On the sixth month of my extended stay at Traverse City State Hospital I met Bennie. He is like every other nut job locked up in the whack shack; wiry hair, dead look in the eyes, beard stubble speckled across a gaunt face with a permanent scowl. Unknown violent history that brings him to our humble abode. But there is something different about him. Something in the way he briskly strolls across the cafeteria, Styrofoam tray piled high with some heaping pile of brown mush that reeks of bad eggs and fish, makes him different. He doesn't drag his feet or give his neighbor the stink eye or cross his arms defensively or any of that stuff. He seems a little more there than the average crazy. That, and he is one of the only people here that will talk to me.
See, the other patients avoid me 'cause they think I'm a pussy. I never murdered my parents in their sleep when I was six. I never stood over an icy bathtub and, with the veins in my neck pulsing, held a thrashing kitten under the water until it drowned. I never severed my ex-girlfriend's jugular with a serrated steak knife and then laughed maniacally as I let the warm, metallic blood trickle down my chin and lick it up with my tongue. Because I have never done any of these things, I am not feared, and since I am not feared, I am not respected. I guess it's a street cred thing.
"We're getting a new shrink, Q," Bennie tells me as he slides into the seat across from me, and his voice is significantly more enthusiastic than his usual 8:15 am drone. I wrinkle my nose as he prods the stinking mound of gruel, but he takes no notice as he begins to eagerly shovel it into his mouth.
"Oh, yeah?" I mutter as politely as I can manage, trying to mask my own apathy. My finger flits around the table, making soft scraping sounds as I arrange my Skittles into rows of three in front of me. "What was wrong with Anna? She was nice."
"She's transferring," Bennie tries to say with his mouth full, but it comes out like a bunch of incoherent mumbling, like he is speaking with a gag in his mouth. He swallows with an obnoxious gulp and then points at me with the fork and adds, "I think to Austin State. Lucky her, I say. She doesn't have to freeze to death anymore."
I shiver a little at the mention of this, tugging on the sleeves of my white thermal that is a few sizes too small. The thermostat in this room has been broken for a few months now, thanks to budget cuts and apathy. Because of this a draft that doesn't really exist can be felt under the windowed ceiling, glimmering white with the recent layer of snow. "I wish they'd transfer me to Austin State," I say with a cynical smirk, wrapping one arm protectively around myself while the other finishes sorting the Skittles.
"Not me," Bennie replies, returning his attention to his meal. "I need to be close to Detroit to watch the Lion's play."
For a long while we stop talking and I listen dully to the monotonous drone of all the cafeteria conversations melding into one. I'm reaching the end of my bag of colored candies when I notice a glaring problem. My head whips up from the grainy white table to Bennie. "I need your help," I say, placing my elbow on the table and twisting my rough fingers through my sticky black hair in frustration.
Bennie narrows his eyes at me suspiciously as a bushy eyebrow slowly rises towards his hairline. "With what?" he asks, leaning in over the table and lowering his voice, as if he's worried some crucial information will be overheard.
I gesture vaguely to the Skittles on the table. Thirty-two pieces in all, which are now neatly arranged into ten rows of three and one row of two. As my eyes fall on the row of two, my breathing begins to accelerate. Suddenly, it's not cold in here anymore, my skin starts to prickle and a salty bead a sweat forms on my neck. "Can you do me a favor and eat these two Skittles?" I ask as my jittery finger taps sporadically on my kneecap.
But Bennie snorts and turns away. "I hate Skittles," he says curtly.
"Please!" I insist, anxiety flaring up in my chest. My stomach twists tightly in a knot and my lungs begin taking swift, sharp breaths with an inconsistent rhythm. "Just these two."
"Why don't you just eat them?" he proposes, running his fork through the gritty texture of his food and leaving a series of crosshatch scores behind.
I vehemently shake my head until I can feel the pressure on the tendon. "No, no," I say quickly, my teeth grinding together like two sheets of sandpaper, "I can't do it, it has to be an outside source. It has to be! That's the only way it will work!"
To my surprise, when Bennie finally turns back to me there is a warm sparkle in the hazel irises of his eyes and he is chuckling lightly to himself. "Oh, I get it," he responds with a dismissive roll of the eyes. He drops the fork onto his plate with a clank and looks me square in the face. There's a sudden darkness in the way his gaze falls upon me. "This is one of your crazy OCD episodes, isn't it? How everything has to be three with you? C'mon, man, if you don't cut that shit out then you're never gonna get out of here. You have to make them think that you're getting better and freaking out over Skittles isn't gonna do that."
