Asylum by Matt Dymerski
In the interests of anonymity, I will say only that I work in health care. We seem to get more than our fair share of strange patients; one, specifically, has been on my mind lately.
The girl in question, a recent admission, had a story disturbing enough to run through the inter-department grapevine fairly often. Tired of hearing the same gossip repeated endlessly, I pulled and read her file, intending to debunk the rumors.
I wish I hadn’t.
The following is a cleaned-up version of her personal written account.
This is all a misunderstanding, honestly. I’m fine. I am not the problem. There’s someone else out there responsible for this - they’re doing this to torture me. I shouldn’t even be here.
I’ve had some issues with body image. That much is true. I was actually failing yet another diet when it first happened.
We were out celebrating Becky’s promotion. The five of us were at dinner - it was a really nice restaurant, but I can’t remember which - and my diet willpower was running on empty. We'd all had a glass or two of wine by the time my salad came. I’d resolved to eat only half of it, and only that much so as not to cause a scene on Becky’s night. The girls pestered me whenever I refused to eat…
Still, I couldn’t help but think it was no coincidence that the skinniest out of the five of us was the first to get promoted. We’d all graduated more than a year ago, and the real world was like slap in the face. None of us were really where we wanted to be.
Except Becky, of course.
Hunger filled me with constant pain, and hating myself for it stressed me to the limit… so when the waiter put cheese on my salad, I didn’t stop him. I wanted to throw the salad away, to refuse to eat, but I was so hungry…
And then, two bites in, angry but putting on a happy face for the girls, I found a long black hair. Wrapping around pieces of lettuce, it immediately disgusted me - I’d almost eaten it without realizing it.
We got our meals for free, and the girls didn’t even bother me when I couldn’t bring myself to eat. The hair had knocked out my hunger completely!
I was on cloud nine for the next day or two. I wasn’t hungry, I wasn’t stressed - it was amazing. I thought I’d stumbled onto some great new form of self-control.
But the girls thought otherwise - or maybe just Becky.
I was at lunch with Andrea when the hunger began to reach a breaking point again. Depleted, sad, I gave in and ordered a large salad. Andrea smiled and said something about being there for me if I needed to talk - I bet she was in on it. In my memories, her smile seems vaguely sinister and mocking, as if she anticipated what would happen…
I found a fingernail in my salad! A fake red fingernail!
Those things are disgusting - there are so many germs under fake nails - I know!
Lunch was free again, but I couldn’t bring myself to eat. The shock and disgust had, again, knocked out my hunger completely.
Part of me was relieved, and empowered. I was going on two weeks without eating, and this whole… disgust thing… was really helping me lose weight.
But I’m not crazy, or stupid. I know that you have to eat sometimes.
Another day or two passed, and I ordered a chicken salad while at brunch with Becky. She kept gloating on and on about her new job, about how her boss was vaguely hitting on her… I hated her so much, secretly, even if outwardly I was happy for her. I was mainly focused on my salad, though. It was sweet relief, finally eating…
…until I bit down on something hard and squishy.
I spit it out quickly; I remember Becky’s exact words.
“Oh my god, is that a toe?”
I remember staring at the thing as it sat on my napkin. It was mushed, ground up, red and cooked a little… but a bone clearly stuck out of it.
The entire place shut down temporarily after that, but nobody could figure out where the toe had come from. Obviously, none of the employees were missing it… but Becky basked in the attention from the scandal. She even got on local television, even though it was my salad that had the toe in it.
“This is a travesty. People can get seriously sick if they accidentally eat things like that,” she’d said to the reporter.
I was starting to wonder whether she had something to do with it…
The shock overwhelmed me, dispelling my hunger for a little under a day - but my relief and enjoyment was short-lived. I knew I’d have to start eating again, sooner rather than later.
Not up for any more of Becky’s sick pranks, I decided to scope the vending machines at the mall.
I hated myself so much, right about then, staring at candy bars and feeling weak… but I had to eat, and I had no willpower left. Chocolate would make everything right.
I bit into that thing… so amazing… sweet, sweet chocolate…
It was only two bites in that I saw something poking out between the wrapper and the candy bar, halfway down. Pulling the wrapper back, I couldn’t help but hurl it on the floor as I puked up what I’d eaten.
Pressed between wrapper and chocolate was what was unmistakably a flap of skin.
Had it been sliced off of somebody? Traces of blood still… god!
But how the hell had Becky done it? How had she known?
I was full on terrified and angry then, even if a tiny part of me had been relieved to throw up the two bites I’d eaten. Tortured, but still fighting my own urge to not eat, I ordered a slice of pizza at the food court. It came with a large bubble in the crust… sickly despairing, I ripped it open, finding what looked like someone’s cornea cooked inside.
Goddamn Becky - she had to be somewhere around, tracking me, doing this to me. Did she have the help of all the girls?
By nightfall, I ended up across the state line. I pulled into a backwater restaurant I’d never heard of. Relieved, I ordered a hamburger from the polite old man who probably owned the place. There was no way Becky or the girls could interfere with my food here…
The hamburger, slid in front of me on a quaintly decorated plate, looked like the most delicious thing ever. I still considered not eating, still considered continuing my diet… and I hated myself for giving in… but I didn’t want to die. People have to eat!
I paused before biting in.
Sliding back the bun, I investigated the contents. Everything seemed normal, until I lifted the tomato from the lettuce. I couldn’t tell what it was at first… a pinkish grayish blob, a bump in the ketchup… I lifted it up by a stringy bit and stared at it, until I finally understood.
It was a piece of brain matter.
I would have thrown up, but my heaving stomach had nothing in it.
I drove away from there as fast as I could, continuing in random directions. I don’t know how Becky and the girls were tracking me or predicting what I would eat, but I had to evade them…
Candy bar from a gas station - nope. Chicken nuggets from a drive through - nope. I still don’t understand how they did it! I even begged a younger kid to make me a sub from start to finish, watching the entire process, making sure nothing was in it - he handed it to me, I opened it up, and - oh god - I still remember his expression of confusion and horror as I screamed…
But a strange calm came after that. Three weeks without eating? Four? I knew I would die if I didn’t eat. I had this strange thought; I had this idea, of a place they couldn’t predict, couldn’t make disgusting and inedible…
I found it. I did - I beat them. I found the most delicious salad, and I ate it desperately, gorging, knowing I was finally saved… but I’ll be honest, that wasn’t what I expected to find the first time I did it. It makes sense, now, though.
When I cracked his skull open with that pipe, I almost couldn’t believe it. He fell, and chicken salad splattered across the pavement! Supple green lettuce, crunchy and stringy - strips of chewy chicken - and that dressing… that dressing was to die for! I was finding pieces of people in my food, no matter where I ate… so the only logical place to find something edible was… inside people…
We have to feed her intravenously. Normal food terrifies and disgusts her. The whole thing makes me wonder how, in this day and age, we can still let the media impose unreasonable body images so powerfully on us…
Though she’s not the strangest patient we have here, she interests me because of her ability to manipulate the nurses. Apparently - and nobody ever did figure out who helped her - she convinced somebody to sneak body parts into her food the first few times we tried to feed her. At least, that’s the only explanation of those incidents that makes sense…
Update: I read some more files, and they continue to disturb me...
After delving into one of the patient’s accounts, I’ve become more aware of the bizarre array of afflictions we contain here… I’ll be honest, I never really thought of the patients as people before. Crazy is a label that immediately dehumanizes someone, cutting them off from any sympathy or understanding.
There’s one girl, for instance, who refuses to talk to anyone unless she’s allowed to feel their temples for ‘nerve fibers’ first, whatever that means. Other than that, and some mild paranoia, she seems completely aware and normal - but, before, it was easy to write her off as just another crazy patient. I wonder what she’s thinking… she refused to give any explanation for her behavior.
The more I read their accounts, the more I realize that these are real people afflicted by tortures beyond mundane imagination.
Last night, reading while on break, one man’s words caught my attention. I know him. He’s consistently depressed, resigned, and drained - but now I think that, underneath all that, he may be like any of us. He’s just… pained by this thing that grips him.
Fine, I’ll tell you! Just no more shocks. You promised no more shocks if I tell you!
It doesn’t make a difference anyway.
I know how it started. It’s obvious now, when I think back.
