This exclusive preview chapter from Borderline by Mishell Baker contains the best line I’ve seen in ages: “Suicide is not a way of ending pain; it’s just a way of redistributing it.”
In Borderline, Millicent Roper is disabled in the wake of a failed suicide attempt, and she’s living with BPD and prosthetic legs. And then she gets recruited to work for a very strange agency that polices the doorway to another world, full of magical creatures. This novel has gotten starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, and we featured an essay by Baker about creating a damaged, “unlikable” female hero a while back.
Now here’s a sample chapter from the book, which shows you just how dark it gets:
Song had Teo bring up my stuff, as well as a folding chair, a card table, and a box containing an air mattress twice the size of anything I’d slept on in the past two years. While Song inflated the mattress with an electric pump, her offspring sat with his chubby legs sticking out of a round rubber chair, gnawing a slimy fist and trying to figure out what exactly I was. I found myself profoundly disinterested in him.
“Someone gave me a baby monitor I don’t use,” said Song, looking at my legs with concern. “Do you want me to set it up so that you can call for me if you have any problems?”
I swallowed down a sudden rush of indignation and managed to keep my tone polite. “I’ll be fine,” I said. She took the hint and left as soon as the mattress was inflated.
It hadn’t occurred to me until the sun started going down that the same windows that let in light could let in a lot of darkness, too. It was a cloudy night without moon or stars, just a velvet blackness that seemed to press in at the windows. By the time I was finished rolling down all the shades, my back and hips were aching fiercely. I allowed myself the luxury of a single Vicodin just to get to sleep. I took off my legs and went through the routine — checking the sockets for cracks and scratches, checking the stumps of my left thigh and right shin — and then went to bed.
Even drugged, I didn’t sleep well. The old house was full of strange sounds, not the least of which was that susurration of leaves outside my windows. I imagined them whispering to one another: That’s her — that’s the thoughtless girl who broke a dozen perfectly good branches on her way to the pavement.
I didn’t remember the fall; I didn’t even remember the roof. The last thing I remembered was the smoky iodine smell of whiskey dripping down the wall of my room. I’d been trying to finish off the Laphroaig Professor Scott had given me, since I knew we’d never share it again. But I got too sick to finis. I shattered the bottle against the wall and stood there staring, wishing I could shatter all of it: the truths Scott had told me to reel me in, the lies he’d told the whole department to shut me out.
I couldn’t think of it, not if I wanted to go forward. I tried the mindfulness exercise that Dr. Davis had been teaching me, following my breath in and out. Eventually I slipped down into fitful dreams of snakes and broken glass, only to wake from a shockingly vivid dream that a vortex of null space had appeared where the ceiling used to be. Like an idiot, I woke calling for a nurse; it was a good thing I had refused the baby monitor.
Even awake, I found I couldn’t shake my terror of the high ceiling; I was afraid to even look up at it, afraid of seeing a mind-numbing, gut-curdling, nothingness. I did some more mindfulness work and reminded myself that if I couldn’t handle this, I’d have to check back into the hospital.
At the rate I was burning through my dad’s inheritance, I had maybe six months left of that fallback. Eventually I was going to have to enter the workforce again, unless I planned on living under a bridge or jumping off one. The latter wasn’t really an option for me anymore now that I’d lived to see strangers coping with the aftermath of my last attempt. Suicide is not a way of ending pain; it’s just a way of redistributing it.
By about two in the morning, I dropped off pretty solidly. Even with the shades rolled down, morning crept in the way I’d hoped: a soft rosy kiss to wake me. The house was silent now, the night wind having died down and those other layabouts still in bed.
I’d been too freaked out to take a shower the night before, and morning showers don’t allow enough drying time to don my prosthetics. So I just put on my legs and my bathrobe, made my slow, careful way down to the kitchen, and bullied the vintage coffeemaker into doing my bidding. The tortoiseshell cat was there, but it kept its distance, lone ear flicking nervously back and forth. Under the kitchen lights I could see the graying of its fur and the crimping of its tail; it was a decrepit wreck, just like the rest of the house. I felt right at home.