My head sinks to the uneven rows on the table and I can feel the muggy air wrapping itself around my face. I try to tell myself that he's right. I hug myself tightly with both arms, breathing in deeply and slowly and allowing myself to sigh heavily as I exhale. Finally, my pounding heartbeat begins to ebb and the pulsing against the inside of my ribcage lessens. "Okay," I mutter, my voice laced with stress and exhaustion, "okay."
But the site of that row of two continues to crawl just under my skin and I feel nauseous. There's an abrupt twitch in the muscles of my arm and suddenly my hand involuntarily lashes out, swiping all of the Skittles off the table. They rain down onto the floor like rainbow-colored hail, ringing in my ear as they ricochet off the metal table legs and the dirt-caked tiles.
"Seriously?!" Bennie exclaims, jumping back in his seat and throwing his hands up dramatically. His face twists up in disgust and the wrinkles across his forehead deepen into dark creases. "C'mon, man, pull yourself together!"
I nearly collapse into the table in front of me, both elbows propping my head up, which has become especially heavy in the last few seconds. "It's not…" I stammer weakly, dabbing the sleeve of my thermal against my foggy eyes, "it's not in threes anymore."
Bennie grunts and shakes his head with disapproval, but he calms down and returns to his food tray indifferently. "I'm tellin' you, dude," he begins, popping another forkful into his mouth, "you gotta get it under control. You gotta learn to fake it. Yeah, sure, it's not three, there's your silver lining. But you gotta learn to pretend you don't notice it. I mean look at me. I wanna fuckin' kill everyone in here right now. They piss me off like crazy. But I don't tell anyone that. I fake it. So just pretend to not notice the numbers, and as soon as we walk out those doors, I can go back to killin' people and you can go back to puttin' stuff in threes."
I struggle to straighten up in my seat, taking another elongated breath. "Right," I force myself to agree, nodding vaguely, "I can do that."
But almost instantly Bennie's suggestion hits a snag. I hear the faint squeal of the cockeyed wheel on the medicine cart rumbling towards me. Guided by a bloated nurse with fat rosy cheeks and unsympathetic eyes, the cart comes to a sudden stop at the end of my table. "Meds," the nurse says in a voice that should belong to a man. She slaps two plastic cups in front of me and Bennie respectively.
I give the tiny blue ovular pills sitting in my cup a cursory glance. These pills they put me on turn me into a zombie of sorts, calm and cooperative, but they make my judgment all foggy. If I'm to stay coherent and take Bennie's advice, I can't be on this stuff.
With the fakest of smiles I go through the same motions that everyone has to every day: Pop pills into mouth, swallow with water, stick tongue out for nurse, wait for dirty look followed by mumble of approval. I keep my tongue pointed out at the nurse while she is walking away. Sure, it's childish, but I'm not the first person to do this, and I won't be the last.
"They just increased my dose of the red one," Bennie tells me with proud smile. "I don't know what it is but it makes me feel extra awesome." Apparently today Bennie has the attention span of a small guppy, because he has fully moved past his little pep talk already.
"That's cool," I say without any real conviction. I'm still staring awkwardly at the unsightly mess of Skittles that lay scattered across the floor and not arranged into rows of three. I rock gently back and forth in my seat try to think of anything at all distracting. But my ears start ringing, and it doesn't take long before I feel queasy again. I place my palms down on the table and clamber out of my seat. "I'll be right back," I mutter to Bennie as I turn and make quick strides across the room to where another nurse is waiting by the door.
"I need to use the bathroom," I say, being overly nonchalant to mask the brewing anxiousness that threatens to sweep over me. Wordlessly she escorts me through the swinging doors and down a long, polished hallway where the striking of her heels against the tile echoes off the walls.
The bathroom is the last room on the right and she stands outside with her back to the wall like a palace guard while I quickly close the door behind me. I'm met by a long granite counter top with several sinks. My scrawny disheveled reflection gawks back at me through a row of mirrors. Diligently I roll up the sleeves of my thermal. My shaky hands fly to the leftmost faucet and twirl both of the sparkling ceramic knobs around until I can feel them resisting further motion. Moving quickly, I work my way down the line of sinks, turning on each one in the same fashion. When I reach the other end I come to a stop and listen intently to the chorus of flowing water, nodding my head lightly with approval. Jutting out from the wall in front of me is a paper towel dispenser and I quickly whip out several rough textured sheets.
