By John Thomas Tuft

“Hello, hello, let me tell you what it’s like to be a zero, zero…” the woman of indeterminate age sings the Imagine Dragon song as she waits outside a McDonalds, before her voice trails off into aimless humming. “Zero, the place of nothing. The liminal holder between positive and negative,” she cheerfully adds as she feeds an overstuffed orange and brown Tabby cat French fries. Zelda and her cat, PeanutButterCup, can be found most days scrounging their way through life. Her fifteen-year-old minivan waits patiently at the curb, an old steed that wheezes and gasps but still eats up miles. Zelda and PeanutButterCup move around a lot, and for good reason. For Zelda, life lived at zero is an improvement. Existing in a neurotic world as a psychotic takes a lot of energy and innovation, not to mention the constant restlessness. Zelda keeps a tattered paperback copy of THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED on the dashboard of the van, the M. Scott Peck tome her lodestar, she believes, for navigating the vagaries that paranoid schizophrenia has bestowed upon her.

Zelda earned a master’s degree in education, at one point. Worked in public schools as a counselor who got along great with the kids. She seemed to have special insight into their struggles and anxieties. Until. Until around the age of 32 when it started to feel to Zelda that her thoughts were getting away from her. And the unshakeable sense that someone was watching her. Someone who wanted to hurt her. She was sure of it. So sure, in fact, that she began sleeping with a butcher knife under her pillow. Her family and friends noted this troubling trend in Zelda’s thoughts and behavior. Zelda insisted nothing was wrong, that she was just being extra careful. Hoping to keep hidden from view the storm raging inside of her. But one day, when the school principal found her hiding in a closet armed with a staple gun and a table knife because, as she very calmly stated, “the janitor organized some of the parents who want to kill me because I know too much,” Zelda, instead of submitting to a psych eval, packed up her van with what she could, along with PeanutButterCup, and hit the road.

In a country that accepts school shootings as the price of doing business with all ideology, and worships its mythology as history, a landscape littered with souls struggling to reach zero comes as no great surprise. Zelda’s thoughts and paranoia continued to haunt her in ever more fierce ways. For her, it was just the way her thinking worked. But to those around her, the strangeness made it more and more difficult to deal with her. She drifted from job to job, mostly low-skilled labor in kitchens. Housing became more and more difficult to keep so Zelda took to living in her van. Hadn’t Mr. M. Scott Peck himself assured her that breaking free from conformity was the path to true relationships? And behind true came truth, right? And the truth sets you free. Zelda thought of herself as a free spirit, a nonconformist, and the problems that others had relating to her were on them. “Life is difficult” read the first line of M. Scott’s book (she felt certain that she knew him so he wouldn’t mind her calling him that) and by God, Zelda knew he was speaking directly to her.

Zelda was genuinely surprised and touched when PeanutButterCup started talking to her. She had begged enough money from a distant relative who was unaware of her situation and gotten a motel room for the night, after joining in shaking her head at the relative’s question, “What is wrong with your family? Leaving you out in the cold like this.” In reality, her family was tired of the midnight calls, the beggings, the schemes, the lies, the drain on their own mental health. Pity from a distance has its advocates. As Zelda settled in for the night in clean sheets, she read a bit from Road Less Traveled then started to turn out the light. Someone was trying to get in through the sealed window. She could see the man sure as you can see yourself in the mirror. Zelda screamed, grabbed the cat, and fled into the bathroom. Huddled there in the dark, heart pounding, she heard PeanutButterCup whisper, “Start from zero.”

For anyone, protecting ourselves from all of our fears can be exhausting. But when a brain makes it a full time job to create fears, the results are overwhelming. Zelda’s screams brought the police to the motel. They deposited her at an emergency room for a 72-hour hold. “49 female, homeless, delusional, active hallucinations, some homicidal ideation…” read the top of the chart in the young doctor’s hands. “Can I see Dr. Peck?” she asks him. “He should know I’m here. He understands.” The doctor shakes his head. “There’s no one on staff by that name.” His voice stays calm, conversational. “Who do you want to hurt, Zelda? And why?” “I had to leave home,” Zelda begins, “because my mother tried to kill me. She says she didn’t, but I know. What are the gun laws in this state? I should get her before she gets me, right?”

“I want to help, if you think that would be okay,” says the doctor in an even tone. “Give you some medication that might help you feel better.” “You think I’m crazy,” protests Zelda. The young doctor shrugs. “It’s New Year’s Eve. Let’s just start from zero.” Zelda sits up, startled. Looks at PeanutButterCup, who nods wisely. “Yeah, let’s…”

Words are magic and writers are wizards.