An ordinary, plastic, hospital-issue toothbrush, the stem sharpened to a wicked point, jutted up against my throat.
“No noise,” a soft, male voice said behind me.
I turned just enough to catch his face in my peripheral vision. Rai: a patient on Briarheart’s C ward, a young Asian boy with beautiful features and luminous dark hair. His left arm wrapped my shoulders, his right fist grasped the shiv. A lurid pop beat pounded from the dayroom speakers down the hall, vibrating the walls, so I hadn’t heard him come up behind me as I’d entered the storeroom.
One thing my job—hell, my life—had taught me was to swallow down primal fear. Rai would have to be disarmed carefully, like an explosive device.
In my head, I recited de-escalation techniques: Use his name. Make a connection. Keep your voice low and dull.
Thud, thud, went the music. The patients were moving their limbs—some slowly, others frenetic. Would they hear me through the thick, half-century-old plaster and stone walls?
“Rai, everything will be all right if you just stay calm.”
His muscles stayed tight even though he was shaking. The claustrophobic space, the smell of sweat, the sharp pressure an instant away from my jugular, made it difficult to stay standing. Despite the panic, I scanned the room for anything useful. 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.
The thudding stopped. In the loud silence, my heartbeat took its place. My brain stalled.
I heard a wet swallow and sharp intake of breath near my right ear. “I don’t know what to do next. I got her here, just like you said. Now what?” The next half-second of silence broke when he sniffled. Was he crying?
Textbook procedure kicked in again: Try to 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. “I didn’t want to. He told me I had to. But I didn’t want to.”
“Who told you?”
“It told you to attack a therapist?”
“Not any therapist. You. The fake blonde.”
The door crashed open, followed by a streak of pale hair and orange patient pajamas. Zander Grayson slammed a shoulder into Rai’s ribs. Rai went flying, strands of my hair tearing from his grip on my scalp. I shrieked and threw a hand to my head. Rai flailed helplessly as Zander wrangled him into the hallway. “It’s okay, man!” Rai cried. “The voice said I had to do it! Chill!”
My lanyard lay broken on the floor. I leapt forward, clawing it up. I detached the duress alarm from its keychain fastener and pushed the panic button, then burst out into the hallway.
Rai lay on the hall floor in a ball. Zander threw his hands in the air, pleading. “I didn’t hurt him, I swear! He just dropped!”
“No, no, you did a good thing. Thank you. You saved me.”
A door slammed open down the hall as Mike and Neal, the day orderlies, dashed to us, eyes darting to assess the situation.
“It’s okay! It’s okay!” I yelled over the shrieking of the alarm, then hit the button for silence. I tilted my head toward Zander. “He saved me.”
Neal went down on one knee next to Rai. “C’mon, let’s make you feel better, man.” Neal uncapped a needle of Midazolam, tapped it, then plunged it into Rai’s neck. He went limp.
Patients began to migrate into the hall, staring, some hangdog, some eager for the excitement.
“Z? What happened? Oh my god, you good?” Mike spun the blond guy around to pull him into a bear hug, then eyed me. “Z, for real, what’s going on?”
“Yeah, man, I’m good. Rai was threatening the good doctor here.” His eyes flicked to the toothbrush. Mike retrieved it, then held it out to Z.
“I’ll take that, thank you.” I grasped it in a sweaty hand, marveling that a stupid toothbrush could have done me in.
Rai drooled onto the floor with a phlegmy gob atop the historic, ground-in stains of vomit, spit, blood, semen, snot, coffee, juice, piss… whatever liquid or secretion anyone could let loose or fling on this floor, had been.
“Cool, you got this, Miss Weiss?”
I nodded as the orderlies helped Rai rise and wobble away. The sweat saturating my body was starting to turn cold.
Zander looked me over. “You all right?” he asked.
I smoothed the patch of hair Rai had pulled, thrust my chin up and attempted to smile. “I’m good. Thanks. But how in the world did you know I was in the closet?”
His denim-blue eyes flickered as he gestured down the hall. “I was meeting with Director Solv when I thought I heard something.” He shrugged. “Of course, it’s hard to hear anything when Heinz Doofenshmirtz corners you.”
I had missed something. “What?”
“Sorry. It’s from a cartoon… Probably after your time. During our meeting, I heard you scream. I told the Director something was going on. He just….you know how he does? Extended his arms like he does. Such a douche.”
I smothered a chuckle. “You shouldn’t speak of the Director like that.”
Zander only grinned mischievously in response.
“I didn’t realize I’d screamed. Thank goodness you heard me over that music in the dayroom!” I shook my head, trying to disperse the adrenaline. I focused more closely on him then: tall, thin, eyes hiding behind a sheet of hair. “Well, speaking of the director, I need to file an incident report. Excuse me.”
“You’re shaking. Want me to walk you there?”
The rooms sprawled throughout the building, haphazardly designed before it was a hospital. An ancient elevator shaft sat vacant at the end of the laundry hallway, pointless and unused, a relic from the factory age of the mid-1900s. Some pieces of wall had been bricked up and plastered over, and black streaks of mold spread down the walls like bloodstains. The smell of bleach and stale chemicals seeped into every crevice. Though I would have appreciated the company, there was so much more liberty in this small, private hospital than I was accustomed to, his offer left me too stunned even to twitch. Recovering my calm mask, I stuck my hands in the pockets of my overcoat, grasping the shiv. “I’m good, thanks.”
At my hesitation, he teased, “I won’t attack you. I promise.”
A measly laugh wriggled out of me as I raised my right hand once more to the sore spot where Rai had yanked my hair.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“Rai got me pretty good.”
“No, I mean on your wrist.”
Instinctively I pulled the right sleeve of my overcoat back down to my hand. But he’d already seen the tip of my tattoo: a handful of blackbird silhouettes cascading from my wrist to my elbow.
"Nothing,” I muttered.
“Not if you wanted it on you forever.” He thrust forward his right bicep, decorated with an ace of spades. “Check it out. My friends and I all got one.”
I looked up into his startling eyes. He had a lanky grace that suggested the kind of man who, in the outs ide world, would spend his spare time hiking and rock climbing. There was lucid clarity, nothing of the moody hopelessness that pervaded the patients’ atmosphere. The buzzing light above flickered for a second, snagging my attention.
“So what’d you get?” he pressed.
Feeling awkward, I hunched my shoulders. “Just birds.” I hoped he hadn’t seen the small crisscross of scars camouflaged by the tattoo.
“Rai isn’t really a bad guy. He shouldn’t have done that—I mean, obviously. What I’m trying to say is… you can’t go around taking risks. After all, there are monsters here.”
“Patients are hardly monsters,” I said. “Just people who need help. But thanks.”
“It’s not always the patients,” Zander replied flatly.
Zander remained watching me as I went down the hall. I felt a chill go up my spine. When I stopped at the door and glanced back, he was still standing there motionless, his gaze disconcertingly fierce.