"Have you read this?" Cathy asked, handing you a paperback book.
The book was tattered. The corners of the orange cover were missing and had left soft, frayed edges behind. A photograph of the sun setting over the ocean, turning the gray water and white clouds shades of red, pink, orange, and yellow, was the background. In the foreground was the black silhouette of a woman sitting at the edge of the water, holding a large shape that could have been a blanket or seal pelt across her lap. Her profile was backlit by the sun, obscuring the finer details of her face, but a single white line ran down her cheek. You couldn't tell if the white line was simply an old crease where the plastic coating had cracked to reveal the white paper below or if it was a stream of tears running down the girl's cheek. The title, written in a black, cursive-style font read: Painfully Human. In small white font against the girl's black silhouette, the words 'a person' replaced the author's name.
You opened the cover to the title page. The corners of the yellowed pages were curled forward as if for an embrace and the title page seemed to ask you to continue reading. You turned the page slowly, afraid that the tattered old book would crumble to dust in your hands if not handled with the utmost care. On the dedication page were the printed words: for a person. Under this was a personal dedication written in bright orange ink.
To You. Come back to me.
You stared at the words. They had reminded you of something. Even though you had never read this book before, you felt as though this orange message was for you and only you. You ran a finger over the words, feeling the indentations in the page that formed the strokes, letters, words, and message.
When Cathy said your name, you looked up at her. She was so pretty when she smiled. Now, she wasn't smiling. Her black eyebrows were pulled together so tightly they appeared to be a single eyebrow, and her brown eyes watched you. She seemed to be studying you as intently as you had been studying the book. Her perfect lips were pursed and her mouth angled down into a slight frown. You counted the pairs of lines on her top and bottom lips that lined up perfectly as you stalled. You didn't want to lie to Cathy about reading this book, and something in the pit of your stomach told you that saying you hadn't read the book was a lie.
You still didn't have an answer when there were no more pairs of lines in her lips, and so you returned your attention to the book. You slowly turned the pages until you were on the first chapter. You read the first page with painstaking attention to detail, reading every line, word, and character, trying with all of your might to determine whether this combination of words meant anything to you. If Cathy was asking, it was important.
Nothing about that first page held anything familiar to you. You closed the book and turned it over. Unlike the front cover, the back was black with a couple of lines of white lettering. There were no pictures behind the words, and no reviews of praise from critics above or below the block of text. Just the short summary and the barcode. You read the summary, hoping that it would jog your memory.
When a selkie's pelt is stolen, it's up to her girlfriend to find the culprit. But as the days pass, the selkie slowly begins to slip into madness. With no leads of the thief or the location of the pelt, she must decide whether to stay with the selkie or leave for a new life. As a human, she doesn't understand the gravity of the situation. Will her love prevail over the encroaching madness? Or will she give up and move on?
Deep down, you felt as though you knew this story, but you still didn't know if you'd read the book. It didn't look familiar to you. Cathy's intense gaze felt like it was boring holes into your forehead as you stared at the back cover. You counted the lines in the barcode. And then you counted how many different thicknesses of bars there were. And then you counted how many bars were of each thickness, all the while stalling against Cathy's stare. You wanted to give her the answer she wanted to hear.
"I don't think I have," you said after counting all of the characters in the summary, first without spaces or punctuation, then without spaces, then including spaces.
Cathy sighed and stood up.
You panicked. Cathy never had a visit this short. You had to keep her here, you weren't ready for her to leave.
"Is it a good book?" you asked.
"You should read it." Cathy picked up her purse and slung it over one shoulder. It was a purse that you had gotten her many years ago. The faux leather was beginning to crack, revealing white below the burgundy exterior. The straps had many lines of stitching from repairs over the years. It was the last Christmas present that you had given to her before everything changed.
"Are you leaving?" you asked, moving your gaze from the old purse to catch her eye.
"I am. I'll be back tomorrow, okay?" She bent down and kissed you softly on the lips before leaving the room. The heavy metal door swung shut behind her. You heard the lock grind shut from the outside as the metal mechanisms scraped against one another. Cathy's face appeared briefly behind the diamond mesh encased in glass that made up your only window, and then she was gone. When she left, so did your humanity. She was the only thing still grounding you in this world. You screamed and threw the book at the door before dropping to all fours and crawling in circles on the floor. There had to be a way out on one of the walls. If you just kept circling, kept looking, you would find it. And then you could go back to your life with Cathy. You had to find it. If you just kept circling, it would show up eventually.
Cathy clenched her skirt in her hands when you began screaming. As she walked away from your room escorted by a guard, she had to try to block you out. You always screamed and threw the book at the door when she left. Your mind only seemed present when she sat across from you. And even then, you weren't who you used to be. The guard put a comforting hand on her shoulder and squeezed lightly. He was trying to convey his sympathies, Cathy supposed, but it wouldn't work. Your craziness wasn't your fault; it hadn't been bad genetics or drugs. It had been someone else. Someone had taken a piece of your soul and run away with it.
"How was she today?" the receptionist asked conversationally when Cathy returned her visitor's badge.
"Same as always."
"Have there been any leads on her pelt?"
Cathy shook her head.
"That's a shame."
"The selkie leaders aren't convinced that she'll return to normal anymore. It's been too long."
"Are you giving up on her?"
Cathy shrugged. She asked herself that question every day. Did she give up on you? Did she move on with her life and leave you to rot in here? Or did she keep trying to break through the madness? It had never been done before, but she'd told herself that there was a first time for everything over the last ten years.
"The book will be waiting at the counter for you tomorrow, just like every day."
Biting her lip, Cathy glanced back down the hallway towards your room, where she could still hear your faint screams. "Leave the book in her room this time." Cathy walked away from the counter towards the exit, gripping the strap of her purse to the point that her knuckles were white.
"Will we be seeing you tomorrow?" the receptionist called after Cathy.
The sliding glass doors shut behind Cathy without a response. As if you knew that she had left the building, the screams coming from your room stopped.
"Do you think she'll be back?" the receptionist asked the guard.
"It's been ten years," was all he said in response.