I throw open the nearest stall until the rubber stopper bangs against the inside wall. Crouching down, I neatly lay each of the paper towels on top of one another in a small stack. Next I kneel down, place my knees on the paper towels so they won't touch the floor and lean my head over the gleaming toilet bowl. I nearly gag as the sickening aroma of several cleaning chemicals rises to meet me. The water below me is a radioactive green.
It has been less than five minute since I took those pills, so I should still have time. I breathe deeply, allowing my chest to swell up and deflate, lower my jaw and stick my middle finger as far down the back of my throat as I can.
I have this day planner that follows me around pretty much everywhere. I study it extensively when I'm in my room, which is basically a more comfortable version of a prison cell. All of the threes are circled where they appear in the days and months, and at the bottom of each page there is a tally of how many threes appear on that page. Even though I don't tell anyone, I have noticed concrete patterns in these numbers that can even go as far as to give hints about what will happen in the future. Especially good or especially bad things happen, for example, on weeks where there are three threes on the corresponding page, or any multiple of three. The last time this happened, a few months back, Johnny hanged himself in his room right after curfew. Another time, a fight broke out between some of the patients and this guy I didn't know got his neck snapped.
At times I feel like I should bring this to someone's attention. After all, if I can do something to prevent these awful things from happening, it seems selfish of me not to. But then I remember what Bennie said about having to forget about the threes, or at least pretend to do so, in order to get out of here.
Fake it; that was his advice. It's easy for him to say that. He's locked up because he's a conspiracy theorist who thought his boss was plotting to kill him and so he beat him to it. If faking it to him means not killing people then I guess he's got it pretty easy. When somehow OCD gets you thrown in the whack shack and you don't even remember why, faking normalcy is a far more complicated matter.
But I do want to get out of here, and I know I can convince them to let me go with enough effort. I decide the first step is to start leaving my day planner in my room. As I lie on my mattress, metal coils poking me in the back, I breath in the dusty air between the dimly lit concrete walls. Flipping through the pages, I scan over hastily scrawled numbers written in the margins around every box, every day, every place where a number could fit. My thumbs are sweating a little and it's causing the blue ink to bleed into the dampening page. Finally closing the book, I haul myself sluggishly out of bed and set my bare feet on the concrete. There's a flaw in my plan, I realize. This is one of those weeks, a week when the numbers all add up to three, when something interesting is going to happen. I can't possibly leave the day planner behind today. It would most certainly drive me to a panic attack.
Above my head the ticking of the clock resonates in my ear. My eyelid twitches as I peer up at the sweeping seconds hand. Rec time is beginning shortly and I need to figure out what to do with this tiny notebook of encrypted wisdom.
Thinking quickly, I devise the only solution I can think of. I'll bring it along with me and pretend it's just a regular day planner. Yes, that's what I'll do. Normal people have day planners, it's really no big deal. I stuff it hurriedly into the pocket of my jeans and head confidently out of the room.
As I enter the Rec room it takes me a moment to adjust to the acrid haze of cigarette smoke that whirls around my face. I pace slowly and cautiously across the floor space, dimly lit and dingy like a bowling alley bar, keeping my eyes peeled. This is probably the most dangerous place in the whack shack, with minimal nurse presence and several instruments that could be used as weapons. The only hint of safety is a small red blinking dot on a security camera in the corner of the room. No one watches it regularly, but if an incident does occur, the footage will be on file. So if I ever get killed in here, at least I can die knowing that the incarcerated murderer will be caught. Budget cuts and apathy again take precedent in our little home.
I find Bennie, grinding down a grainy block of blue chalk into a powdery nub on the tip of a faded pool stick, and head his way. His opponent is someone I don't know by name, a beefy-armed hairy guy with an eye patch and a jagged row of yellow stained teeth clamped down on a cigarette filter. Before I even get into earshot, I can tell he hasn't showered in a while by the dirt on his stubby fingers and the smell of old soup.
I place my palms on the edge of the pool table, the green velvet surface having been worn down until it is slime colored and so thin it simply feels like the slate below it. "Hey, Bennie," I greet him rubbing my eyelids sleepily and stifling a yawn.
"Sup, Q?" he says, flashing a quick grin before leaning gingerly over the pool table and lining up a shot. He grasps the splintered wooden stick in his hands like it's a javelin, and without so much as squinting thrusts it violently forwards at the cue ball. The acrylic ball cannons into a cluster of striped ones and sends them scattering in all directions with a crash. Bennie is without a doubt the most aggressive pool player I have ever met, but his talent is unmatched in the Rec room and he is seldom beaten.
