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. 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 dusty, yellow light above cells stuffed with lost people. Though I prescribed the 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 else had turned away from. People like me.
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 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. My instinct was to scream, scrabble away, 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, bore reasons 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.”
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.”
“Rai, what’s going on? Don’t mess up everything you’ve worked toward.”
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?”
Hearing voices was a bad enough sign, and this voice urged him to violence. "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 with one shoulder. The lanyard pulled hard against my throat for a second before Rai let go. Now I could detach my duress alarm from its keychain-like fastener. I yanked it. A shrill whistle bounced off the walls. Rai instantly melted 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 squealing alarm. Metallic silence rang in the enclosed space.
“He’s okay!” I indicated the blond man. “He came to help me.”
“Sorry,” Neal said, ducking his head down like the stranger was someone of importance. I’d seen men act like this during my internship at Joliet: mob dons, gang bosses. Men as powerful inside of bars as out. I’d have to watch this one.
Most rooms and all of the halls were tile-floored because carpet would absorb the stains of vomit, spit, blood, semen, snot, coffee, juice, piss—whatever liquid or secretion anyone could let loose or fling. But the hall outside the storage space still wore an old nappy rug with sketchy leaf patterns outlined across it. Rai left a phlegmy sobbing gob sinking into the carpet. Neal handed the shiv to me. I took it in a sweaty hand.
Rai’s head whipped into an unnatural position to stare at me, wild-eyed. “I had to,” he repeated. “I had to. The voice wouldn’t leave me alone.” His beautiful Asian face was puffed and red from sobbing. His eyes rolled in abject terror.
Mike uncapped a needle of Midazolam, tapped it, plunged it into Rai’s neck. Rai went limp and his silence afterward was more intense than the shouting. Then the men helped him wobble away. .Sweat saturated my body and was starting to turn cold.
“You all right?” the stranger asked. I had almost forgotten he was there. The blond hair was the noticeable thing about him; there was so much of it, and it was so pale. Second was the dark denim blue eyes.
I clenched my trembling hands, thrust my chin up. “I’m good. So, what’s the name of my savior?”
“Zander Grayson. Most of the doctors call me Z.”
“Zander..” I remembered him now. Another one of Kelsey Ash’s patients, I’d seen Zander in the halls and rec room, but never in class. “I’m Hannah Weiss.”
“I see that.” He pointed to my name tag with a small chuckle.
I touched the tag. “Right.”
“Glad you’re safe, Doctor Weiss.”
“Oh, I’m not a doctor, just a clinician. How did you know Rai was in there?”
His eyes flickered. “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 was waiting for you. When I saw you walk down the hall a minute later, I pretty much figured out what was what.”
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 black handful of bird 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 lanky grace that suggested the kind of guy who, in the outside world, would spend time hiking and rock climbing. There was nothing of the shade of hopelessness that pervaded the others, and a lucid clarity lit his gaze.
“Birds.” I only hoped he hadn’t seen the small crisscross of scars the tattoo covered. “They represent freedom, I guess.” Feeling awkward, I hunched away. The buzzing hall light dipped and flickered for a second, snagging his attention. “Well,, got to go.”
“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. Still, you can’t go around taking risks like that. Be careful, okay?”
“The orderlies almost took you down too. You could really have been hurt.”
“To keeo you safe and sound?” He flashed a smile. “Worth it.”
No one spoke as I walked Briarheart’s halls with the shiv in one pocket and sweat soaked all down my back. 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. Psychiatric doctors, aides and technicians endure workplace violence at a rate sixty-nine times greater than the national average. But here at Briarheart, a small, private institution secluded on the far west side of Chicago, this was the first time I’d seen it, much less been the object.
The hospital’s dinginess was made deeper by the general lack of lighting, and though the walls had been painted over for institutional work, dampness, 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 fifth floor, in the old records room, she’d seen a man in a red shirt but when she turned to ask if she could help him, he disappeared.
The de facto director, Solv, was a Ph. D. with delusions of grandeur. I opened his door and walked in. “Director? A moment?”
“I have a moment, but no more.”
“I need to let you know there was an attack.”
He put down the papers he’d been holding, took his glasses off and laid them on his desk.
“Rai jumped me. He had a shiv.”
He rose from his chair. “You are unharmed?”
“Yes. And, Director? Zander Grayson saved me. He tackled Rai. If he hadn’t…I would have been hurt. Maybe seriously.”
“Grayson?” The director folded his hands. “It would seem you’ve drawn the attention of our little celebrity.”
The tone was almost creepy, but the director was always so cool and neutral, detached. He had emigrated from Denmark in his twenties, and though he Americanized his first 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. 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.
Solv came around and perched half-on the desk. He gestured to the window where, in the distance 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. I will alert Doctor Ash.”
“I wondered. I thought, perhaps, I could take Rai on.”
“What, in a fight?” His eyes twinkled.
I gave a fizzling smile. “I could help with his therapy. Joliet and Oakdale gave me a strong sense for violent cases.”
“Seriously, Hannah, we have seventy-five beds in this place, and only six psychiatrists between them. There simply isn’t time in the day. We would all love to have our pet projects. But we must not let personal feelings get in the way. Your classes with him with have to suffice.”
A flash of gold as he checked his watch. “Now, excuse me.” He ushered me out.
I hurried down the hall, the overhead lights striping the floor as I went. I took the stairs to the first floor, then the long walk to the evidence locker.
My name, of all things? Why?
Timothy, the property administrator, gave the sharpened toothbrush an item number and sealed it away. Now that the stress had left my body, I felt on the verge of collapse. Still, I climbed several flights of stairs back up again. The important rooms sprawled throughout the building, haphazardly set around the functions from before it was a hospital. Up for older records, down for medications, back up for food and up more for the patients. Down again for therapy and meditation rooms. The ancient elevator shaft sat vacant at the other end, pointless and unused, a relic from the factory age of the mid-1900s. The thick-painted stripes led the way. Stay Straight. Turn Here. Institutional blue, the color so insanity-inducing that you only find it in prisons and schools: the color that strives to be nothing yet sets your teeth on edge. There was a spread of different sickly pastels for different corridors, as though that were cheering or helpful.
Apparently, Rai’s attack had already morphed to a celebration: as I passed the nurse’s station, Abbey Fitzgerald let out a whoop. “Our lion of the ward!”
I smiled, called, “Just doing my job!”
The stairs felt grueling and the corner I needed to turn 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 rumpled mess in the mirror, but I focused on the drain and on forcing cool water onto my cheeks. My hot, jagged breathing echoed off the white tile.
“It’s okay, now,” I assured myself. It could have been so much worse.
Still, after I drove home that night to my flat in Roger’s Park, I made it only a half-step before I fell to a crouch in a puddle of slush, arms around my knees. I leaned against my car, holding myself till I could no longer hear the city, only the roaring in my ears. Now that the threat was over—Rai safely in his room in the far-off hospital—the panic at last shook free. It galloped over me and through me. My pulse skyshot. How had I been so stupid? Me, with my life, with my history? Had some idiot woman-child part of me watched Rai’s attack detachedly, uncaring? Perhaps even believing I deserved it? I knuckled away a tear. Oh, hell no. I won’t give them this.
I forced myself upright and walked to my door with the world spinning. I had to brace myself to fit the key in the lock. Once inside, I fished through my medicine cabinet. I popped the vial of Xanax open, tipped one out. The gritty, bitter pill powder dissolved on my tongue. Through a watery veil, light fragmented into rainbows like a hundred suns.
-DEN OF MONSTERS copyright 2018 Savannah D. Thorne