Estimated reading time — 8 minutes
That was Jim’s world.
The walls were white, the floor was white, the orderlies wore white. It was an upsetting, all-encompassing white which left him feeling a little dizzy. And there wasn’t much for him to do besides be absorbed in it. Occasionally, the sounds of crying or screaming could be heard off in the distance, and he took a perverse pleasure in their distraction. It wasn’t schadenfreude exactly, more a painful lack of any other source of amusement. The hospital was dull, the food was bland, and he always felt fuzzy after his morning dose of medicine. Things lost their edges and started to blur into each other.
Jim was sitting at a table in the cafeteria, trying desperately to remember a dream he had had the night before. Flashes of images and emotions popped up, bubbling to the surface like a shaken up soft drink. He had been running from a giant. He had been running from a giant along a road. He had been scared.
“Jim?” Ralph asked.
Ralph didn’t look good that day. Jim could always tell when someone was going to snap. It was a gift he had. Something about the tension in the muscles around the mouth and nose. Something about the peculiar way Ralph’s mustache twitched and jumped nervously.
“Jim?” Ralph asked again, annoyed.
“Yeah, what is it?”
“They stole my pie again.” Jim sighed, but Ralph stopped him before he could speak. “I know, I know. But this time, I’ve got proof. Jim, look at this. Jim, look!” he reached out his hand and dropped a small pile of crumbs into the center of the table. Jim looked disinterestedly.
“So what, Ralph?”
“So what? So, the guard ate it off my plate. But, he left the crumbs. He left the crumbs, Jim!”
“Ralph, that’s a pile of fucking crumbs, what the fuck do I care about a pile of goddamned crumbs?”
Ralph’s hand clenched. “You don’t get it. Today it’s the pie, tomorrow it’s the bread, before you know it they’re bringing me an empty tray. An empty tray, Jim!”
An orderly walked over, attracted by the volume of the conversation.
“What’s the problem today, Ralph?” the man asked, crossing his arms.
He was a new person, somebody Jim didn’t recognize.
“They took my pie. You see, I used to have more food on my lunch tray. Yesterday there was definitely pie.”
The orderly was a big man, big and bald and unsmiling.
“You ate the pie, Ralph. I just watched you eat the pie.”
Ralph’s eye widened ever so slightly.
“No, no you see it wasn’t there when I got my tray–”
“Look, buddy that’s enough. I think it’s time for another dose.”
Ralph stood suddenly.
“NO!” he shouted. “Not again, please, I don’t need medicine, I need my food!”
The big man waved a few other orderlies over. They pinned Ralph to the floor. Jim and the other man at the table kept eating. After the ordeal was over, and Ralph had been dragged away, Jim stood and returned his tray to the pile from which it had come.
Jim was in his room, sleeping lunch off when the door opened without warning. The grating, squeaking sound of metal against metal never failed to rouse him instantly. The orderly from earlier stood in the doorway.
“Hi, Jim,” he said, stepping into the room. “Mind if I come in?”
It was a rhetorical question.
“Please.” The man nodded and closed the door. He walked up to Jim, just a little too close for comfort.
“So… what’s going on?” Jim asked.
“We’re just having a conversation,” the man said, putting his hand on Jim’s shoulder. His breathing was just a little off, like he wasn’t entirely comfortable. His posture was unnerving too, not exactly aggressive, but full of tension, like a cat preparing to jump.
The man smiled. “I’m worried about you Jim. You seem to be having a problem with falling down the stairs.”
Jim was confused. “Falling down the–” the orderly drove a punch into his stomach. The air rushed out of his lungs all at once. He collapsed to the ground, wheezing.
“It was a pretty nasty fall,” the big man planted a kick in the center of Jim’s chest. Jim raised his hands feebly but was too weak to stand. He had spent the better part of a year sitting in his room, considered too dangerous to be allowed outside. The orderly kicked his hands out of the way and slapped him across the face, the sound reverberating around the room. He stomped on his chest and pulled out a small nightstick. These were only carried by security.
“I borrowed this, better make good use of it,” he said, raining blow after blow on Jim’s stomach, arms, and legs. This process repeated itself over the span of three minutes before the man finally tired. When he was finished, he took a moment to catch his breath, placing his hands on his knees.
Jim lay on the ground, his entire body a cacophony of pain. One of his eyes was beginning to swell, his legs and arms were excruciating to move. He had vomited on the ground and still felt immensely queasy. The world was spinning and had a distinct sense of unreality about it. When the man reached up to scratch his nose, Jim flinched back, his torso immediately exploding in agony. After a moment to recover, the man hauled him up and carried him across the hall to the clinic.
The room was small: there were only a few beds and one nurse on duty. She turned when they entered the room and her eyes widened when she saw Jim.
“This one took a pretty nasty fall,” the orderly said. “We were in the stairwell, and I was taking him down to the first floor and he starts having a psychotic break, screaming about how I’m trying to hurt him. He panicked, practically threw himself down three flights of stairs. Pretty ugly.”
The nurse was a young woman, not older than 25, with a kind, open face and sharp eyes. They were the kind of blue that made you think she could look into your soul.
“I’ve got this,” she said, shooing the man away.
She took Jim in her arms and led him to a bed. He lay down, and she began bandaging his wounds.
“That guy, you’ve gotta keep me away from him,” Jim croaked out.
The nurse shushed him. “Try to relax,” she told him.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Skylar, that guy’s dangerous. You gotta do something about him. He kicked me in the stomach. He– he– punched me in the face. I think he stole Ralph’s pie.”
She shined a flashlight in Jim’s eyes.