I quietly watch on as the game finishes, and by the time Bennie has slapped the eight ball into the corner pocket, my day planner is sitting on the edge of the table. I peruse the pages, cupping my hands over it so as not to draw attention to my actions.
"That's how it's done, Howie!" Bennies say as he triumphantly sticks the pool stick into the ground like a flagpole of someone marking their territory. "This is my table, yo! Come back when you learn how to tie your own shoes."
I'm still focused on the scribbles and so I'm not paying attention to the chunky guy as he grumbles something incoherently under his breath and trudges off to another corner of the room. When my head finally pops up for a moment, I nearly gasp and jump back. I now see Bennie has circled around the table and is standing right next to me, flapping the top of a pack of cigarettes open and closed. Another one is protruding from his mouth, end smoldering as the smoke blows in my face.
"Want one?" he offers. "I won all of them off that stupid fool Howie. I think he stole them from a nurse or somethin'."
I shake my head. "No thanks," I say.
"Well, you wanna play pool?"
I lean against the edge of the pool table as my head sinks to the floor, pointing sheepishly at the torn and frayed grey carpet. "I uh… I can't…" I say, slipping the day planner discretely back into my pocket. "The uh… the numbers on the balls they… they kinda get me antsy."
"Oh right, the crazy thing," he replies as, a few feet next to me, he mimics my posture, leaning against the table and tapping the edge of his pool stick on the ground. "Oh well, that's okay. It will only be a few more minutes before those red pills kick in and I'll be peachy. Anna upped my dose again today, probably a farewell present or something. Pretty awesome." He takes a long drag on his cigarette.
"Sounds like it," I say. I don't understand why Bennie is so obsessed with getting high off his medication, but since he's the only person here who talks to me, I don't tell him that.
Thinking Bennie to be eagerly awaiting his drug induced euphoria, it surprises me a little when he abruptly turns to me and through a twisted smirk asks, "So what have you been obsessing over in your book today?"
My eyes shoot instantly in his direction, widening considerably. He plucks the cigarette out of his mouth with two fingers and lets out a cackling laugh like a hyena, seeming to find great pleasure in my reaction. I consider the possibility that maybe the pills have already hit him.
"What do you mean?" I ask, turning evasively away from him and staring off into the distance.
"C'mon, Q," he says as he points an accusing finger at me, "don't you play dumb with me. You think 'cause I was playin' pool I didn't notice you hovering over that little pad of yours? The one you always go to when you see somethin' crazy in the numbers? What do you see?"
I sigh and cross my arms defensively over my chest. "I don't see anything," I say. "I'm getting better, remember? There's nothing crazy in the numbers. It doesn't mean anything."
Bennie chuckles as he gently places the pool stick horizontally back down on the table. He struts around, taking long, slow strides, until he's directly in front of me, towering over me with that taunting grin of his. "You don't even believe that dude," he says, pursing only his lips so that he can talk around the cigarette filter.
"I just…" I trail off, biting my lip nervously. "I just noticed a weird coincidence is all. But it's nothing, okay? I'm getting better."
"Well, lay it on me," he says.
I don't say anything at first, because there doesn't seem to be a right answer here. I watch vaguely in the distance as two of the rougher-looking patients take turns tossing rusty-tipped darts at a withering foam board. "Why do you want to know?" I finally ask, staring at Bennie's shoes instead of his face.
"Well," he says, "we gotta do somethin' while we're not playin' pool."
"Fine," I concede, placing my hand on the back of my neck with my elbow pointed out. "You said that Anna was leaving after today. I remember when she started. She's been here for three months." I find myself pacing back and forth and the speed of my words picking up. "Do you remember when Johnny died? Well, on that day, a shrink named Ruth was about to retire, and she had been here for twenty-seven years. And then that big fight in the cafeteria. Actually, that was before you came here but there was this nurse who had announced her transfer after six months the day before." Without realizing it I'm grabbing at my hair again. "Two employees left after being here for a time that was a multiple of three. Whether it be months or years, there's always a three. And something terrible happened to a patient each time!" I turn to Bennie and I can feel my jaw sinking, my mouth falling open as a detail from my subconscious crawls to the forefront of my thoughts. "Johnny was Ruth's patient, Bennie. She was his therapist. And on her last day, he got hanged."
Bennie cocks an eyebrow and snorts. "What's all that mean?" he asks, throwing the remains of the cigarette on the ground and pressing the toes of his shoes against the glowing ember. When he removes his foot there's another hole to add to the countless that dance across the carpet.