I was on the street, walking with friends. We were drinking, and heading to the next bar, when some weird, disgusting, guy with desperate eyes bumped into me. He smelled like sweat and something else… but he spilled something on me. It got on my hand - on my fingernails, specifically.
It was blood. He’d spilled blood on me.
He froze, seemed horrified and sad. “I’m sorry,” he said. I believed him, but I didn’t know what he was sorry for. He ran.
Disgusted, I cleaned it off and tried to forget about it. Nothing happened… for awhile.
Oh God, I remember every detail of that night. Lying by myself in my crappy little apartment - oh how I miss it, a palace compared to your ‘care’ - I woke up just before it happened. I gazed at my dark ceiling, feeling strange.
And then I was curled up in pain, too shocked even to scream. I remember staring at it, not yet understanding how screwed I was. This long, bloody, blade-thing was sticking out from my shin.
Where’d it come from? Did someone stab me? I didn’t understand… I reached for the phone, but seized with pain again as the blade moved. Another long, white, razor-like thing shot out, and the two separated, slicing an open line in my shin. I had sudden visions of the razors continuing, slicing me into sections from the inside out… now, I almost wish it had.
I didn’t have much time to panic. The slicing stopped. I stared, clutching my leg. Four more bloody protrusions joined the first two, and then - it slid out.
Shaking, numb from shock and panic, I felt a small relief that I wasn’t about to be carved up - and then that consolation vanished, as I realized something living had just crawled out of my shin bone.
Dripping with my blood, it scanned the room with six pearly eyes. Seemingly carved from bone, it stood on six razor-like legs - the blades that had eviscerated my shin. About two feet high, it was much like a spider…
Unexpected, it said. It had no mouth. How did it speak?
“…Unexpected?” I asked, numb and terrified.
Who are you?
Trembling and on the verge of tears, I just wanted it to go away. “Nobody important…”
That was the wrong answer.
It jabbed a leg back into my exposed shin bone, neatly avoiding the separated flesh and streaming blood. I felt a sharp jab in my chest - I understood implicitly, horrified, that this creature’s razor leg entered my tibia, but emerged from one of my ribs. A bladed point pressed against my heart from the inside…
“Please, please,” I begged, sweat running into my eyes. “I’ll do anything you say, I’ll do it, I’ll do it, just don’t kill me…”
Acceptable, it replied.
It withdrew its leg, and the pain in my chest went with it.
You will do as instructed or die in utmost pain.
“Yes, yes, that’s fine,” I choked out, sobbing.
It climbed back into my exposed bone… and then it was gone, having given me no instructions. I went to the hospital, got my leg sewn up, claimed it was an accident… and it seemed I had my life back.
I was wrong.
It slid out between my stitches a few nights later. Dismayed, but ready, I made sure to memorize everything I could about it. Spindly, deadly, it was strangely beautiful, in an ivory and insect sort of way. Somebody had to know about this thing.
It gave me orders. It made me do things.
It started with small crimes. It wanted them done in a specific manner, with contrived evidence left behind for reasons I wasn’t told. It directed me to dangerous criminal locales, though other people were the least of my concerns by then. One of its other slaves gave me a long animal bone treated with that special blood, and it often made me bring this bone to shady locations.
It would emerge from that bone and converse with someone - someone aware of it, able to defend from it? Someone it needed to make a deal with for its purposes? I never saw him. I doubted he would help me, even if I found him…
I gave up hope after many failed nights of searching for an answer or help. I’d beaten people. Mugged them. Held up a convenience store at knifepoint. It even made me get that cursed blood on this guy’s fingernails, and I had to watch as he was slowly separated into sections by protruding razor legs… his hand, falling to the floor… his leg, popping off at the knee by a rotating slice… screaming, begging, pleading… it tortured him to death for information I didn’t understand… and it made me pick up his pieces and dispose of them… oh God…
Whenever I wasn’t on assignment, I turned to… other ways to distract myself from the black pit of despair welling up inside me.
My brother found me on the street after a few months of this. I remember every detail of that, too.
“You have to come home,” he insisted. “We’ll get you off the drugs, clean you up. Dad’ll get you a job.”
“The drugs aren’t the problem,” I remember shouting at him. “They’re the only thing that keep me from losing my mind. It’s the bonewalker -”
As I said those words, a sharp jab hit me underneath my left shoulder blade. The next scratched the side of my right lung. I realized it was watching me… the message was clear. If I told anyone, it would carve me up from the inside out.
“Get out of here!” I screamed at him, feeling every bit the same now as that disgusting and desperate man who’d bumped into me. “You can’t help me! Go away!”
I hit the hard drugs even harder, then. At some point, I was drained of everything even resembling my old self, and I decided not do it anymore - even if it meant my death. At its behest, I’d bought a rifle, and trained in its use. It wanted me to kill somebody, somebody important… but when it came with the name and plan, I would refuse.
I wondered how it would do it. Would it stab inward from my skull, killing me instantly? Or would it slice out from each of my bones, carving me up slowly, like that poor, poor man?
I stared at the gun, wondering if it would go after my family if I refused. Did I really have a choice? Could I sacrifice my brother, too? And my parents? I had to make the bonewalker think it wasn’t my fault…
I called and left an anonymous tip. I sat there, filled with relief and calm, as they surrounded me and put on the handcuffs. I sat in custody, ostensibly caught by the police; when the bonewalker came, it would have no reason to punish my family. It would just kill me, and that was that.
But… it never came.
I mean, I know why it didn’t return, now… but I’m broken, and stuck here in any case. And I keep thinking… what if there are more? What if they come for me someday, because I know?
There’ll be no warning… it could come at any time… just a sharp, sliding sensation, and then I’ll be dead…
The thing that captivates me about his account is that it’s very similar to some ravings left by a man who died horribly awhile back. He was mutilated in ways unimaginable - as if his face had been torn off from the inside, among other things. His story made the news, and they figured he was the serial killer responsible for several similar horrific deaths…
But that man claimed that, as his last act, he’d managed to destroy the creature.
I suppose this man must have read about the prior man’s issues, and formed an obsession or delusion about it.
I find it curious how contagious crazy seems to be… and seemingly more so these days. I’m starting to wonder if this place is truly run to help these people - or whether it’s really just here to contain them… like quarantine for a plague.
Update: And now I'm convinced something more is going on.
After reading several files of the patients here, I’m starting to become a little concerned. I have this notion that there’s some sort of pattern here, but I can’t quite define it yet. I’m especially concerned about the last male patient’s claims that he is being shocked or mistreated. We do not do shock therapy here.
Shock therapy would actually be a possible treatment for severe unresponsive depression, which is exactly what he has… but we don’t do that here…
While reading through files last night, one girl’s transcript leapt out at me. I know it’s strongly part of the pattern I’m sensing, but I still can’t quite put it together…
That sound - can I have some of that?
Come on, it’s just coffee.
Give it to me!
Alright, I’ll tell you - but this better not be a trick. You promise?
Where do you want me to start?
Ok… it was class, honestly.
Yeah, class. Think it’s ridiculous that someone like me could have gone to college, [expletive]? It’s actually how I ended up like this.
My family’s not rich. Bet that doesn’t surprise you. We’re not illegals, though. Just new to the country, and not well off. I was the first one in my family to get into a good college. My older sister screwed around in high school, but I worked myself half to death. I figured, once I get in, it’s all set. I can relax.
Then I actually got there.
Everyone around me seemed so immature, so stupid. They partied all the time. They never studied, never did their homework, nothing. Half of them didn’t even show up to class. The football players, they didn’t even take the exams. I couldn’t understand it. Did they have any idea how much college cost? I still don’t know.
My parents called me about three months in. I was taking over the maximum amount of classes, because we only had enough money for three years between the family and the scholarships I’d earned. I had to graduate in three years, that was the plan.
They told me that my gran was sick. The family was going to spend the money on her healthcare. I said fine, that’s great, I love gran.
I was in denial for a little, there. I thought, maybe I’ll just get some scholarships. Maybe I can make this work. Student loans, maybe. The thought of all that debt terrified me - I would never, ever work off the amounts they were talking about. My parents always said, “We didn’t come here just to live destitute all over again.”
A month or so out from the end of that first semester, I got an email about a scholarship that was considering me. I thought all my problems were solved - it was a full ride!