“You’re confused, that’s all. You took a pretty nasty spill, and you had an incident. Don’t worry. You’ll get over it.”
Jim closed his eyes. “Please, you have to believe me,” he said, grabbing Skylar’s arm. He looked imploringly into her eyes, searching for any life raft he could grab onto in that vast ocean of blue. She hesitated for a moment before gently prying his fingers from her arm and lifting his shirt to begin bandaging the wounds on his stomach.
“Try to relax.”
Jim sat painfully in the cafeteria the next day, eating once again with Ralph. This time, it was Jim with the nervous twitch to his demeanor.
“You don’t have any pie today.”
Ralph looked down. “I hadn’t noticed,” he shrugged, and kept eating. But he wasn’t as casual as he appeared. That slight twitch returned to his mouth. Jim saw it. It was there.
“No, Ralph, look. The pie, it’s gone.”
He stopped eating for a second and closed his eyes.
“No, it’s just in my imagination, I ate the pie. I must’ve forgotten. The medicine does that.”
Jim grabbed his hand, “No, it’s that orderly. It’s gotta be, Ralph. He’s trying to screw with your head.”
Ralph began tapping his leg against the ground. “No, no. I’m over that now, I was wrong before.”
“Try to remember,” Jim said, looking into his eye. “Really try to remember. Did you have pie when you got the plate.”
Ralph paused, then shook his head. “I don’t know– maybe…” He dropped his fork. “No, no. That can’t be, it must have been there.”
Jim stood and pointed at him, shaking, “There was no goddamned pie and you know it, Ralph. Don’t let them get to you!”
The orderlies came running.
“Come on, let’s go,” an altogether too familiar voice called out behind him.
Jim flinched, falling back against the table, spilling his tray on the ground.
“No!” he shouted, before they wrestled him to the ground, and injected him with the tranquilizer.
When Jim woke, he had no idea how much time had passed. A week? A year? It didn’t really matter in this place anyway. He came out of his stupor slowly at first, but then was able to shake it off. When he was fully conscious, he settled into a fitful rhythm of panic and resignation. He was sure that every step, every distant creak was the man coming back, coming to hurt him again.
Every time someone passed by the door he gripped the edge of his bed and clenched his teeth, terrified that the next second would bring with it the dreadful sound of metal grating against metal, and the light from the hallway. It was an unsustainable situation.
He didn’t have to keep it up very long, because not half an hour after he woke up, the door did swing open and the light from the hallway did come flooding into the room.
“Miss me?” that low, growling voice asked casually.
Jim bolted at the door, trying to ram his way through the bigger man, but he ran up against a solid wall of muscle.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he asked, as he threw Jim into the wall.
The previous day’s horror repeated itself, and Jim’s world dissolved into a whirlwind of fists and feet and pain. When he was brought to the infirmary this time, he had been injured on the basketball court.
Skylar brought out the flashlight again.
“You don’t seem to have a concussion,” she murmured.
“You’ve gotta help me. I can’t take any more of this,” he begged her.
“That’s what we’re trying to do here: help you get better.”
Jim looked up at her. “Check my file,” he told her. “I’m not even allowed outside.”
She sighed and brought his paperwork over, intending to put Jim’s delusion to rest once and for all. When she looked down at the paper though, her brow knitted together.
“Hold on a minute,” she said. “You’re one of the level 4 patients.”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you,” Jim said.
“Oh my god,” she said, standing suddenly, with great force. “You’re telling the truth.”
Jim smiled. A weight lifted itself off his shoulders.
Skylar worked quietly, stitching him up, and putting him back together. She worked tirelessly into the night, stroking Jim’s hair and singing softly:
Hush, little baby, don’t say a word,
Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.
The next morning, Jim awoke to the sight of Skylar standing in the doorway. He was surprised, as the nurses didn’t usually come to work so early.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“Just wanted to check on you,” she said, absently.
“Oh,” Jim said, not sure exactly what to say.
As this conversation was happening, the bell went off indicating that it was time for the day to begin. Jim began to shiver unconsciously. The start of another day, and he had barely managed to make it through the last one.
The orderly walked into the room a minute or two after the bell went off, to collect Jim for breakfast.
“Come on, let’s go,” he grabbed him.
“Hold on a minute,” Skylar said.
“What?” the man asked, slightly irritated.
She walked up to him, a slight lilt to her step, and leaned in to whisper in his ear. He leaned over to listen, taken slightly off guard.
Suddenly, the man’s eye exploded in a fountain of blood. A scalpel stuck out from it. He shrieked in pain, but was quickly muffled by a role of medical gauze. A pool of blood began forming around his face. Skylar yanked the instrument from his eye and cut a long gash from his ear to his cheek. The man reached up to defend himself, but without the power of sight, it was a futile effort.
The small woman moved with lightning speed, hacking and slashing at the man’s arms, legs, stomach, scalp. The pool became a lake, and the man’s shrieks grew less and less frequent, his struggles leached of their strength.
Jim stood, aghast, too terrified to move. He felt the entire structure of reality splintering around him. Was this real? Could this actually be happening?
Skylar walked calmly to the other side of the room and washed the blood from her hands, face, and arms. She changed out of her shirt, into another which was hidden among her medical supplies. She grabbed several rolls of gauze and methodically placed them in the pool of blood around the man who barely clung to life.
She kneeled next to him, gently stroking his hair. She took his hand in hers and he clasped her tightly, like a drowning sailor holding onto a piece of wreckage. As the life drained from his body, and the faint gurgling died down into a raspy rattling, Skylar began singing softly:
Hush, little baby, don’t say a word,
Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird…
Credit: Chuck Donahue
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