My head slowly shakes from side to side and I offer a half-hearted shrug. "It doesn't mean anything," I say, and the words sound foreign to me because yesterday I never would have admitted that. "It's just a coincidence."
But all of the sudden, Bennie is getting all up in my face and two networks of bulging red arteries are creeping out from the center of each of his eyes. "No!" he shouts, and a warm splash of his spit slaps me in the cheek. "Stop! I know you're tryin' to fake normal to get out of here, but Anna is our shrink and she's leaving today and she's the third one to do this and you're the one who says there's shit in the threes. So be straight with me, Q, goddamit! Is one of us gonna die?"
I try to back away from Bennie but almost immediately hit the solid wood of the pool table. My back arches backwards to further distance myself from him. "N-no," I stammer, "of course not. There's nothing in the threes, Bennie, I'm getting better."
Somewhat to my surprise, Bennie takes a few steps back from me, lowers his shoulders and lets out twisted laugh. "Y'know," he begins with smirk, "I always thought you were nuts. But you're a genius, man. These people, these… so called doctors and nurses and therapists, they're not keeping us here to help us." He reaches over and pats me warmly on the shoulder. His touch makes me flinch and my hairline moistens with sweat, but now he's looking down at me and smiling gently, all anger dissolved. "I think you just saved both of our lives, Q," he says, "I know what I have to do now."
And without warning, he turns away and marches towards the exit of the Rec room. He slips through the door and vanishes.
I gasp and dart after him, terrified he might be off to tell some authority about the theory he forced out of me. My heart bangs against my insides, putting strain on my chest. "Bennie, stop!" I yell, as I fly through the doors and into the hallway, drawing frenzied breaths like an asthmatic. "It's not real! It's not real!"
In the tight corridor with flickering fluorescent lights and black-and-white checkered floors, I can barely see the silhouette of Bennie's body as he rounds a corner several yards ahead of me. I begin after him but there's suddenly a tight pinch around my right wrists and I get yanked back towards the Rec room.
"Lower your voice," says the rosy-cheeked nurse, as I turn to find her squishy hand restraining me. She squeezes so tight I can feel the bone in the ball of my wrist sinking into the excess fat of her palm. "Now get back into the Rec room. You know you're not supposed to be out in the hallway for another ten minutes."
"It's not real!" I scream at her manically. "Let me go! It's not real! I'm getting better!" I scream and scream until my throat is raw, but she grabs me and twists my arms behind my back. She pulls on them until the ball of my shoulder is threatening to dislocate as I thrash around with my feet, trying desperately to free myself of her hold. "It's not real! It's just a coincidence!"
The nurse pins me against the wall, my cheek pressing forcefully against the chill of the stone. My chest feels like it's about to implode. "Can I get some help over here?" the nurse calls out, and soon two of the male nurses are grabbing me by my arms and legs. In a matter of seconds, I'm being bound with leather straps around my hands and feet and they're dragging me away, farther away from where Bennie has gone.
"No! No! Stop!" I shriek, my lungs on the verge of collapse and my voice almost gone as my mouth begins to dry out and become shriveled. "I'm getting better! I'm getting better!"
My face hits the padded vinyl of the floor mat as the door slams shut behind me. I mumble under my breath into the sappy collection of sweat and spit that pools around my cheek. I can't even move to roll onto my back or sit up. The straps that bind my legs together are digging into my skin, causing a burning sensation like a bad rash. I can barely even turn my head enough to catch a glimpse of the tiny, prison-cell-sized room around me, every surface lined with the same pads I fell onto.
Well, even in terms of the whack shack, this is what is known as rock bottom by pretty much everyone who's had the misfortune of finding themselves here. Solitary. This is, remarkably, my first visit, but I've heard some of the more uncooperative patients describe it to Bennie over games of pool. They say the worst part is the quiet. Unending quiet that you can only diffuse with the sound of your own screaming. And if you do scream they just make you stay in here longer with more quiet. Apparently even hurling your own body against the wall, provided you can loosen your restraints, will not produce a sound efficient enough to lessen the incursion of the quiet.
There are two things that a person in solitary can do to prevent himself from losing his sanity, or whatever is left of it. They can try to sleep. But with the discomfort of my restraints that's not going to happen. The second thing you can do is to conjure up some happy memory, something to reminisce about, any thought that will take your mind away from your current predicament. I try to think if I have any of those…
"Why are ya all by yourself?" I heard a voice from nearby, and I jerked my head up from my day planner. Sitting across from me was a man a few years older than me. His wavy brown hair fell all around a soft face with a pointed chin and the straightest teeth I had ever seen. He looked like he could have been a movie star.
