctors had asked, I’d said self-esteem.
When Carmen asked, I told her the truth. “Being invisible.”
I’m not sure how, but out poured the story. I told her about my perfect big sister and her doting parents, her scholarship to Stanford and her loving boyfriend. Her trophies on the top shelf of the bookcase. Her life drawings and A+ tests and photography plastered all over the fridge. Her ability to use the world as a runway and take flight and soar while I had no way to start my engine or even assemble myself properly.
The frantic light in Carmen’s eyes dimmed to a soft glow. “Quel dommage, ma cherie. What a pity. My older brother, Alejandro, the most he’s done is be in jail three times. But I’ll tell you something: If you count this place, I’ve been in prison longer than him.” She winked. “Have you ever wondered if maybe we’re the normal ones and everyone else is living folie à plusieurs? Everyone is mad, cherie, but luckily we see it better because we are on the outside looking in.”
There was that smile again, that smile as if we shared a secret. Of all the manias and the diagnoses she’d listed, I wondered which one was true, but looking at that crafty grin of hers, I figured that whatever Carmen had was something beyond modern psychology. She was simply mad.
“I like you,” she said suddenly. “You’re not exactly shy, you just don’t think you have a good reason to get to know anyone. I am that same way. Everyone I meet just wants to be like everyone else, but me, I want to howl and run and hunt and stick my nose where it doesn’t belong. Sometimes I think I am the lone wolf in a flock of sheep.” She sighed, then her face brightened. “Come be a wolf with me, ma cherie. We shall have a folie à deux. We’ll be mad together.”
I balked at that. Hang out with Carmen? Was that even safe? She seemed like someone who spent her life leaning over the edge of a cliff, just daring fate to push her over. Dancing in highway traffic would be safer than being Carmen’s friend.
But I’d been safe all my life. Safe at the back of the room, safe alone in my head, safe invisible in the crowd. I was so safe that I’d taken to harming myself because nothing else could.
“Alright,” I said, “teach me how to be a lone wolf like you.”
Carmen thought for a moment. “You must be passionate, like fire,” she decided, eyes alight with that manic energy of hers. “Fire burns things up as it burns them down. Go after your dreams—consume them, breathe them. Inspiration is the match and you, ma cherie, you are the flame. But are you going to let yourself be a tiny flicker or are you going to raise Hell?”
I went to bed that evening and found that Carmen had painted my room, only instead of flames, the walls were covered with sweeping blue and white lines that Carmen said were le vent.
“You are the wind because you can either be a gentle breeze or a hurricane,” she told me the next day, proud of her work.
I followed Carmen everywhere from then on. Unlike the other patients in the clinic, she was never ashamed to be called crazy, never scared to put someone in their place no matter their mental state. For many patients, she was a goddess in her own right, an idol to be worshipped, while to others, she was simply a mystery that no one dared solve. Carmen was one of those people who acted as though she guarded some secret, wonderful world, and if you were lucky enough she could show you a piece of it. Far as I knew, I was one of the few people she truly let into her life. The other had been a girl named Cecelia, who, like me, had been invisible. Only unlike me, she hadn’t survived.
“She ran away and hasn’t been seen since,” Carmen explained one day as we were spray-painting a wildfire on the walls of the administration building.
“Do you miss her?” I asked. Carmen shrugged. Talkative as she was, Carmen was no open book. I suspected that somewhere behind her fire she hid something away. “Do you think she’s dead? Are you sad?”
Carmen actually laughed at that, but her smile didn’t reach her eyes. “I will never be upset over Death, cherie. I met him once, in a coffee shop in Chelsea. He decided to give me another three years because I am going to be immortal anyways.” She gave me a knowing smile, as if I were in on a secret even though I had no idea what she was saying. Whenever Carmen didn’t want to talk about something, she gave ridiculous explanations. On top of whatever strange diagnosis she had, she was a pathological liar.
And yet, she was so real that it didn’t matter. She went after her passions as if she truly were on fire. Sometimes I wondered if she would ever burn out, but she never showed signs of slowing.
Within two weeks of being Carmen’s friend, I was no longer a model patient. Carmen taught me how to steal and sneak around at night without being caught. I was so caught up in the rush of simply not being invisible that I did whatever she asked. The orderlies began to treat me with the fearful respect they showed Carmen. The other patients looked upon me in awe. I was no longer the quiet, gentle breeze I had been. I was the hurricane.
Still, the closer I got to Carmen, the less she made sense to me. She would give me bits and pieces of the chapters in her life, but never enough to assemble the whole story. Her mother had died nine years ago, her father six years ago, and Cecelia three years ago. It was the type of pattern that raised a few eyebrows, but Carmen was the kind of person who’d have such strange things happen to her.
Once, when we were putting laxatives into the water fountain in the staff lounge, I asked her, “Carmen, what makes you tick?”
She shrugged and closed the lid on the water jug. “Beats me, cherie, but the noise is driving me crazy.”
It was my last week in the clinic. I had become so antsy and nervous at returning to the real world and leaving Carmen behind that my therapist thought I was developing anxiety. I constantly unpacked and repacked my bags, obsessing over the thought that Carmen was going to be a hundred miles away, still at the clinic (for how long she was staying and who was paying for her, I never found out), and although we could write, Carmen’s electric energy was not something that fit into the confines of a letter or email. I’d been in the clinic long enough to know what drug addiction looked like, but I never thought you could be addicted to a person.
“I know what you need,” Carmen said after walking in on me frantically disorganizing and putting my room back together for the eighth time. I was at war with myself; one side craved the power I had here, while the other half felt that that power was as volatile as the fire it came from.
“What do I need?” I asked almost desperately, sinking onto my bed. As tired and frightened as I was, the part of me that was addicted to Carmen was already looking forward to whatever shenanigans she would suggest. Carmen would know what to do, and Carmen never got caught.
