The whiskers of the dark bristle with voices. But the quietest voice, the one that never leaves me, is the most frightening of all. When did your life begin? he asks. There was never a time without me. He would start there, egoist that he is, with his own entrance onto the stage, all applause and limelight. But how can I tell you how he changed me if you do not know, first, what I was without him? The days at Briarheart were gray and white, I remember that. Gray walls, white uniforms, and stripes of minty blue and green: institutional pastel. And steady yellow light far above dark halls, dark cells.
It started with a stupid toothbrush. Nothing more than an ordinary toothbrush with a rubber glove wrapped around the bristles and the bottom sharpened to a wicked point that jutted into my throat.
The first day I’d transferred from Oakdale Women’s Reformatory to the Briarheart mental hospital, they’d issued me a personal duress alarm, like a panic button. Right now it felt white-hot against my breastbone as it hung uselessly on its lanyard.
I recited de-escalation techniques in my head. Use his name. Make a connection. Keep your voice low and dull.
“Now, Rai, calm down.”
He stood behind me, one hand tight on my shoulder, the other on the shiv. I felt no shift in his grip on either.
Now what? I scanned the room. Freestanding metal cabinets rowed the far wall, locked. One of them had a warped door where a patient must once have tried to pry it open. This room was barely used, and I saw nothing close at hand. Nothing in here could help me.
Try to get your hands up between you. Impossible—he was behind me, his back against the swinging door. Get him to agree with you on something.
I inhaled deeply, kept my tone low. I couldn’t let the fear show. “You worked really hard on that toothbrush, huh? I’ll bet it took a long time.”
A puff of breath hit the back of my neck. “Yeah.”
At least he was talking.
“Smart to use a glove at the base. You make great stuff, right? A real craftsman.”
Another “Yeah” puffed out of him.
“It’s really good. Think I could take a look?”
The point moved away from the hollow at the base of my neck. This morning, my orderly friend Abie had brought donuts and I’d picked a sickly-sweet pink one. Now my heart threw battery acid up my throat. Still I didn’t pull away. I let him move, while I stayed still. I had to be cautious. Lack of caution had gotten me here—I had rushed down the hall when Dixie Salma had pointed to toward the old storage room, crying that Rai had gone inside and was making weird noises. To avoid embarrassing him, I’d gone without ever thinking a deranged patient might yank me into this unused room.
He started to turn the makeshift knife around, to put the handle toward me. The radiator whirred on quietly, its dull echo in the empty space reminding me how alone we were.
I inched my hand forward. “Wow, that’s amazing.”
He stopped. “Waiiiiiit a minute.”
“You almost had me there. But no way. Uh-uh. I’m not givin’ this up. And you know, it’s you who’s gonna give me something.” His arm pulled me closer.
“Rai, I just—”
The door crashed open. A tall blond man rushed in. I instinctually dropped down, thinking him a second attacker, but he slammed into Rai with one shoulder. Crouching, I pulled on my duress
alarm. It detached from its keychain-like fastener and a shrill whistle bounced off the walls.
“You fucking cunt!” The words were incongruous from Rai’s beautiful, clean-cut, Asian face. He tried to lunge at me.
The blond man grabbed Rai by the arms and twisted them behind his back.
“Ow! Okay, man!” Rai’s shoulders lowered in surrender.
I pushed the keychain back in to my squealing alarm and silenced it. He turned the makeshift blade around. As he handed it to me, the door burst open again. Mike and Neal, huge in the doorframe in hospital scrubs. Their eyes darted around for a split-second decision. Mike rushed Rai and forced him to the floor while Neal grabbed hold of the man who had saved me.
“Not him!” I cried “He’s okay.”
“Sorry,” said Neal, letting go and ducking his head down like the blond was someone of importance. I’d seen men act like this during my college internship at Joliet: mob dons, gang bosses. Men as powerful inside of bars as out. I’d have to watch this one.
