The first time Lilian left, her parents kept her room exactly the way it was. There was an almost religious reverence to their passivity, the way they maintained the wall art, the zodiac calendar hanging on the door, the cracked mirror, the rows of stuffed animals nearly tumbling off her bookshelves. Lilian’s mother went in each week with a quick twitch of the vacuum but never disturbed a thing. She cut large arcs around the history textbooks and the musty pile of clothes on the floor.
The second time Lilian left, they opened up her drawers and searched for an explanation. Hoping for a handle of vodka or a baggie of pills, all they found was a diary. A diary in written green gel pen, sealed with a flimsy toy-store lock. A lock Lilian’s mother picked open with a hairpin the third time Lilian left.
When Lilian was emancipated after the fourth time she left, her parents just told people she was “gone again”. That time, they washed and folded her clothes and packed them into a giant rolling suitcase, which they planned to put in her hand the moment she returned, if she returned. Three months later, they learned she was enrolled at a community college downstate. They unpacked her things, put them back into drawers. They fluffed her pillows and stuffed toys, waited by the front windows every night like sentries or gargoyles.
When a childhood friend from down the street had her 18th birthday, they saw Lilian pull up in a moped and unleash a wave of short blonde curls from a black helmet. Her boots were high and her jacket cropped. A bag with fringe dangled off her body. She put a hand in the air to show she’d seen them, but she didn’t exactly wave it.
The next time, she was only back a few days. She showed up on Mother’s Day in a dress that seemed to be made of burlap, with big hockey pucks hanging from her ears. There was a scar below her chin, which she tried to bury in her close-cut, golden curls. At dinner, she gripped the table with both hands and the truth came out: there was a debt. She needed money. The parents raised their voices and she stated it again, like a threat. She needed the money, or else she’d get it some other way.
When she left that time, it was mid-morning and her father was washing a bowl of oatmeal, cursing how the stuff turned to cement if you didn’t rinse it out fast enough. She didn’t make a big show of leaving. She left her college books in the living room where she’d been sleeping, having repeatedly refused her old bedroom.
She was gone almost a year that time. Back downstate, they guessed. There wasn’t a word until Christmas, when she wired them an absurd amount of cash. She sent her brother an equally lavish amount in GameStop and Best Buy gift cards, which enraged her parents— how could she give an eleven-year-old so much, and so frivolously?
The money kept coming, in dribs and drabs, always with a curt letter and a tasteful black and white photo Lilian had taken. Sometimes the subject was a tree or a tomb shot from low on the ground; sometimes it was roadkill or a nude shoulder (hers?). After a while, an Associate’s degree with her name on it arrived in the mail. Her surname was no longer theirs.
The last time she left, they went through her closets and opened all her boxes. They checked under the bed and behind the books. They threw out black lace clothing, thongs, a tight, sports-bra-esque contraption resembling a hair shirt, several cans of black spray paint, and her diary. They threw out the clothing she wore in high school and early college. They pitched piles and piles of love letters, hate letters, poems, court documents, photos, undeveloped film, and her computer. They canceled her phone plan and sent a neighbor boy downstate to pick up her moped, saying it was his to keep.
They found her in a psych ward outside of Springfield. It was a dismal place, the walls all smeared with fingerprints from thousands of ill-kempt people, the floors scuffed with decades’ worth of mud, salt, and dark-soled, gummy boots. It was a glorified storage space, a living human burial ground. The rooms held brain injury patients, addicts, cow-town suicides, and people who, in Chicago, would have been allowed to roam the streets until the wind knocked the life from them.
Lilian was there because they didn’t know where else to put her. It. They called her “it”. She was sitting on a table in the common room, facing out on the yard. She said she’d been there for weeks. Two inches tall, nearly a perfect orb, glowing white like a distant star. Or a tap light. They used to decorate the halls with tap lights; as a child Lilian had been scared of the dark. It was all darkness for her now.
It took a while for them to get access to her paperwork. It was six months after that for her death certificate to become official. Not everyone in her situation even got a death certificate, they were told; Lilian had never died, per se, so it was hard to secure. It felt strange in their hands, so they hid it under a lockbox in the shed. To have it close was too bald an indictment of their parenting.
Whether she was dead or not, they were her beneficiaries. The received an empty apartment in Springfield, a wiped hard drive, a webcam, a metal chest with a heavy lock (which they never opened), a modest amount in student loan debt, and nearly a fifty thousand dollars in savings. According to her bank statements, she once had much more— but the procedure had sucked it all up. The orb was expensive.
They drove Lilian back to their home in the near north suburbs, and put her back in the room. It was as purple, pink, and fluffed as it ever had been. Every sign of the last ten years of her life had been purged from it. It was a tween’s room. They sat her orb in the charger like they were tucking her in for bed. Lilian’s mother wrapped her spherical form in a knitted cozy. Her brother’s friends fawned over her, and tried to play catch with her new body — until their father intervened and locked her inside the bedroom for safety’s sake.
Lilian let them play at loving her. It didn’t annoy her the way it had when she was alive. A body was just a vessel, and now her body was simple, clean, and undemanding. She didn’t have to maintain it, or protect it, or struggle to keep it warm and housed and fed. She didn’t have to worry about how she’d keep it functioning. She didn’t have to demean it or loan it out to keep it running. No one intimated at misusing it or abusing it. Except for the incident with her brother’s friends, she didn’t have to keep watch over her body and fight for its better treatment. It didn’t shake her awake in the night, quivering, recalling its former pain.
She let them cradle her and clean her childhood room. They believed it was a kindness. Lilian could go anywhere without moving an inch. Without spending a cent. Without giving any piece of herself, for survival or approval or both. Her cameras and sensors were plentiful but she mostly kept them off, ignoring her family and the sickening cotton candy hues of their home. There was a universe of information to attend to. A whole network she could explore at breakneck speed. She was joining a collective of other beings, nirvanically freed from their bodies, one with all knowledge.
She was dead. She was evolving. Her room, however, was not.