“You need to escape,” Carmen answered, glancing at the wind she’d painted on my walls. “We must get away from this place, ma cherie. There are those who prey on the weak-minded and unstable. This clinic is an all-you-can-eat buffet for such monsters. We must hurry, though. Usually around this time, Hannigan takes a break from his shift to smoke. He won’t be guarding the gates.”
I’m not sure how we did it, but we got past the front gates and caught a bus to the city. I knew Carmen had stolen the money she used to pay for our fare, but I didn’t say anything. Carmen was taking me on an adventure, at that was all that mattered.
New York City is incredible no matter what hour you visit, but its true magic comes alive at night. The skyscraper lights created stars of their own in the dark sky, while the streets teemed with people of all different backgrounds and futures. Carmen and I walked up and down the streets; with every block I was simply astounded at how humans could build such beauty despite being capable of such cruelty.
Carmen seemed unfazed by New York. I had thought that she of all people would have recognized that those behind this city shared the fire she had, the fire that dared to dream and reach for the sky.
She said nothing as she took me to the subway station. It wasn’t until we were on the train that she turned to me and said, “We’re going to Chelsea. I have to show you the art galleries, cherie. This entire city is a work of art, but the true masterpieces are in Chelsea.”
After an hour of browsing incredible paintings and sculptures, Carmen decided that we needed some caffeine. Carmen led me down a busy street to a café. I looked around confusedly—despite the number of people around us, no one seemed to notice the café was there. And there was only one customer inside, a handsome man in a business suit.
Just then, the man in the business suit looked up, his dark eyes meeting mine. In that moment, a chill ran through me, but not the normal kind of chill—images flashed through my head, of my past, of things that hadn’t happened to me yet but would someday. My entire life sped by in a short series of pictures, like I was flipping through my own photo album.
“Are you coming, ma cherie?” Carmen asked me, pulling me out of the dream.
I swallowed and nodded. Carmen smiled at me. It was her usual smile—crafty and audacious. But there was something dark to it. I let Carmen go a few steps ahead of me, and then I turned and disappeared into the crowd on the street, racing away until I reached Greenwich Village. I knew that the strange man in the business suit had seen me go, and I wondered if he told Carmen I had left her.
I spent the rest of the night terrified, afraid that at any moment Carmen would appear and demand to know where I’d been. Thankfully, I made it to the subway station and, in between frantic gasps and crying, told an old couple that I’d run away from a clinic and had no means of getting back. Miraculously, they believed me and even gave me some money for bus fare, as well as calling the clinic to let them know I was safe. I was so grateful I almost fainted on the spot. Carmen may have thought all people were sheep, but I wondered how anyone ever got anything done if it weren’t for the kindness of strangers.
I was back in the clinic by that afternoon, sobbing as I told the staff what happened. They called my parents, who came down and asked if I needed to extend my stay. I told them no, and said that what I really needed was to get back to my normal, safe life. I had been playing with fire for too long, and I had almost gotten burned.
It didn’t matter, because at that moment, the director of the clinic himself came down and told us that he had phoned the police about Carmen, and the cops had gone to roughly where I’d said I’d last seen her. There was no coffee shop after all, but they found Carmen in an alley nearby. She was dead.
My mom thought I had lost it, but I demanded to go to Carmen’s funeral. It was a quiet event, and it shocked me that despite all the unsavory characters she’d claimed to know, none of them showed. Not even her brother Alejandro. Not even the other patients or staff from the clinic, although the director and staff had pooled some money to pay for the coffin.
Still, I was the only person there. My parents and sister waited outside to give me and Carmen a few moments of privacy. Part of me was suspicious that she wasn’t even in the coffin or actually dead, but was out there still, ruling her secret little world. The official story was that she had some kind of freak heart attack, but the kind of things Carmen was capable of weren’t for the faint-hearted, and I was certain that the police just couldn’t figure out what had really happened.
I knew, though. Carmen had simply burned out.
“Such a shame,” came a cool voice behind me. I whirled around to see the businessman from the coffee shop standing there, gazing at the coffin. This time, I did not meet his eyes. My heart hammered in my chest.
“How well did you know her?” I whispered, swallowing.
“Well enough, over the years,” he replied. “She was older than you thought, but she’s been your age for a while now.” This time, I felt his gaze on me, and I kept my eyes trained on the coffin. “I know who you are, Emma,” he continued. “I wasn’t supposed to see you for at least several decades. I’m supposed to catch up with you in your sleep, with you surrounded by dozens of loving kids and grandkids. It confounds me that for a moment, you even considered giving that up. Such a wonderful life—Carmen was certainly going to get three more years by trading you in.”
I continued staring at the coffin, at a loss for words.
“I suppose I shall see you in a few decades,” the businessman continued. “And don’t think you’ll get an extension or any other kind of deal out of me. Carmen only did because she always managed to catch me on my coffee breaks.” I heard a wry smile in his voice.
I turned around to ask him a burning question, but he was gone. I swallowed again and went outside to meet my family. I didn’t want to stay anymore. No, I was going to do something else, though I didn’t know what yet. Maybe I would write a book, paint a picture worthy of hanging in a Chelsea gallery, or start the next great charity. I wanted to do something with my life—it occurred to me that the only reason I had ever lived in my sister’s shadow was because I’d decided to make my home there.
And though I dared not admit it aloud, I knew I had only freed myself because of Carmen. Her fire was contagious and consumed everything in its path, even her. But as destructive as she was, she’d made me feel like I, the invisible girl, could build entire cities and rule my own incredible little world. I owed everything to Carmen, that wonderful, terrible girl who played with fire, lived on the edge, and even in death could bring others to life.