But the deadline for an essay submission was the next day. No problem, I figured. I had a test and four classes with large amounts of homework, but I could do it. This was important.
So I drank some coffee, stayed up late, fell asleep about five in the morning… that next day was tired and uncomfortable, and I did a little worse on the test than I wanted, but I got it all done.
I got an email response to my submission that night. They liked my essay! I was so happy - until I read that I was just in the next pool. The next level required an in-depth analysis of an industry - thirty pages! And it was due in a few days! Had everyone else known about all this for months? Had the other candidates had all the time in the world to finish the work?
Since it was on my mind, I chose the student loan industry. That was probably a mistake - all I learned was how screwed I would be if I didn’t get this scholarship. A hundred thousand dollars or more for three or four years… and no rights, no bankruptcy, no protections… it was all worse than a loan shark deal, and, from my neighborhood, I knew how bad loan sharks could be.
I hit the coffee hard. A neighbor in the dorms gave me some pills, but I didn’t feel good about it, and left them in my backpack. I got maybe three hours of sleep a night for the next few days, struggling to get through all my classes, homework, and tests, and then also do this huge paper. I knew my classwork was suffering, but a few days wouldn’t ruin my grades. This scholarship was important…
I was at my limit when I submitted that damn thirty-page paper. Burnt out, exhausted, and fried on a week of caffeine and no sleep…
I slept terribly that night, but it was still a breeze through my pained body.
I awoke to an email congratulating me on being one of five candidates remaining in the nation. I didn’t understand - had they reviewed all the thirty-page papers overnight? Or had everyone else failed to get it done on time? Maybe that was it - maybe they only got five papers, because nobody else had the time…
They wanted a graduate-level thesis in two weeks.
I spent that entire day stunned. I couldn’t even comprehend the level of work required for this full ride scholarship… and it was getting into finals time. I think I almost broke down crying, until I realized that I did have a friend in the graduate program…
She agreed to meet with me, and helped me hash out exactly what I needed to do. She’d been working on hers for a year… she expressed some skepticism about the scholarship competition I was engaged in, but she said, “Better go for it - you don’t want to end up like me. I’ve got so many loans, I’ll never be out of debt.”
I struggled to maintain my composure in response to that. What, so if I fail to write a thesis in two weeks, I’ll end up with huge debt for the rest of my life?
The pills in my backpack started to make some sense.
They made it almost easy, actually.
I went to class, studied for finals, and worked on my thesis. I did it all.
Everything except sleep.
Between the pills and the coffee, I felt horrible, but I was awake - and working twenty-four hours a day was all that mattered. I had to get that scholarship. I had to.
I thought I could actually make the deadline… but halfway there, a week in, I could feel my body starting to give out. I hadn’t slept well in a week and a half, and hadn’t slept at all in six days… and there was still another week to go.
I went to my neighbor to ask for more pills… he was sick, sniffling, and talking to him filled me with disgust. He just seemed… gross… full of snot and spittle and his eyes were all bulgy… I took the pills and got out of there.
I started doubling the dose. Then, I tripled it.
I reached a strange plateau of pained awareness and strained energy that kept me working on everything straight through the next week. I knew that what I was doing was dangerous, but I had to do it. It would be worth it. I was going to win that scholarship… I knew it.
I hit a wall the day before it was due.
Staring at the massive thesis I’d produced, just a few pages from the end - the most critical portion, the conclusions, all escaping me - I couldn’t form the words in my head. I couldn’t think the things I needed to type out. I blinked a few times, trying to get my head straight…
I was on my laptop, in the library. I looked around in tired confusion. My dorm room, the library, and class had all become a blur as my days without sleep melded into one another.
It was night, and the library was quiet. Beyond the breathy exhaustion running under my every feeble movement, I suddenly felt uneasy.
My own fatigued breath rasped and echoed in my head. That much I’d gotten used to. But now, alone in the library in the middle of the night, I could hear something else breathing… I carefully packed up my laptop and research books, staying as quiet as I could. I saw nothing strange, but I had this hunch that I really needed to get out of there.
I took the back way around the stacks, trying not to be seen.
About four rows down, I heard a wet, organic smacking sound.
My eyes burning from the sheer effort of looking around, I froze. Was there something in the library with me? My ears found it then, as it schlepped itself down the aisle a few feet over. I peered around the corner.
A strange, fleshy mass pushed itself toward me.
Staring, terrified, I tried to figure out what it was. It had these limbs - skin all stretched and flabby - and the whole monstrous thing pulsed with this… this throbbing… it was like a disgusting, glistening sack of flesh and pulsing organs, textured sickeningly, with hair poking out in random places…
That wet, smacking sound - the mouth, an orifice into the horrific thing, bones sticking out from the gummy ridges inside - God, I remember every moment staring at that thing - and then it turned these white, moist protrusions at me - and I knew it could see me. It made a gurgling, wheezing sound, and moved toward me more quickly.
I bolted. Yeah, screw it, I’m a small girl, and I ran like hell. What would you do? There was another one in the stairwell. I almost ran straight into it. It made a weird, high-pitched noise, and then reached one throbbing limb for me. The skin seemed stretched by stringy veins, pushing something foul throughout its mass…
I ran again.
I had a knife already, you know. I’m not from a great neighborhood. It was about then that I knew I might have to use it. These horrible creatures were in the library, and I had to escape at any cost… I had to finish my thesis.
Knife held out, I ran down and for the front door. Another creature stood by the door, shambling and rasping. It squealed as it saw me, its middle expanding as it drew in breath, preparing for some sort of attack, no doubt. Through the glass doors, outside, I could see a distant campus security uniform - salvation, or at least help.
I slashed the creature across its expanding middle, tearing the spongy flesh open. It seemed to immediately release all sorts of acrid, quivering organs, red and brown and purple, and I couldn’t help but puke, tears streaming down my face. I’d never seen anything so disgusting.
Leaving the ruptured sack of flesh on the ground, I ran for the doors.
I remember that moment, screaming for help. That uniformed figure came over, approaching me quickly…
And it was one of them.
I stabbed that one, too. Sliced it up and ran for my dorm room.
I’m not sure what I was thinking. I was fully awake from the shock, that was for sure. I finished my thesis while covered in blood, and submitted it.
They came for me maybe an hour later. I can’t remember it, but apparently I was just sitting there smiling. I hadn’t even tried to sleep.
Then you know the rest. And you people tell me that I had an episode, that my ‘filters’ were fried, and that I was just seeing humans the way they really look, without familiarity or recognition… and that doesn’t make me feel better. I still see tissues, and pulsing, stringy veins, and throbbing organs in a loose sack of flesh - when I look at myself. You, you stay behind that mirror. Keep me isolated. Am I still broken? What if I never get better? Keep my family away, keep my gran away… I can’t see them like that, God… I’m so tired…
Where’s the coffee? You promised! I can hear you drinking it back there!
GIVE IT TO ME!
Going over the poor girl’s transcript, I had a vague flash of memory. This girl was a recent admission - I ran to our mailroom and checked the shredder trash. I thought I’d seen something…
And it was there.
Someone had sent her a letter, to this address. It arrived before she did. It hadn’t made any sense at the time, and I’d only randomly been the one to do the mail that day, due to a nurse’s sick day.
-gratulations, the pieces said. You’re one of three remaining candidates! To qualify for this next round, please submit within three weeks, a four-thousand page -
The rest of the typed letter was shredded away, and I couldn’t find the envelope or any relevant names or contact information in the pile of paper strips beneath. No matter - this was enough. Something was going on, and this was proof enough to start some sort of investigation.
“Interesting,” the chief of medicine told me, reading the pieces. He leaned back in his large leather chair. “This does match the story you told me…”
“I think something bigger is going on here,” I said.
“What’s it matter?” he replied, quite serious.
“There’s more to the story than she’s crazy. Doesn’t it warrant investigation?”
“She still sees people as monsters, still carved up a security officer and a classmate,” he replied. “So someone played a prank with this scholarship thing. She’s still the one that didn’t sleep for weeks and gave herself brain damage.”
“Why aren’t you more interested?” I asked, growing a little angry. “This is something. At the very least, we uncover some sort of dangerous fraud scholarship.”
“That’s not our job.”