Lying face-down with his arms behind him, Rai spat onto the dirty carpet. Most rooms and all of the halls were bare because no chemical can absolutely remove the stains of vomit, spit, blood, semen, snot, coffee, juice, piss—whatever liquid or secretion anyone could let loose or fling. But this room still wore an old nappy rug with sketchy leaf patterns outlined across it. Now a phlegmy gob was sinking in. I cringed to think I was holding his toothbrush.
“Hey!” Rai’s head whipped into an unnatural position to stare at me, wild-eyed, as the two orderlies swaddled him inside of a wrap restraint. “I was just messin’ around. I swear to god.” Neal and Mike wrangled him upright. Spit flew down his neck and chest when he sputtered one last phrase. “She’ll tell you, I was handing it over. I didn’t mean any harm!”
“You gonna be all right, Doctor Weiss?”
I nodded, pushing my hair out of my face. The door swung shut behind them, and the silence afterward was more intense than the shouting. For a long minute my pulse raced freezing sweat saturated my body. I inhaled a deep, shivering breath. “Jesus.”
“You’re not really okay, are you,” the blond asked.
“Oh. Yeah.” I had almost forgotten he was there. I clenched to steady my trembling hands, thrust my chin up. “So, what’s the name of my savior?”
“Zander Grayson. Most of the doctors call me Z.”
“Glad to meet you, Zander. I’m Hannah Weiss.”
“I see that.” He pointed to my name tag with a small chuckle.
I touched the tag sheepishly. “Right.”
“Glad you’re safe, Doctor Weiss. Still, get yourself checked at the infirmary, ’kay?”
I nodded. He turned to go. “Wait,” I called. He paused. “How did you know Rai was in here?”
“I didn’t know for sure. But Dixie kept wringing her hands and looking down the hall. I asked her what was up, and she said Rai told her to send you this way.”
I gave a shaky laugh. “She told me there was an emergency.”
“When I saw him come down the hall and then you walk down it a minute later, I pretty much figured there might be trouble.”
“Thanks.” Now that the ordeal was over, my body gave one shaking, violent tremor as if relieving itself of pent-up terror.
“You’re pretty pale. I can walk you back.”
I stuck my hands in the pockets of my overcoat, grasping the shiv. I didn’t know what to say. At Joliet and Oakdale, prisoners didn’t roam the halls freely. But I wasn’t working in a prison anymore.
At my hesitation, he teased, “I won’t attack you. I promise.”
I had to give a little laugh at that. I shrugged. “Um, sure.”
No one spoke as we walked Briarheart’s halls, me with the shiv in one pocket and blood dried on my neck. Obviously, they’d already heard: the orderlies and nurses backed up when I passed, silent as if I had a pitiable disease. But no one made light of it. The same thing could happen to any of us.
I stopped outside Director Solv’s office, halfway down the hallway to the infirmary. I stretched my right hand to knock, but Zander touched my wrist. I pulled back, held my wrist in my other hand as if scalded.
“Sorry, sorry, I just wondered, what is that?”
He pushed up the right sleeve of my overcoat. It was my only tattoo—tiny, plain black. A small handful of bird silhouettes cascaded up from my wrist to my elbow. I pushed the sleeve back down again.
“Not if you wanted it on you forever.”
I looked up into his eyes, a startling blue. He seemed so… normal. The kind of guy who, in the outside world, would spend time rock climbing: clean yet rugged.
“It represents freedom, I guess. And it’s art on…” I took a deep breath. “It’s art on my wrist. So I won’t destroy the art.”
I saw understanding in his eyes.
“Well, thanks for walking me here.” I tilted my head at the office door.
“You know, Rai isn’t really a bad guy. He shouldn’t have done that, I mean, obviously, but what I’m trying to say is…it isn’t usually like that here. But that will never happen again. I promise.”
I opened my mouth, shut it again. “Yeah,” I said. “Thanks. But you know, you can’t go around taking risks like that. The orderlies almost took you down too. You could really get into trouble.”
“For your sake?” He gave a rakish grin and a wink. “I certainly hope so.”
“Hah.” I gave a weak smile as he left.