“Well, look who sneaked down into the kitchen!” chirped Gloria as she came in fully dressed, pink foam rollers in her hair. At the sound of her voice, the cat darted away. I briefly considered doing the same.
“I, uh, didn’t want to wake anyone,” I said.
“Bless your heart. Minnie, right, like the mouse?”
“Millie, actually,” I corrected her, feeling freakishly tall as she went by.
“And just where are you off to so early?”
“Nowhere, really; just couldn’t sleep.” I watched her rummage through the pantry for a box of cereal. Aside from the rollers and lack of lipstick, she looked ready to green-light a three picture deal. “How about you?” I ventured.
“Well we can’t all collect disability, now can we? I’m a script supervisor, and were wrappin’ up a shoot this morning.”
Gloria filled the cereal bowl, then appraised me, eyes quick and bright as fireflies. Her gazed stopped on my scars, and her nose wrinkled as though I were covered in gravy. Before I could respond, her face brightened.
“You know, you should try Pure Porcelain, by Fournier. That stuff could cover a pothole in the road. I hardly need foundation myself, so my bottle’s yours if you want it. I think we’ve got just about the same skin tone.”
I tried to make words. I really did.
“I just love Fournier,” she pressed on in the face of my silence, taking her bowl to the fridge. “They don’t sell it in this part of town; I have to order it special. But listen to me prattling on. You must have a ton of questions. After Caryl I’m the best one to ask, so go on, sugar, hit me.”
I imagined landing a crisp little smack to her dimpled cheek. (I could exaggerate the sound later in Foley— thwap!) Then we’d close in on her shocked expression before cutting back to me. Cover that with foundation, I’d say. Then I’d saunter out in the casual, distracted way I used to saunter.
“You alright, hon?”
“I, uh— don’t really know enough to have questions yet.”
“Do you know what Arcadia means?” she asked, pouring milk in her cereal.
“It’s…the name of the project?”
“Don’t get smart, now.”
“Um, it’s a Greek province,” I tried again, “but I imagine it’s being used here more in the sense of a pastoral utopia.”
“All right,” she said ambiguously. “Did Song go over the house rules at least?”
Gloria used a step stool to help herself sit at the kitchen counter with her cereal. “Most common rule broken is: don’t ask personal questions of anyone who lives here, not even their names. Anything Caryl doesn’t tell you, wait for them to bring it up. Everyone at the Residence gets to live their life how they want, and for some that means pretending the rest of us aren’t here.”
Gloria jabbed her spoon into her cereal and gave me a look that dared me to prove I wasn’t one of those people. Her eyes were unsettlingly blue.
“You can ask me whatever you want,” I heard myself say.
“Not by the house rules, I can’t” she said, shaking a finger at me in a way that was just a bit too vehement to pass as playful.
“All right then,” I said. “What other rules should I know?”
“No drugs, alcohol, or tobacco allowed on the premises, prescribed or otherwise.”
My mind went to the Vicodin in my suitcase, and I wondered if the nice lady was about to ask me to pee in a cup. “What if I need antibiotics or something?”
“Then you talk to Caryl. Antibiotics are probably okay, but we can’t keep anything that some addict could kill themselves with.” She said “addict” the way a hellfire preacher would say “sinner”.
I found myself wondering, but contractually obligated not to ask, what had gotten Miss Goody Two-Shoes tangled up with this crowd in the first place.
“The rest of the rules,” she said, “should wait till Caryl shows you the contract.”
“If no one’s told me a rule, can I still get fired for breaking it?”
“I don’t know, Minnie Mouse,” said Gloria with a sweet smile. “Guess it depends on whether we figure it’s worth it to keep you.”
I stared back at her. Was I hearing this right? Nice new job you’ve got here. Shame if something happened to it.
Gloria giggled at my expression. “Look at you!” she said. “You are too precious.”
I noticed she did not, however, say that she’d been joking.