I suddenly clued in that he was absolutely not going to help or condone further investigation in any way. “Yeah, you’re right, I’m sorry,” I lied gracefully.
He smiled. He liked to be right.
On my way out, he said one last thing. “I’ve heard reports that you’re engaging in some odd behavior yourself. Reading files late at night, that sort of thing. Don’t get too close to these patients. Don’t regard their stories as anything other than fabrications of obsessed minds.”
“Why?” I asked. “Afraid crazy is contagious?”
Quite stern, he set his jaw, and gave no response. My comment had been flippant, but his grim response gave me pause.
I’m now convinced that something more is going on - not just with this latest girl, but with other patients as well… and I’m starting to wonder if we have something to do with it…
Update: I'm now certain we are involved in something very dark.
The Friend Zone
After today’s events, I’m unsure whether I should continue my investigation.
I resolved to speak personally to patients, rather than just read files; I had the notion that, if there was some agency working against me - possibly involving the chief of medicine - I should find patients without written or oral accounts. Only those furthest gone have refused to give statements… but I will be the only one to know their stories, and that will put me a step ahead.
I decided to start with the most heartbreaking patient we have. For several months, he has been unresponsive to any attempts to help him. I can’t imagine being in his situation… but I have seen him recently responding to the nurse that takes care of him.
“Oh hey, I haven’t seen you. I meant to say, thanks for handling the mail for me when I was out,” she greeted me, smiling warmly.
Caught off guard, I only managed a weak reply. “Sure thing.” I was always slightly flustered around her. For anonymity’s sake, I’ll call her… Claire. She was one of the prettiest nurses on staff, and I could see how our most unfortunate patient might open up to her. “You know, this might sound weird, but I have a favor to ask you…”
She seemed skeptical, and a little wary, but she relented.
She was also quite successful.
She and Mabel, a much older career nurse, both set up the room for the recording session. It’s not that the patient was dangerous - in fact, quite the opposite - but his special condition merited extra observers, just in case.
Claire even brought us coffee - and handed a cup to me personally. “It’s nice that you’re taking a personal interest. The other doctors couldn’t care less.”
I gave a sheepish smile, and turned slightly red, I’m sure. “Thanks!”
I immediately grimaced when she turned away. I felt like an idiot schoolboy all over again.
The coffee mug paused before my lips, and I looked down at the swirling cream in brown, recalling certain unpleasant connotations from another patient’s story. Overcome with a slight wave of disgust, I put the mug down, unable to drink it.
I shook it off and focused on the task at hand.
He lay in bed, unmoving, giving no indication that he was aware of me.
“Whenever you’re ready…” I said, hesitant.
Mabel stood by with the recorder.
“Go ahead, honey,” Claire told him.
He immediately began speaking. It amazed me - he wasn’t catatonic at all. His voice came out clear and articulate, with a strange undertone of grim mockery, as if he knew some vast dark inside joke which he’d been keeping all to himself…
You want to know my tale? I’m not quite sure that you do. It’s far closer to you than you realize.
Ok, but remember, you asked for it…
As all stories eventually do, mine involves a girl.
Oh, she was so pretty. Beautiful, even. I watched her from afar quite often. She didn’t know I even existed, and probably didn’t want to.
I’m no slouch… [mocking laughter]… I wasn’t without girlfriends. It just seems that I always wanted the ones I couldn’t have. I was starting to feel out of place in my old haunts, nearer thirty than twenty, and time just seemed to darken… and then, this light came around - her.
I wasn’t obsessed. I want to make that clear. I just thought she was pretty. I didn’t actually think I had a chance, and I didn’t try to make a move.
I’m glad things happened the way they did, though.
One night I was sitting at my regular bar, alone, and all the other tables were taken. She and her friends came in, three girls in total, and sat right down at my table. Like a deer in headlights, I stumbled through introductions to each of them.
“I’ve seen you around, staring at me,” she said, laughing. “You a creep, or just a misunderstood nice guy?”
She was speaking to me!
“Nice guy!” I insisted. “You girls want a round? I’ll buy.”
And of course they accepted.
One of her friends seemed rather interested in me, but I had eyes only for her. The friend invited me to a party with them later, and I tagged along, high on excitement and possibility.
Once at the party, I dodged the amorous friend, and found her chatting up some guy. No matter - he was just some asshole, and I knew I would win out in the end even if he took her home that night. While I stumbled through small talk, I became aware that I was quite the third wheel in that little corner of the room.
“Go get me a drink,” she said, laughing awkwardly.
“Sure thing,” I immediately agreed.
I stumbled through the crowded rooms to the keg and filled up a cup like she asked, returning it to her quickly.
“Thanks,” she said with a smile.
I… felt rather stupid, for awhile there. I was just a guy, blundering around, looking for affection in all the wrong ways…
…until the party ended, and she ended up by herself on the couch. I listened to her complain about assholes and creeps for nearly two hours. That guy she’d been talking to had left her high and dry, running off with some skank. I nodded, gleeful at how right I’d been… and here she was, confiding in me.
That’s when she said it.
“You are a nice guy. Do you… want to hang out tomorrow?”
Stunned, it was all I could do to say yes.
I met her at the mall, and we spent the day together as she tried on clothes and showed them to me. I even bought her a few, saying “yes dear” jokingly… but she just smiled, and didn’t correct me.
I was high on cloud nine.
We spent almost every day together, after that. I have to admit, sometimes it got painful. I wanted her so badly, but she never seemed emotionally available for real intimacy… asshole guys came and went, and I managed to secretly sabotage most of them.
Most of them.
I was in a fight for her heart, so I don’t feel bad about it.
Oh, no, you misunderstand me - I didn’t do anything criminal. Just little snide comments - or lies about her, when she wasn’t listening… or lies about him, when she was.
While my life began to constrict into a cage of pain and negativity, this constant war to keep her isolated draining everything I had, she seemed to be on her own dark path. She started to get into drugs, no matter how much I argued against it - I’d tell her, “I’m your best friend, I’m worried about you, don’t do this…” but that only seemed to encourage her.
At least she kept herself away from the real dangerous stuff; she only used the drugs that wouldn’t ruin her appearance or social standing.
One day, I couldn’t take it anymore. I cornered her in her apartment and confessed - spilled - poured out my infinite love for her. “I’d do anything for you,” I told her, feeling incredible.
She didn’t seem very happy about it. She actually seemed a little angry… but, after a few minutes, she came back into the room and asked: “Anything?”
All I had to do was prove it, she said, and she might learn to love me back.
Anything, I promised.
I spent the next several months running around doing her errands, buying her things, and taking on a second job to support her spending habits. Always, she promised, she was about to return my feelings. Meanwhile, she got into some sort of graduate school, something she was always vague about. I gladly paid for as much of it as I could.
She seemed to get worse, growing darker and angrier as time went on. Often, I found her stoked out on something, or passed out on something, and if I complained, she… began to hit me. I thought, I’m a man, I can take it, it’s fine.
One day, when I told her I was broke and couldn’t afford another massive tuition payment, she… cut me.
We separated then, for a time, and I felt my whole world collapsing. She’d been just about to love me, she’d shouted in anger, we were so close…
I went to her with roses, and a check. I’d taken out a huge loan to pay for her school.
She took me back with open arms, even kissed me on the lips for the first time.
“Anything,” she ordered. “Anything!”
I agreed. I’d do anything for her. She was my whole world. As long as she validated me, I’d be on cloud nine!
Her violence and anger didn’t stop… in fact, she began enjoying it. I could tell. She had a scalpel now, and often cut me with it. The shoulder, the leg, just a little bit… but more, each time. If I cried out in pain or refused, she’d threaten to dump me. I let her do it… and you know, I began to enjoy it a little myself. After each act of increasing violence, we got a little more close… we even made out once, as I bled profusely from a gash down my arm.
We were so, so close… she had an idea, she said she’d been thinking about for quite some time…
I know you think this is insane, but I wanted it. The tradeoff was worth it. What would you do for love? It was all finally working out.
I let her do it, and… we finally made love.
Everything finally seemed worth it. All the heartbreak and pain and weaseling and sabotaging asshole guys… it was all worth it. I adjusted to life without my left hand fairly well, too. It’s surprising how many laws there are to help disabled people out.
