The dark and humid air bristles with whispers. But the quietest voice, the one that never leaves me, is the most frightening of all. When did your life begin? he asks. You did not exist before 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 dusty, yellow light above cells stuffed with lost people. Though I prescribed medications that defined the line between sane and insane, I knew too well how the lines could blur. These were forgotten people—the scarred, the damaged. People everyone had turned away from. People like me.
It started with a stupid toothbrush. Ordinary, with a rubber glove wrapped around the bristles and the bottom sharpened to a wicked point that jutted against my throat.
I’d been rushing to the activity room to supervise the weekly class that had been added to my already loaded schedule. Nurse Alameda had lingered behind to flirt with Neal the orderly, and I’d come down the long hall alone. Rai jumped out from the swinging door of a supply closet, grabbed my lanyard and used it to jerk me into the room. Now he pressed against my back, breathing hard. One small cry did escape me, but one thing psychiatry had taught me—hell, my life had taught me—was to swallow down primal fear. I had to disarm him carefully, like an explosive device. His ropey muscles stayed tight despite the fact he was shaking uncontrollably.
I recited de-escalation techniques: Use his name. Make a connection. Keep your voice low and dull.
“Rai, everything will be all right if you just stay calm. Tell me how I can help you.”
I heard the distinctive click in the throat: a swallow near my right ear. “I don’t know what to do next,” he wailed into the air. “I got her here, just like you said. Now what?”
Whatever he was asking, whoever he was speaking to, no one outside his head could know. I scanned the room. Locked metal cabinets rowed the wall. One of them had a warped door where a patient must once have tried to pry it open.
Try to get your hands up between you. Impossible—he was behind me, his back against the wall. Get him to agree with you on something.
I kept my tone low. “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. No! It was easy.”
He made no further move. Just keep him talking.
“Smart to use a glove at the base. You make great stuff, right? A real craftsman.”
“I had to. I had to. He told me how. But he didn’t tell me what’s next.”
“Who said, Rai?”
The sharp point moved away. The half-second of silence felt like it stretched out over eternal canyons as I listened. He sniffled, ragged, moist.
I turned very slightly, just enough to see his face from my peripheral vision. “Rai?”
Tears wet his cheeks. “I don’t want to. He told me I had to. But I don’t want to.”
“Who told you?”
“It told you to attack a therapist?”
“Not any therapist. You.”
The door crashed open. A streak of pale hair as a man rushed in. He slammed into Rai’s ribs with one shoulder. Rai went flying, strands of my hair still balled in his hand. My scalp stung. Rai was pinned against the wall, flailing helplessly against the newcomer. “You broke my hand! Ow, ow!”
My lanyard lay broken on the floor. I leapt forward, clawing it up. I detached the duress alarm from its keychain-like fastener. The shrill whistle bounced off the walls.
Rai instantly melted, balled up out of the blond guy’s grip, and flopped to the floor.
The door flew open again. Aides Mike and Neal loomed huge as their eyes darted in a split-second decision. Mike grabbed Rai and dragged him out the door while Neal pulled the man who had saved me forcibly into the hallway. I pushed the fastener back in to silence the alarm. Metallic silence rang in the enclosed space.
“He’s okay!” I indicated the blond man. “He came to help me.”
Mike ducked his head down like the stranger was someone of importance. “Z? What happened? Oh my god, you good? Neal, you hold the little guy. Hold him a sec.” Neal grabbed Rai by the shoulders and forced him against the wall. Mike pulled the blond guy into a bear hug, then eyed me suspiciously.
“Z, for real, man, what’s going on?”
“Yeah, Mike, I’m good. It’s Rai again. I think he’s getting worse. He was attempting to … do something to the good doctor here.” His eyes flicked to the toothbrush. Mike stooped quickly to retrieve it, then held it out to Z.
“I’ll take that.” I took it in a sweaty hand.
Rai’s head whipped into an unnatural position to stare at me, wild-eyed. “Hey! That’s mine!” His beautiful Asian face was puffed and red from sobbing. He drooled onto the nappy old rug with a phlegmy gob atop the stains of vomit, spit, blood, semen, snot, coffee, juice, piss—whatever liquid or secretion anyone could let loose or fling.
“Let’s make you feel better, Rai.” Mike uncapped a needle of Midazolam, tapped it, then plunged it into Rai’s neck. He went limp and his silence afterward was more intense than the shouting.
“Talk to you later, Z. Gotta take care of our friend here.”
The orderlies helped Rai wobble away. Sweat saturated my body and was starting to turn cold.
“You all right?” Z walked over to me and gestured at my hair. I reached up and smoothed down the patch Rai had pulled.
I clenched my trembling hands, thrust my chin up. “I’m good. So, what’s the name of my savior? Z what?”
“Zander Grayson. Most people just call me Z.”
“Zander.” I remembered him now. Another one of Kelsey Ash’s patients. “I’ve seen you around, I think. I’m Hannah Weiss.”
“I see that.” He pointed to my name tag with a small chuckle.
I touched it. “Right.”
“Glad you’re safe, Doctor Weiss.”
“Oh, I’m not a doctor, just a clinician. Anyway. How in the world did you find me?”
His denim-blue eyes widened with a flicker of fear. “I was meeting with the Director,” he gestured down the hall, “when I thought I heard something.” He shrugged. “Of course it’s hard to hear anything when Heinz Doofenshmirtz gets pontificating.”
I had missed something. “What?”
“Sorry. The cartoon Phineas and Ferb? Probably after your time.”
Down the hallway, Rai let out a bloodcurdling screech. I yelped.
“You all right?”
“Yeah, yeah. Just…shook up, I guess. Sorry.”
“Well, during our meeting, I heard something kind of like that. I told the Director it sounded like something was going on. He just….you know how he does? Extended his arms like this. Such a douche.”
I smothered a chuckle. “You shouldn’t speak of the Director like that.”
“Anyway. I guess that’s how.”
“Well, thank god.”
Now that the ordeal was over, my body gave one shaking, violent tremor as if relieving itself of pent-up terror.
“You look pretty pale. I can walk you back, if you want.”
I stuck my hands in the pockets of my overcoat, grasping the shiv. I didn’t know what to do. At Joliet and Oakdale, prisoners didn’t roam the halls freely, but I wasn’t working in a prison anymore. Things were different in a private mental hospital. “No, thanks.”
At my hesitation, he teased, “I won’t attack you. I promise.”
A measly laugh shook out of me. “No, I’m good.” I pushed my hair out of my face.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“On your wrist.”
I pushed down the right sleeve of my overcoat. He’d seen the tip of my tattoo—a handful of blackbird silhouettes cascaded from my wrist to my elbow. “Nothing.”
“Not if you wanted it on you forever.”
I looked up into his startling eyes. He had a lanky grace that suggested the kind of man who, in the outside world, would spend time hiking and rock climbing. There was lucid clarity, and nothing of the shade of hopelessness that pervaded the others.
“Birds.” I only hoped he hadn’t seen the small crisscross of scars the tattoo covered.
“Oh, they represent freedom, I guess.” Feeling awkward, I hunched away. The buzzing hall light dipped and flickered for a second, snagging his attention.
“Rai isn’t really a bad guy. He shouldn’t have done that, I mean, obviously. But what I’m trying to say is… you can’t go around taking risks like that. After all, there are monsters everywhere.” He feigned a happy smile. “Be careful, okay?”
I smiled back but said nothing as I turned and walked back down the hall. Z remained motionless, watching me go.
-DEN OF MONSTERS copyright 2018 Savannah D. Thorne