The hospital’s dinginess was made deeper by the general lack of lighting, and though the walls had been painted over for institutional work, damp cracks and crumbles showed the building’s age. It boasted mazes of obscure corridors, a rusty freight elevator, and the rumored ghosts of half a dozen factory workers who’d lost their lives in the 1800s. From what I heard they were not spectral terrors, but simply men in leather aprons who were there and then weren’t. On my first day of work, Nurse Fern Beasly had blinked owlishly at me through her glasses and assured me that on the eighth floor she’d seen a man in a red shirt, but when she turned to ask if she could help him, he disappeared.
The director’s name, MIKKEL SOLV, was stuck in transfer-letters to the wired window of the door, underscored by a long string of letters starting with PhD. He had emigrated from Denmark in his twenties, and though he Americanized his name to “Mik,” his coffee-cream voice still bore the stamp of a mix of European accents. For some reason, he resisted technological upgrading, and forests gave up acres of trees to supply him with paper. His file cabinets were stuffed to overflowing, and more than once I’d had to catch one as it tilted and shove it upright with my shoulder. My fingers always stung with paper cuts and Band-Aids were my daily fashion.
I cracked the door open. “Director?” I asked. “A moment?”
“I have a moment, but no more.” His tone was friendlier than his words.
“I need to let you know there was an attack.”
“Oh, dear.” He put down the papers he’d been holding, took his glasses off and laid them on his desk. “What happened?”
“Rai. I think he had Dixie Salma in on it. She told me he was in trouble and pointed me down the hall. When I went to help, he jumped me with a shiv.”
“A weapon? This is serious.” He came and put a hand on my shoulder. “But you are all right?”
“Yes. And, Director? Zander Grayson saved me. He tackled Rai. If he hadn’t…I would at least be hurt now, probably seriously.”
“Oh?” The director’s eyes lit with interest. “Well, you are young and beautiful, just the sort of woman that will draw attention.” An American man could not have said it without sounding creepy. But he was so casual, detached in a good way. He gestured to the window where, distantly, outside the gates, a handful of wavering trees stood between the hospital and a thin branch of the Chicago River. “Rai has been inside for a very long time. He becomes bored and frustrated rather easily, and he had been known to act out.”
“Well, perhaps I could take Rai on.”
“What d’you mean, like in a fight?” His eyes twinkled.
I gave a wan smile. “As my patient.”
“Seriously, Hannah, we have three hundred and twenty-five beds in this place, and only six
psychiatrists between them. There simply isn’t time in the day.”
“But if I volunteer, and could make a difference—”
“We would all love to have our pet projects. But we must fight that urge. We must not let our personal feelings get in the way.”
“Yes, sir. I understand.”
“Thank you.” He checked his watch. “Make sure the weapon is processed immediately, ja? Now, excuse me.” He put a hand on me to usher me out then he hurried down the hall, the overhead lights striping his coat as he went.
I took a deep, shuddering breath and started my long walk to the evidence locker where Timothy, the property administrator, gave the toothbrush an item number and sealed it away. Now that the stress had left my body, I felt on the verge of collapse. I headed for the privacy of the staff bathroom. Everything felt very damp and cold, and the corner I needed to turn seemed very far away. But I made it, and the chill of a porcelain sink under both my hands felt reassuringly solid as I leaned forward. I saw a blonde mess in the mirror, but I focused on the drain and on forcing the heaves down. My stomach was churning, my skin hot. I listened to my own jagged breathing.
“You’re okay,” I told myself. “You’re okay.”
A throat clearing sound rasped from one of the stalls and I froze. “Excuse me, hello!” Audrey Jeannot’s voice pierced shrilly. “This bathroom is for staff, not patients!”
I wiped my wet cheeks and fished through my satchel for my Xanax to ease the anxiety. I popped the vial open, tipped one out. The gritty, intensely bitter pill powder dissolved on my tongue. “Sorry,” I rasped, praying against hope that she would not know my voice. I threw the door open and forged my way back out. Panic or no panic, I had work to do. Through a watery veil of tears, the hall lights fragmented into rainbows like a hundred suns.
-DEN OF MONSTERS copyright 2018 Savannah D. Thorne