I had no idea why he was talking to me and dismissively turned back to my notes. "People don't like to sit with me," I said, turning to a fresh page and quickly jotting down a handful of numbers.
"Oh, I get it," he said with a hearty laugh, folding his hands and placing them on the table between us in a business-like manner. "They're scared of you, huh? You did somethin' pretty fucked up to get yourself here and now everyone things ya might kill 'em, am I right?" He then extended his right arm forwardly across the table. "I'm Bennie, by the way. So what'd you do?"
I didn't take his hand, and kept my eyes pointed down at the table. "I don't remember," I said.
"Right," Bennie said, tilting his head to one side and scrutinizing me up and down. "Fine, fine, I get it. I open up first, maybe you'll follow suit." He scratched his head, weaving his fingers through the longs strands of hair like he was looking for something in it. "I killed my boss. But to be fair, he was gonna kill me first. I mean the guy was totally setting me up to make it look like an accident. He was gonna try to make it look like I killed myself while closing up a Burger King. Like that would actually work, ya know? So anyway, I shoved his head into a vat of boiling vegetable oil. It was pretty gross to be honest, but we have to do what we have to do to survive, right?" He was grinning all the while as he relayed this story, and halfway through his monologue I found myself listening intently, closing the day planner and looking to Bennie with undivided interest. "So now that you know a little about me, let's hear it. What'd you do?"
I shrugged weakly. "I really don't remember," I reiterated.
"Well, did you kill someone?"
"No," I said quickly, vehemently shaking my head at this suggestion. "I never hurt anyone. I'm sure of it."
"I hate to break it to ya, buddy," Bennie said with a smirk, "but this is a facility for what they call 'violent offenders'" He raised his hands into the air to mimic quotation marks with his fingers as he spoke the last two words. "So that's not really possible."
"Well, I don't remember."
Bennie allowed his shoulders to fall and he exhaled a heavy breath. He didn't seem so much frustrated as he did troubled by my lack of cooperation, like someone who was just a few clicks away from solving a Rubix cube. "Doesn't your therapist know? I mean don't they want you to like… talk about it and shit?"
"It doesn't really matter why I'm here," I said with a sudden force behind my voice that I hadn't expected. "Just like it doesn't matter why you're here. All that matters is what we do now that we are here." I found myself pausing for a moment, while my statement hung uncomfortably in the air, wondering if I had offended Bennie in any sort of way. I certainly wasn't looking to anger a guy who had openly admitted in the first five minutes of our acquaintance that he had killed his boss. "That's… that's just what my therapist tells me," I add in a much softer, more cautious voice. "Repressed memories. She calls them repressed memories."
"Fine," Bennie conceded, his face darkening with disappointment, as if whatever I might have done was some juicy piece of gossip that he wanted nothing more than to take part in. "Well, what's your name, then?"
That was when it hit me that in six months, no one had talked to me long enough to call me by any sort of name. I'm sure I had a name before I got here, but I couldn't recall it to save my life. "I don't remember that either," I muttered.
"Gee," Bennie began, rolling his eyes and laughing, "I'm starting to see why no one talks to you here, you've got like… amnesia or something. Well I gotta call ya somethin', how 'bout Q?"
"Q?" I repeated, narrowing my eyes in confusion. "Does that stand for something?"
"Quincy," he replied with a guilty grin one would wear if they were hiding a dirty secret. "That was my dog's name, but we just called him Q."
So I'm being named after a dog, I thought to myself. I didn't know how to interpret that.
"Hey pass me that notebook," Bennie said, pointing to my day planner. "Let's play hangman."
And suddenly I saw the violent image of Johnny, dangling with his toes just brushing against the floor, twirling slowly clockwise until he came to a stop and then began to rotate in the reverse direction. I shuddered and wrapped my arms in front of my body, each elbow placed in the opposite palm. "How about tic-tac-toe?" I asked.
Bennie let out a hoarse, cackled laugh like someone who had just finished chain smoking a pack of cigarettes. "Sure thing, Q, but prepare to get your ass kicked."
Finally a swift rapping from the door pulls me out of my head. I scrape my face against the vinyl as face down I crane my neck towards the door. It cracks open and I see a young woman walk in, bleach blonde curls bouncing with each calculated step. She stands over me and I can make out the aroma of a peach tree being shaken in the spring; body spray, perhaps. With blue eyes that glitter like a frozen lake, she peers down at me and for a moment I think that my time in solitary has finally cracked me and I'm hallucinating. Then she parts her pearly pink lips and with an angelic voice asks, "Are you okay?"
