When she first told me she was bipolar, I said, “You don’t seem that crazy to me.” It was a test, and boy, did I fail it.
Several years and bad episodes later, I’m pretty much an expert on the disorder. Type I is the worst, but you can’t say that to someone with Type II because it’s insensitive. Service jobs set impossible standards for the mentally ill. College counseling centers are a scam, handcuffs are annoying, and psych wards are nothing like what they show in movies.
Okay, so, maybe my expertise is filtered straight through Cassie, but it’s not like I’m a practicing professional. I am, first and foremost, a best friend, and I’m being tested.
I say, “Cassiopeia,” each syllable separated by a shake of her elbow. Her full name is Cassandra.
She says, “I have to. This is, like, my last chance, you know?” She has her head pressed up against the steering wheel. It’s some kind of junky vintage car she bought when her card limit got high enough. She hasn’t made a payment on it in at least a year, because, as she tells collections, “You can’t squeeze orange juice out of a piece of toast.” Money’s most of the reason we’re here, because we’re both toast.
“There has to be something else,” I tell her.
“I fucked everything else up.”
She has fucked a lot of things up, but I’ve seen her at her best and her worst too many times to blame her. It’s brain chemicals, bad childhood, side effects of Risperdal, anything but a moral failing on her part. She tries really hard. If she didn’t, we wouldn’t be at the edge of the woods at four in the morning like this.
The heat’s on full blast because it’s freezing outside, mid-November in the mountains but unreasonably cold for where we are. The inside of my puffer is sweaty but the rest of me is dried out like jerky. The cheap kind. When I get home, I’ll have to do a sheet mask before my face falls off. I still have some of my favorite masks, which are, hilariously, ginseng-scented.
Along with her condition, she’s a Sagittarius, so trying to talk her out of it would be counterproductive. The truth is, we’re in a tight spot, and this could get us all the way out if it.
“I wish I could come with you,” I say. Cassie could die a thousand ways but none of them are as certain as me getting shot in the ass for trespassing, stealing ’seng, and being black at the same time. I’m the getaway driver, even though I drive like an old fart, and snow’s in the forecast, which makes me drive like an older, fartier fart. This is the best I could think to do between Cassie’s frantic speech and the half-hour it took to get over here.
She says, “Yeah,” and takes the last swig of her Monster before she climbs out of the car. She taps on the windshield and disappears into brush, and I crawl over to the driver’s seat to wait. I wait until the snow starts to fall, until I eat all of the Craisins in the glove compartment, until the police come and my eyes are so crazy it’s like they’re here for me.
“American Ginseng” by Selena Stafford appeared in Issue 37 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
Selena Stafford is a miniature artist and writer, born in West Virginia and raised in Florida. She currently makes magic at a local theme park.