Of course, things broke down again after that. Without my left hand, I lost one of my jobs. She dumped me again for a bit, screaming and raving that she was halfway done with graduate school. I promised her I loved her, that I’d do anything, and she told me to prove it.
She took my entire left arm this time, amputated at the shoulder.
It turned her on enough that we were sexual together for almost a month. Best month of my life, I’m telling you.
And then, you know how things go… relationships go up and down… and I figured, I was far too invested to quit now. I was terrified of losing her after literally putting an arm and a leg into the relationship.
But no, I really was horrified of losing her. She told me that nobody else would ever love someone like me, not with those mutilations. I knew she was right.
Eventually, I gave up my other arm and leg to prove my love. Our bond was permanent by that point. I knew she would always take care of me, now that I had permanent, large disability payments to give her.
I couldn’t help but scream when she sewed up my eyes. That’s what the neighbors heard, why they called the police. Those bastards… I have the perfect relationship, the way I always wanted it, and she loves me, and they tried to ruin that!
I stared at him, dumbfounded. I’d always wondered how he got that way - blind, just a torso, a head, and a mouth - but the true story was beyond comprehension. This… this was insanity. I could see it, feel it tangibly, for a few scant moments. Not some affliction, not some chemical imbalance - but humanity - wants, needs, gone too far…
“Wait,” I insisted, heart pounding. “You never told anyone that someone did this to you. What’s her name?”
On his blank face, his mouth curled up into a grin.
I leaned forward. “Come on, she’s abandoned you, she needs to be taken into custody and treated. She’s dangerous! She could still hurt somebody! Why would you protect her now?”
He began laughing, a harsh, ironic sound. “She hasn’t abandoned me…”
I looked to my right, intending to look to Mabel for suggestions - but she was passed out, coffee dribbling down her shirt.
My body seemed to react before I consciously had any notion of my true level of danger.
It was the high squeal that alerted me, a split second before. I turned and stumbled back in one swift motion, avoiding the electroshock clamps that had been about to hit my head from behind. They sparked lethally as they touched where I had just been.
She came for me, and I shoved a food tray and stand at her, knocking the charged clamps from her hands. They snapped on the ground. She came again.
A flash of silver barely missed me, and I pushed out hard. Falling on the floor, I scrambled away as Claire lunged at me, her scalpel sticking through the middle of my left hand.
“Jesus Christ!” I remember screaming, suddenly rushing with adrenaline and red rage.
Possessed by the strength of sheer survival instinct, I pushed against the knife and her, slamming her back against the opposite wall.
I pulled back to hit her in the head - but she was already out.
I tied her up, wrapped up my hand - thankfully, not horribly injured, due to the scalpel’s sharpness - and checked on Mabel. She was alive, but drugged.
The room was in chaos, littered with blood and medical instruments.
Lying in the bed, limbless, blind, he kept crying, asking for his Claire.
I’ll admit, my lip quivered, I shook, and I couldn’t help but let some tears slide. Overwhelmed… I didn’t know what else to think or do. She’d just tried to kill me… and I couldn’t even imagine what she would have done to Mabel and I if she’d managed to drug us both and tie us up…
The coffee. She’d drugged the coffee… and I’d only avoided it because of that girl’s story…
The next hour was a blur.
I ended up in the chief of medicine’s office, filled with righteous anger.
“I want to know what’s going on here,” I demanded. “How the hell could we have missed this? How did Claire serve on this staff so long without anyone realizing? Even I…”
“What?” the chief asked, turning his head slightly. “Even you… what?”
“I’m going to call the police,” I responded, changing the topic.
He raised his lips in a subtle smile, and swept a hand over the phone. “Go ahead.”
I reached for it.
“You’re not going to call the police,” he continued. “And how do I know that?”
“…How?” I asked.
He continued immediately, almost interrupting my single word. “Because you yourself have been engaging in obsessive behavior exactly the same as any of our patients. You stay up all night reading files, you’re convinced there’s a pattern or a conspiracy, and you’re starting to take their stories seriously without any evidence.”
I felt a pit grow in my stomach.
“The only difference between you and them,” he finished softly. “Is a label. One word - crazy - and absolutely nothing you do will be taken seriously. You will never leave here.”
His words almost got to me - almost. “That’s ridiculous. I can talk my way out of that.”
He turned in his chair halfway, looking away - contemplating. “Maybe so. You’re quite smart, I’ll give you that. But let’s take another tack - you call the police, they shut this place down, we all lose our jobs, and you never work in this industry again.”
I slammed my right fist on his desk. “I don’t care about that!”
He sighed, and then resumed smiling. “I believe you. You’re a man of principle. And you’re smart. Instead of threatening you, let me offer you something instead: if you shut this place down, you won’t have access to anymore files or patients. You’ll never figure out this pattern you’re… concerned with.”
I withdrew my bandaged hand from above the phone, drawing in an angry breath.
His smile widened. “Good boy.”
I hated him with a passion, but he was right. I wasn't about to abandon these people to whatever was going on.
Some time later, I stood outside Claire’s solitary confinement, gazing in the window. It felt surreal, seeing one of our staff now in a straightjacket herself… she begged and pleaded from the other side of the glass, promising that she would love me if I just let her out… she'd seen me looking, knew I was interested...
“It’s a strange thing, insanity,” my mentor said. Older than me, but not as old as the chief of medicine, I was his direct report - and he’d become someone I could rely on.
“What’s going on here?” I asked, feeling at the end of my rope. “Is there anything you’ve seen, noticed, suspected?”
He kept his gaze on the window into the cell. “I’ve always liked you, so I will give you some advice. I hope you take it to heart.” He turned and looked at me. “The world has nearly eight billion people in it now. On the sheer math of the thing, the math of outliers, the number of… the afflicted… is bound to increase. They’re each inventing new and more horrible ways to lose their minds as they each become outliers further and further into the black…”
He began walking, and I followed beside him.
“Meanwhile, as resources grow more scarce,” he continued. “The amount of money society is willing to dedicate to taking care of the sick shrinks. The number of sick increase, the money to take care of them decreases… you can see the problem.”
I narrowed my eyes, not entirely certain, but I let him continue speaking.
“Now, if I were a shrewd person in charge… well, let’s put it this way. Some patients are dangerous or non-functional. Some… based purely on the math of random distribution, again... some patient’s delusions are carefully stable and balanced, so much so that they are harmless… or, one could even say… helpful. I would put these patients in charge of the others.”
My sense of unease grew pronounced - my mentor rarely spoke so darkly, or so vaguely. “What are you saying? Are you saying the chief knew that Claire…?”
He held up a hand. “I’m not saying anything.”
He moved away quickly, leaving me standing there. He paused about ten feet away, but did not turn around.
“And it’s quite possible,” he added. “Just on probability, I remind you… that some patients could develop delusions that, like random molecules, could form in such a way as to be…”
“Contagious?” I asked, thinking of a virus, carefully shaped and constructed by randomness to be infectious and deadly.
“Just conjecture,” he said. “Just probability. More patients, less care, worse and worse issues… I’m just saying, be careful with how you regard the patients’ stories. There is no defense against an idea.”
I stared after him as he continued to the rest of his duties, more confused than before - but absolutely certain that something very bad was going on. Like a body left to rot and fester with untold viruses, this hospital was… what? Containment?... or… an incubator?
Either way, it was time to reconsider just how far I wanted to take this investigation…
What is the nature of insanity? As of late, I’ve contemplated this question far too deeply. I find myself standing in the hall and thinking of the sun, which I have not seen in many days. I’ve been spending all my time reading files and financial documents. I can’t determine where the back-end mess of shell companies and legal fictions lead. The controlling interest in this place cannot be precisely located - but that might just be a sign of the times.
If I were to step outside and enjoy the healing radiance of the sun, perhaps purposely walk in the chilly winter breezes without a jacket just to feel the air wash over me, how would I know that the experience was real once I returned inside? The only proof any of us have that the rest our life exists are… memories.
If you can’t trust your memories, what can you trust? It seems curiously relevant to me that one’s entire structure of reality comes down to a series of mutable mental factoids.
Perhaps that is what happened to these people. They are not fundamentally broken on an organic level. They are all there, all functioning, all thinking… but, through a series of decisions, their reality became quite dark and painful.
Except for one… one story doesn’t fit.
After finishing my other duties, I went straight to him.