"Just peachy," I say into the pad pushing on my jaw, only realizing the hokey pun after the fact. It takes me a moment to realize that the woman in the room with me is in fact my therapist Anna. I don't exactly know what to do with this information so I let it stew in my brain for a minute.
"They tell me you've been pretty quiet and well behaved in here," she says, crouching down next to me so her face is hovering only a few feet above mine. With her pale, lacy fingers, she begins fumbling with the buckles on my straps. "I'm here to escort you back to your room. Can you promise not to do anything stupid for me?"
I quickly check to make sure she's not looking at me so I can safely roll my eyes. "Sure thing, doc," I say, as my feet finally spring free from the leather stranglehold. When all the straps have been released I sit up slowly and inspect my ankles. Two slimy-looking rings of raw, degraded flesh wrap around each one. They glow red and it hurts to touch them. No one ever said this hospital was the most gentle to their crazies.
"I gotta ask," I begin with cautiously chosen words, rolling my pant legs down over the abrasions, "why is the therapist escorting me to my room? Don't they have nurses for that?"
She sighs and for a second I thought I saw a glimmer of guilt or pity in her eyes. "You had a psychological meltdown two hours ago, Q. I'm your therapist. The nurses are scared of you. Even the warden's scared of you. And me… I'm… well, I'm concerned for you."
"I'm sure you're just wracked with concern," I say as I rise to my feet and dust myself off. She's already walking slowly towards the door so I follow robotically in her wake, my feet scratching noisily on the slick surface of the padding. "You know, since you're transferring tomorrow and tossing me off to some other shrink."
"I will be sure to go over your file in detail with the new psychologist," she says as we emerge into another hallway in the labyrinth of this hospital. She pushes a loose strand of hair back delicately behind her ear and turns a corner, continuing towards my room. "I will make sure that even after I'm gone you will still get the attention and help that you need."
"Sure I will," I mutter. I see someone casually leaning against a wall up ahead and when we get closer I notice that it's Bennie. For a moment my anger flares up, my fingers wrapping around themselves in the form of a fist, and I want to punch him or strangle him or just chew his ear off. I take a deep breath, however, and remind myself that I promised not to do anything stupid, and that attacking Bennie would probably land me right back in solitary for the rest of the day.
Anna comes to a stop when she reaches the point of the hall where Bennie is stationed and turns to him with suspicion drawn on her face. The smell of cigarette smoke has followed him from the Rec room. "What are you doing here all by yourself?" she demands. "Patients can't be out in the halls unsupervised."
"Oh, don't worry," Benny assures her with a quaint smile, as he gives a thumbs up and points it at the door besides him, "I'm with nurse Miller, he's on the jon. Sure he won't only be a second."
"Well, I'm required by law to stay here with you until he comes out," she says, straightening her posture and taking an authoritative step towards Bennie.
"No problem," he says, and then he turns to me and adds, "I heard about what happened, Q, you okay? How was solitary?"
The muscles in one of my eyelids twitches and I force myself to keep my arms stiff at my side. "Awesome," I say, tilting my head and sneering at him. "Absolutely wonderful."
It is at this moment that I notice the glint of the stainless steel envelope opener as it slides out from the within the sleeve of Bennie's shirt. My eyes shoot open and I draw in a breath sharply. I go to scream but by then it's far too late.
"No!" I cry, as Bennie lunges forward at Anna and maliciously drives the blade through her abdomen, forcing her backwards and slamming her back against the wall. She doesn't scream. She merely gasps and stares down at her own wound, her mouth hanging open in shock. I stare on, frozen in horror, as Bennie aggressively wrenches the weapon back and forth in her stomach. Blood squirts out in short, contained bursts, like the firing of a water pistol, and splashes against the opposite wall where it begins to trickle down towards the floor. She finally finds her voice but Bennie forces his cupped hand over her mouth and all that comes out is a muffled drone. He withdraws the envelope opener, now a shimmering crimson that drips onto the tiles, and with a brutal thrust plunges it once again into Anna's torso, this time right between the ribs. I want to scream out. I want to run over to them and peel Bennie off of her before it's too late. But my body won't move. It will only stare on as the horror unfolds. The taste of the blood reaches me, like burnt flesh and sweet nectar, and my throat starts to gag. It's all I can do not to throw up as her limp body slowly slumps to the floor, guided by Bennie's hand and blade.
