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.
My uniform had been damp with the day’s sweat and I was more than ready for quitting time when I hurried past the dayroom.
“Hey, Miss Hannah!” Mike called as I passed him in the hall. “Zeke gone and pissed the floor, there, so mind your step.”
GLORIA! GLORIA! I THINK THEY GOT YOUR NUMBER! pounded from the dayroom, causing a twitch behind my eyes, and I jogged along quickly, paying less attention than I should have. The rooms sprawled throughout the building, haphazardly set around the functions from before it was a hospital. An ancient elevator shaft sat vacant at the far end, pointless and unused, a relic from the factory age of the mid-1900s. I usually avoided it; I hated that part of the hospital at night. Some pieces of wall there had been bricked up and plastered over, and I had no idea what they ever had been. Moist, blackened corners of ceiling had fallen. Streaks of mold spread down the walls. The smell of bleach and stale chemicals seeped into every crevice. I took a deep breath and plucked my way along. Musty bundles of slack, lopsided laundry lay dumped outside the door. People had been too lazy to even open the closet. I leaned down to scoop up armfuls of uniform tops and jackets, and bumped the door with my hip. I wanted to get out of here as quickly as possible.
Something stabbed me in the throat. I started to scream, and a damp hand clamped my mouth.
“Hush,” a light, male voice said behind me. “No noise.”
I turned just enough to see his face from my peripheral vision. It was Rai, one of the calmer patients on the ward, a young Asian boy with beautiful features and luminous dark hair. In one fist he grasped the toothbrush, sharpened to a shiv.
One thing my job 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. I recited de-escalation techniques in my head: Use his name. Make a
connection. Keep your voice low and dull.
“Rai, everything will be all right if you just stay calm.”
His ropey muscles stayed tight even though he was shaking uncontrollably. Despite the panic, I forced myself to think. I scanned the room for anything that might help me. Locked metal cabinets rowed the wall. One of them had a warped door where a patient must once have tried to pry it open.
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?” The half-second of silence felt like it stretched out over eternity. He sniffled, ragged, moist.
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 door crashed open. A streak of pale hair as another patient 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, who wrangled him out into the open hallway. “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 to cause the shrill alarm, and I followed out into the hallway behind them.
Rai lay on the hall floor in a ball. The blond man—one of Kelsey Ash’s patients—held both hands in the air.
“I didn’t hurt him, I swear! He just dropped!”
Mike and Neal dashed up the hallway to us, eyes darting for a split-second decision. Neal went down on one knee next to Rai while Mike grabbed the blond man’s hands and put them behind his back. I pushed the fastener back into the alarm. Metallic silence rang.
“He’s okay!” I indicated the blond patient. “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?” He pulled the blond guy into a bear hug, then eyed me suspiciously. “Z, for real, what’s going on?”
“Yeah, man, I’m good. It’s Rai. I think he’s getting worse. He was attempting to do something to 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.
Rai’s head whipped into an unnatural position to stare at me, wild-eyed. “Hey! That’s mine.” His face was puffed and red. He drooled onto the nappy floor 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.
“C’mon, 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. The silence was more intense than the alarm had been.
“Talk to you later, Z. Gotta take care of our friend here. You got this, Miss Weiss?”
The orderlies helped Rai rise and wobble away. Sweat saturated my body and was starting to turn cold. I shivered.
“You all right?” Z asked me.
I smoothed the patch of hair Rai had pulled, thrust my chin up and attempted to smile. “I’m good. So, what’s the name of my savior? Z, right?”
“Zander Grayson. Most people just call me Z.”
“One of Kelsey Ash’s patients.”
“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 just a clinician. But how in the world did you find me?”
His denim-blue eyes flickered. “I was meeting with Director Solv,” he gestured down the hall, “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.”
Down the hallway, Rai let out a bloodcurdling screech. I yelped.
“You all right?”
“Yeah, yeah. Just…shaken 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.”
“Well, I guess that’s how.”
I shook my head. “I didn’t realize I yelped. Thank god you heard me, especially over that squawking music. Speaking of the director….guess I have to file a report. Excuse me.”
“You look pretty pale. I can walk you there, if you want.”
I stuck my hands in the pockets of my overcoat, grasping the shiv. “No, I’m good, thanks.” There was a lot more freedom in the small hospital than I was accustomed to. There were coffee stations everywhere, patients were allowed to check out a pen from the nurse’s station if they needed one; even one supervised area just out-of-doors where patients could smoke cigarettes.
At my hesitation, he teased, “I won’t attack you. I promise.”
A measly laugh shook out of me and I pushed my hair out of my face.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“On your wrist.”
I pulled the right sleeve of my overcoat back down. He’d seen the tip of my tattoo—a handful of blackbird silhouettes cascaded from my wrist to my elbow. “Nothing.”
He thrust forward his right bicep, decorated with an ace of spades. “Not if you wanted it on you forever. 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 outside world, would spend time hiking and rock climbing. There was lucid clarity, nothing of the shade of hopelessness that pervaded the others. Feeling awkward, I hunched away. The buzzing light dipped and flickered for a second, snagging my attention.
“So what’s yours?”
“Oh, jeez, sorry. Birds.” I hoped he hadn’t seen the small crisscross of scars my tattoo covered.
“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. Be careful, okay?”
“Patients are hardly monsters,” I said. “Just people who need help. But thanks.”
Z remained motionless, watching me as I went down the hall. When I glanced behind, he hadn’t moved. His dark gaze was disconcertingly fierce.
-PATIENT X copyright 2018 Savannah D. Thorne