I used my practiced calm, but stern tone. “You left something out.”
He sighed and looked over at me, saying nothing. The despair in his eyes was heartbreaking.
“I read your account, in your file,” I continued, making sure to impart compassion and urgency. “There’s something missing from your story.”
His brow lowered slightly. “How did you know?”
I thought of the pattern the rest of the patients followed, and how his didn’t fit. “It’s not important. I’m here because I care, and I think something bigger than both of us is going on. I need to know the rest of your story.”
His face scrunched up; I thought he was smiling… but then he sobbed, and tears flowed down his cheeks. “You believe me? God, please tell me you believe me.”
I was well aware of my mentor’s - and even the chief of medicine’s - warnings about how I regarded the patient’s ideas… but I needed to know. “Yes, I believe you.”
He sobbed more deeply, and curled over in profound relief. “I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you…”
I lied about how it happened. I wasn’t just walking on the street. What, some random bum spills blood on me, and then the bonewalker comes out of nowhere? No, it was me.
I sought it out.
My life was already taking a dark turn. I was nobody. Ignored by everyone. I was just some guy, no college degree, nothing to his name, no family to speak of and no connections. I felt left behind by the whole world. People were constantly afraid of me, unwilling to give me a job, just because I had a record... don't think I didn't notice when other people held themselves closer at night as I walked by...
Addicted to middling drugs, not the real killer stuff mind you, not yet, I often moved among the city’s underbelly, the only place that would have me. There’s drugs, yeah… brutality, too, anything you want… orgies, even, but you don’t want a part of that, believe me.
Those people… they had a desperation about them. It was in the air, and everyone knew it, and it seemed like nothing mattered to many of them…
The bonewalker was a whispered rumor among them. There were some users that didn’t need to work, didn’t need to put on the façade of a normal life. They had a backer. Lucky bastards, we called them.
Every hopeless pariah eventually gets to this point where the initial money, the initial will, the initial life - that’s all gone. I hit that point, and I turned to that thing. It wasn’t for the drugs, either. In fact, I cleaned up quite a bit. It was the power.
People answered to me. Screw with me, you die. All I have to do is get some of that special blood on your fingernails or teeth, and my backer cuts you up from the inside out. It liked to do that, you know. It treated us like pets. The money was great, too. I hated being sliced up every time it came calling, yeah, but that was the cost of doing business.
Then… things got more serious, and I realized I was more a slave than a pet. Some of the things it forced me to do were… God, I have nightmares… at first, I didn’t understand the greater picture.
We'd all gotten in over our heads because there was nobody else to turn to. Once you have a record, once you're on the street, it's over for you... and the bonewalker took advantage of that. It had more than enough willing recruits to create a network, an army. It took a lot of whispered conversations with other slaves to figure out that we were part of something far more disturbing than just our own private hells... and our master wasn't the worst thing out there. We were the good guys, fighting the good fight by any means necessary, can you imagine that? It just wasn't good for us personally, because both society and the bonewalker viewed us as expendable...
You know why I’m in this bed? Why I’m so depressed? Think about it. If I was afraid of dying at any moment, I’d live it up. I wouldn’t sit here, in this room, alone… no, just the opposite. The bonewalker’s dead, man. It’s not coming back. That idiot killed it!
I imagined doing it that way, sometimes, crushing it up in a pile of treated bones so it wouldn’t know which way was out, so it would get torn up as the bones shatter… great minds think alike, right? But when I figured out what was really going on I was glad for -
“What?” I asked, interrupting. “What’s going on?”
“You mean, you don’t…?” He froze, staring at me with trembling eyes. His pupils drifted left in slow motion, full of dismay and apprehension. “I’ve said too much, I’m sorry.”
He resumed staring at the wall, ignoring my further attempts to prompt him.
At first, I was angry that he didn’t just tell me what was going on… but, then, I thought better of it. For a moment there, I’d actually believed him. I’d let his story become real to me. I was taking too many risks with my own mind.
No, the bonewalker could not be real… his addiction was, though. The underbelly, the criminal acts, all of it, that was the kernel of truth I would take from his story. A hinted-at larger picture, an air of desperation…
… and bad choices.
He fit the pattern now.
Standing in that hallway, I couldn’t help but stare down one wall and back up the other. Every single door imprisoned a patient who had chosen their way into madness and despair. Their own needs, taken to the extreme, had ruined them all. I didn’t know what it meant, not yet, but it was a major red flag.
Actually… I walked to the end of the hall, nodded at Mabel as she passed - no harm done from yesterday’s temporary drugging, thankfully - and I halted outside of one door I hadn’t tried.
I watched her through the square glass aperture. Allowed a pen and paper due to her non-violence, she often wrote at great length. Curled up in the corner, she wrote even now. She was one of the few patients who I had no story for, no testimony.
For politeness’ sake, I knocked.
“Come in,” she called.
She continued writing as I entered.
“Hi,” I began. “I’m -”
“You know the drill,” she responded, continuing to write.
I hesitated. “Can you… put the pen down?”
“I’ve never hurt anyone. I’m not about to start.”
Accepting her statement, but still apprehensive, I kneeled down. She reached both hands up and felt around my temples, and then back around the curve of my head.
“Sorry,” she breathed, with a note of disappointment. “I can’t talk to you.”
“Are you sure? I want to help. I think something is going on here, in this place.”
She made no response, turning back to her scribbling.
“Can I at least see what you’re writing?”
She ignored me.
Picking up the papers, I looked at a few. They were not gibberish, not exactly, but filled with stream of consciousness paragraphs in carefully practiced script… with a few strange errors.
I waved my hand in front of her face, and she still made no reaction. My jaw dropped. “Are you… blind?”
She took in a sharp breath through her nose, but still made no reply.
“Ok, ignore me,” I told her. “But at least tell me why you’re writing all this, if you can’t read it? What is this all for?”
She gave me only a single word. “Practice.”
Her answer was simple, but profound. I left her to her devices, contemplating her possible backstory. If she knew how to write, and she was practicing it, that meant she was able to see at one time… she had not always been blind. What could that tell me? Had she, too, somehow gone from a normal girl to a quiet, blinded patient who refused to talk to anyone who didn’t pass her inexplicable ritual?
It seemed very unfair, at that moment, that normal life could derail so badly. All of these people - they were all normal, more or less, and made enough bad choices to end up here.
There was another blind patient without a backstory. Oddly, he’d had one at some point, but the file was destroyed or lost. I passed through several sets of doors, heading for the farthest wing. They kept him at the very end.
I peered in at him. He’d stabbed out his own eyes with a pen long ago. He sat in the far left corner of his cell, his eyes closed, but his position indicated that he was awake. I couldn’t imagine his level of boredom - he refused anything electronic, became quite violent around such devices, in fact. A television, or even just a radio, might have alleviated his unending darkness and solitude… I honestly couldn’t fathom spending every day just sitting and thinking, trapped in my own head.
I saw a tiny bit of white sticking out from under his leg.
I rushed through the halls, filled with a sudden hunch. “Mabel!”
She stopped and turned. “Thanks for yesterday,” she said. “My husband would be lost if anything happened to me. Tottering old fool.” She smiled.
“Sure thing,” I almost said, but hesitated, remembering how that twisted limbless man and I had both said the same thing to Claire. The words held a shuddering aversion for me now. “Um, you’re welcome. Mabel, are you… or do you know of any nurses, who are bringing papers from one patient to another?”
“How’s your hand?” she asked, suddenly nervous.
I looked down at the bandage. “Fine. But about those papers.”
She donned a frustrated expression. “They seem to like writing to each other. He was just, sitting there… alone. I felt sorry for him. I didn’t mean any harm.”
“It’s fine,” I told her. “I’m not looking to get you in trouble. Do you happen to know anything about what they’re writing?”
She explained some of the minor details she’d read, just to check - she wasn’t about to pass death threats or other rudeness, she said - and, once I understood, I hurried back to the end of the far wing.
“I can hear you,” he called through the door.
Frowning, I watched him subtly adjust to hide the papers he was sitting on. I entered after a moment, letting him think I didn’t know. I wondered how he read them at all - until I realized that he could probably feel the pen’s effect on the paper, like an engraving. Interesting… I stood halfway into the room, giving him some space.