She lays slumped over, motionless, her head falling back behind her shoulders and her eyes staring off at the ceiling above. Bennie removes the envelope opener and drops it with a rattle onto the floor. He crouches down and presses two fingers against her neck, right under her jaw line, smearing the red splotches of blood. I don't know why he even bothers. I can tell from here that he can't detect a pulse.
Seemingly satisfied, he straightens himself up, and then looks to me with a grin so twisted that my stomach turns over. "Thanks for the heads up, Q," he says, wiping his bloodied hands off on his pants. He turns away and makes quickly off down the hall, and in seconds he vanishes completely from sight.
My eyes begin to sting and water up, turning puffy red as I kneel down next to the lifeless therapist. I'm getting a runny nose, suppressing sobs and wiping my wet disgusting face on my sleeve. "I'm so sorry," I say through hot tears, and I reach hesitantly forward and draw her eyelids closed, "this is all my fault. It's all my fault!"
And then, like someone turning off a light switch, my crying stops. All emotion fails me. For a second time I find myself unmoving, standing statue-like next to Anna, my gaze fixed on the two bloody stab wounds. My heart rate picks up, until soon it's beating fast enough for the both of us. Without averting my eyes, I slowly reach for the envelope opener. I screw my eyes tightly shut and hold my breath. I feel myself fall forward towards her.
There's a sick squishing sound, like someone stepping on a frog. I feel the hand that clutches the envelope opener becoming warm and sticky so I let go of it and scramble backwards on my hands and feet until I hit the stone of the opposite wall.
When I finally open my eyes, the blood-drenched steel blade is protruding from the corpse's chest in a third wound, spaced equidistant from and in between the first two made by Bennie. It's perfectly even, and I release a sigh of relief.
I slowly get to my feet, the adrenaline waning out of my system, and it vaguely occurs to me that something of this nature could have landed me here. I think about this, walking with cautious, winding steps back towards my room. My arms fold protectively in front of me to shield the dribbles of blood blurring into the sleeves of my thermal from view. Each leg shakes violently, as its respective foot strikes the tile, my wobbly knees protesting the movement.
When I reach my room, I let myself fall onto my bed where a chorus of twisted up metal springs jab me in the chest. My breath coming out in conflicted heaves. I force myself to sit up and quickly tug the bloodied shirt over my head. Hastily I wad it up in my hand and toss it under the bed as I steady my feet on the floor. Sitting only barely on the lip of the bed, I throw my head back and focus on my breathing. With each repetition it becomes less of a dreary, sporadic pant and more like a real breath. A light breeze whisks in and tickles where my skin stretches over my bony ribcage. It feels refreshing. For thirty whole seconds I think only of the air on my bare flesh.
And then the crumpled up body flashes through my mind again like a short circuit and both hands fly to the sides of my head. All I can see is that look of shock and horror on the innocent face of Anna, taking her final breaths. I thrash my head back and forth, but the image only lasts a minute, and then it's just that breeze again.
"She was already dead," I mutter to myself, and in that moment a gentle wave of serenity washes over me like the lapping of the slowly rising tide. I lean forward on the bed, placing my hands in a ball on my lap, and nod to myself a few times. "Yeah… Yeah… already dead, she was already dead. Just like… just like the first time." This thought brings me to snicker a bit, and before long unrestrained laughter is echoing between the claustrophobic walls of my room. Soon there are hackles erupting from my vocal chords that don't sound like mine. They sound happy, they sound content, and in that moment, I love it. "I've never hurt anybody," I say through the clenched teeth of my giggles, "I've never hurt anybody."
The door flies open and the same plump nurse from hours ago is standing in the threshold. The features of her face are heavily contorted around her nose, which glows bright red like a bad sunburn. Her beady eyes pierce through me and her stumpy legs take two pudgy steps forward. Behind her, two uniformed police officers, guns drawn and badges polished, follow her into my room.
"Don't do anything stupid," the nurse warns. "You know why we're here." The cops take aim at me. Their arms move in tandem, like two marionettes on the same string, as they each raise their weapon steadily. Behind heavily tinted sunglasses, two identical waxy looking faces eyed me in a way that suggested they were looking for any excuse to let off some steam right into my skull.
My arms slowly rise on either side of me, bent ninety degrees at the elbows so my outstretched fingers point towards the ceiling. I let myself gently slip off the edge of the bed, where my knees strike the floor. One by one, each hand finds its place on the back of my head, palms against my hair in the universal sign of surrender. The smile on my face, the first genuine smile on my face in some time, remains glued in place as my twinkling eyes gaze up at my aggressors. I give one last chuckle and cock an eyebrow. At least they sent three of them.