Although blind, he made an effort to look in my direction. “You’re not like the rest of them, you know.”
“What do you mean?”
He frowned, and then gave a weak smile. “You don’t walk like them.”
He was right. I’d been walking quickly, with energy and concern. The other staff took their leisurely time in the halls - it was just a job, to them. It had become more than that to me.
“Are you willing to tell me your story?” I asked, sitting cross-legged near him.
His smile widened into a mocking grin. “It’s pointless.”
“Tell me anyway.”
“Do you have a cellphone?” he asked.
I shook my head, but then realized he couldn’t see the motion. “No - it could interfere with medical equipment.”
I looked at my belt. “No,” I lied.
“Good, good…” he mused aloud. “Been having headaches lately, friend?”
I blinked. I had, actually. I’d been sleeping little, and poorly when I did. The on-call room did not offer the best sleeping conditions, and it had been the center of my… extracurricular activities… for the duration of my investigation. I’d chalked up the headaches to my fatigue, and I'd been downing increasing numbers of painkillers… “No, no headaches,” I lied.
“Oh.” He seemed vaguely disappointed. I figured that paranoid schizophrenics like him enjoyed guessing little things, because it hinted at some greater mysterious knowledge they might possess - and being wrong was not something he enjoyed.
“Fine,” he said after a moment. “I’ve nothing better to do. Then you’ll leave me alone?”
“Alright… but you might not like what you hear.”
“Good. I have a feeling something is going on, and I already don’t like it.”
He seemed to perk up at that. “Really…”
It was a Sunday. I remember that very clearly. I -
I didn’t finish writing the day’s events up before something else happened.
Blackness washed over me like a wave as I sat in the on-call room, typing out the story he told me. By the light of my laptop screen, I checked the mainline phone - no dialtone. The constant droning of the building’s air system was gone, replaced with deathly silence. I crept over to the door and peered into the hallway.
Darkness hovered between rotating red emergency lights, sparsely placed at long intervals. At the extreme other end of the hall, under flashing crimson, I saw something that chilled my blood. The door to a patient’s room opened slowly, softly, as if the person behind it couldn’t believe it was unlocked.
I couldn’t believe it either. I’d only talked personally to the most docile patients, but many of them were extremely dangerous.
Fighting a sudden spike in my headache, I blinked continually, struggling to determine who it was that had escaped. His silhouette flitted shadow and red as he moved about, looking up and down the hall. He couldn’t see me, shrouded in darkness as I was, but I could see him… I knew him. He wasn’t too dangerous.
Beside him, another door opened… and then another.
It occurred to me that the power outage was no accident - and someone had unlocked all of the doors.
One by one, they crept into shifting shadow and scarlet, releasing their particular flavor of insanity into the halls. I could hear some muttering, some shouting, some looking for weapons, some looking for… staff!
I thought to lock the door and hide - but they would certainly check the on-call room.
I couldn’t stay there.
Heart pounding, I dropped my white coat and slid out into the darkness between two rotating emergency lights. Could they see my silhouette against the red? I saw them creeping about, like curious animals, spreading through the halls. I pushed up against the wall, and some wandered past me, muttering obscenities and twitching.
My headache sharpened into a blinding pain for a moment, and I almost groaned in pain - but I grabbed my own mouth, forcing my body silent. The rotating red lights and darkness shot pain through my eyes, straight to my headache…
It was only twenty feet away - I stumbled for a side exit to the building, intending on running. There was nothing I could do except escape and call somebody.
It was locked. Was it supposed to be locked? Damnit… damnit… I struggled to breathe against my searing headache and the massive throbbing of my adrenaline-spiked heart.
I had very little room for maneuvering. Patients moved within feet of me in the darkness; one stopped under an emergency light, his body cast in the color of blood - and someone else stabbed him, spurting black liquid from under his collarbone. He screamed, and I could hear attention turn toward the area.
The sound of falling meat came, along with continued screams, and something squishy slid across the floor, hitting my shoe with a strange wet plop. The large patient who had done the grisly hack job looked my way, peering into the darkness.
Reflexively ducking into one of the patient’s rooms, I closed the door softly behind me.
“Please don’t hurt me!” a girl whispered from the corner.
“I won’t,” I whispered back, relieved. “I’m staff.”
“Oh God, oh God, what’s going on?” she breathed.
The barest light filtering under the door illuminated her only enough for me to see her out of the edges of my vision. Cast in sickly red, she was emaciated, a gaunt and unwholesome sight. I knew her immediately. “Wait here,” I said, burning with an idea.
I poked my head out the door - looked either direction - adrenaline surged, and I darted for the other side of the hall. I grabbed a tray of food from inside, and then darted back. I heard a shout of anger, but I couldn’t tell if someone had seen me.
“Eat this,” I told her.
She moved back an inch. “No!”
“Just try,” I whispered, pleading. “It’ll help us, I promise.”
Quivering, she picked up a glob of jello. A moment later, she dropped it, making a disgusted noise. It fell in the light coming under the door, and I could see a dark gobbet inside it.
“Again,” I said.
She lifted a half-eaten apple to her mouth, and then dropped it, on the verge of tears. I held it to the soft light - what looked like a severed tendon slid from the apple’s core.
“Again,” I ordered.
Crying, she lifted, and then dropped the remains of a sandwich.
I pulled the bread back. “Yes!” I took our discovery, stripped of it extraneous tissue, and snapped it in half.
She gave a sobbing laugh.
In the scant red light, I held up two finger-length fragments of bone, both wickedly jagged, both still slick with gristle.
She grabbed my arm so as not to lose me in the dark, and we crept to the side door again, while screams of pain and screams of glee sounded from around nearby corners.
“Come on, come on,” I whispered, poking the two bone fragments into the lock. I knew the building was shoddily constructed and poorly funded, and I was counting everything on this lock being a piece of - yes! It clicked open.
A looming presence pounced from behind. She screamed and ran through the door while I pushed the wild-eyed man back. We rolled, grappling. He had a weapon; I thought I was dead for sure, until red light illuminated me, and he saw my own wild eyes. I’m sure a week of poor sleep and my blasting headache contributed to my decrepit appearance.
“Oh,” he breathed, grinning. “Thought you were them. Come on, let’s get out of here, brother.”
Amazed, I stood, turning to the side door - and a figure moved in the way, slamming it shut.
“What the hell are you doing?” the chief of medicine demanded.
I looked around at clean, clear hallways, lit in harsh white. Mabel moved papers around down at a nurse’s station. Moments ago, I had seen it empty, lit in rotating red, crowned by dangerous silhouettes crawling this way and that…
“Acting out a patient’s story,” I quickly lied. “That… blind girl that writes, she wrote a story about an escape attempt. I was seeing if it was possible. Turns out, this door’s lock really is faulty. Lucky guess, eh?”
He looked me up and down for several long moments with a hard and unreadable glare. “Can’t fault that I suppose, but you look like an idiot.” He looked down at the side door. “And I’ll contact maintenance, have the lock replaced. Nice catch… go take a day off, you look like hell.”
I nodded and bore a smile as he walked away. I watched him talk to Mabel, and then proceed around the corner. Strangely, I could still hear distant screams in the halls, each being cut off one by one, as if the surreal delusion was taking its good time fading from my mind…
What the hell had just happened?
Had I suffered a waking dream due to exhaustion? Or did someone, afraid of my progress, spike my pain pills?
Dumbfounded, I wandered back to the on-call room, finding my white coat on the floor and my laptop unharmed. Was I losing my mind? I couldn’t help but notice that I now fit the pattern that every other patient here had fallen into… not so far gone as them, but certainly working my way there. The only difference seemed to be that I had real evidence and a real pattern; something terrible was really happening - or was that the same way they’d all felt?
I find it no small irony that this fifth account is my own.
I do have one advantage, though. I’m aware of the pattern, have all of their tales to help me. If that moment comes, that one true step into madness when each of them crossed the line… I won’t. I promise myself that. You can’t have an objective view of the larger picture and go insane - that’s what I’ll believe. The two are mutually exclusive.
But I won’t stop. Not now. That last tale, the one I was I was interrupted writing out, and haven’t even been able to fully process yet… it’s disturbing. It fits. I need to think on it. I think I’m on the verge of understanding the impetus behind the patterns… even though I’m not sure I want to.
I did take a break to clear my head. As I walked the halls, digging through my apparently faulty memories for any clue about what had really happened during my delusional episode, two things jumped out at me.
My headache was gone - and so was that emaciated girl…
There’s a certain allure in the chase; an enjoyment of the game itself. Win or lose, you’re still playing, still making move and countermove, full of energy and action. Throughout, there’s a sense of importance that no other activity can really match. The game is the game… but now it’s over, and, I’ll admit, I’ll miss the feeling.
Although… having the horrible truth - possessing it and holding it close like a prized treasure - the truth can almost replace that feeling.
I felt that I was on the path to victory once I calmed down from my delusion about the patients escaping. I realized that I had quite a few cards in my hand to be played. My unknown opponent had made a mistake somewhere, and allowed me far too many leads.
The first: the girl I helped escape during my delusion was nowhere to be found. Her room was empty, and her file was deleted. None of the other staff could remember her, and… I believed some of them. An old nurse like Mabel would not possibly be part of a conspiracy so dark and vast. Her primary concern was the next episode of her soaps…
But I wrote about the girl. I have the words on my computer, and on the internet. I told no one here that I’ve been writing about patients - I would immediately be fired, for obvious reasons.
I have the words, and I remember.
Memories are tricky, as I know personally, but the words are still there. Furthermore, I went through the patients one by one, looking for discrepancies. I could have just helped the girl escape while having an episode; that proved nothing… but while so deluded, I saw one patient carve up another, even had his lung slide up against my shoe.
The murdered patient was missing, too.
At that point, I had a few logical choices to consider about my opponent.
A strong - but imperfect - case could have been made that, somewhere in the maze of owners and financial backers and stockholders behind this place, some nefarious corporation had an agenda involving the patients and their various insanities. The likeliest intent was to incubate and refine memetic hazards; ideas carefully constructed to infect anyone who heard them, carefully constructed to spread and destroy. This would be a new kind of weapon, perhaps changing warfare forever.
Their primary agent would have been the chief of medicine, and much of my paranoia, delusions, and inconsistencies could have been explained by drugs in my pain killers, meant to imbalance me and discredit me should I uncover their agenda.
The foremost problem with that theory is the lack of recall on the part of the staff. Perhaps some were lying, perhaps Mabel just rarely interacted with the girl, perhaps some didn’t care enough to remember individual patients… but all of them? It felt wrong.
While an uncharacteristic downpour on the roof filled the building with the constant rhythm of heavy rain, I stalked the halls, eyeing everything. I asked the responsive patients if they remembered the girl - and they did. The only people that could remember her were patients, and me. That struck me as extremely important…
No, the corporation angle didn’t add up.
The booming thunder outside added to my tension. There were other explanations.
I could have been a patient myself, the signs were not lost on me. Claire had been employed here, and I suspected the chief of medicine had some idea she was off balance - but her particular brand of insanity was harmless… for most people. My bandaged hand had begun itching painfully some time that morning, and it added an undercurrent of increasing anger to my strategizing.
I’d dwelled often on the nature of memory and insanity. I had nothing to prove that I was not, myself, some sort of employed patient with a carefully crafted delusion of a normal life beyond the walls of the establishment. The sun did feel ages distant, but the rising storm outside made even that luxury impossible.
All the specific memories I could recall had no basis other than whatever sanctity I granted them. I asked myself if it mattered… I asked myself where that logic would lead…
It would lead backwards, to the conditions that created this situation. Someone like Claire, someone like me - potentially - employed to watch over the other patients… that meant critical underfunding, so much so that moral and ethical lines had long since been redrawn - or erased. It meant a world filling up with people, a world struggling for resources… a dark, dreary, and painful reality for the human race.
That was a situation with no enemy, and thus no victory. Humanity would suffer increasingly as the population rose, and only some great disaster or rupturing of morals would offer any salvation.
Adding to the strength of that theory was the story of every patient here. The pressures and brutalities of society had pushed them all in this direction - perhaps it was society itself that was insane, and these poor men and women were merely the most unfortunate victims of that derangement.
That notion felt right - but my being insane required a crumbling society, while, reversed, the existence of a crumbling society did not necessarily mean I was insane.
These tracks had consumed my investigation, but I had been given a third option by the last patient I interviewed. His was a tale of deception and control, and it profoundly disturbed me. I’d been interrupted writing it up, but… the more I thought about it… the more the pieces seemed to fit.
A sudden spike in the intensity of the rain reminded me of something… and then it hit me.
I’d read his story before.
I’d read it on the internet.
His file was missing from here… had someone else read it and put it up? Or had he done it, before his admission here? The details would have been lost to time, so I decided not to pursue them. It was the greater framework that was important.
I began to entertain an… expanded notion of reality, hypothetically. If the bonewalker had been real, it had been fighting some worse force on a grand scale.
Was that force also my opponent now? What was its concern with me, with this building and its patients? I had seen absolutely no indication of any outside force…
I remember stiffening, then. I stood in the hall, next to a window spreading rain-dappled shadow patterns on the floor, knowing implicitly that I had hit upon the first iota of the truth.
Evidence was the deception! It had me delving in every direction except the right one.
Unable to fully comprehend the massive idea building in my head, I made for the blind girl’s room. I found her sitting in a different corner than before, but still writing. As I entered the room, my bandaged hand began to itch distractingly, and my headache returned.
“Why won’t you talk to me?” I asked her. “I thought before that it might be because I’m crazy, like them, and don’t know it… but now I think you know what’s going on, and you’re protecting yourself.”
Poised against paper, her pen stilled. “How are you asking that question?"
“What do you mean? Should I not be able to ask questions?”
“Not that one…”
I moved down on one knee, nearer her. “Why?”
She glared at me with unseeing eyes.
I widened my own eyes. “You don’t talk to anyone who…”
Suddenly extremely uneasy, I raised my hands to my own temples. Gently feeling the skin near my eyes, I searched for any aberration… the sensation was disconcerting. Beneath my burning hand and increasingly sharp headache, I felt… two conflicting results.
My temples were smooth. The skin was soft and normal.
My temples bore two strange, subtle, and irregular raised lines, like rough veins gone awry…
“What the hell is it?” I breathed, wincing from a blast of pain in my head. “It’s there, and not there…”
“I’m sorry…” she whispered.
“What is it? What the hell is it?” I forced out, my face screwed up from continually rising pain that approached a crescendo that threatened to knock me unconscious. I struggled to breathe, even as little blurs and flickers appeared in my vision. “How many… have this?”
Her lip trembled in response to my sounds of pain. “… everybody… except the other patients…”
Surging with adrenaline and will, I stumbled from her room, running for the emergency operation room. I pushed the door in forcefully, almost falling from the pain, and rushed for the tools.
Facing the mirror, I fought the blinding pain and blurry vision to see - I could see it - the little ridges were plainly visible, running from my eyes, across my temples, and around the back of my head like some horrible lobotomy line…
I pricked my temple with a scalpel. Blood welled out, but I ignored it, instead carefully prying at the ridge with a gripping tool.
My vision flashed white and black.
I did not relent. I pulled at the foreign tissue underneath… I screamed in agony, but refused to pass out… slowly, so painfully slowly, I pulled out a long, stringy fiber. Hanging from my bleeding temple, gripped in my tool, I knew that this was it. This was part of it. I’d considered the impossible… and I’d been right.
The pain immediately lessened as I cut the fibrous tissue as close to my skin as I could. There was still some inside, near my eyes, and all the fiber on the other side of my head… but this was a start. Holding it up, I tried to comprehend what I was seeing.
It looked like nerve tissue - stringy, webbed, made of tiny little fibers… and that’s what the blind girl had said when she was first admitted. She’d said she wouldn’t talk to anyone with nerve fibers in their temples…
…but she’d been here for years…
I repeated the same procedure on the other side. My headache was still barely there, but I felt vindicated and relieved.
Was that it? Was I free? And what the hell were these nerve fibers? Some sort of infection, or parasite? By themselves, these fibers couldn’t possibly have controlled or deceived me… there simply wasn’t enough tissue for complex interaction with the brain… in fact, the fibers looked like they were from an optic nerve. It was sensory tissue, designed to… fool the senses?
That made a sick sort of sense. Connected to my eyes and ears… and probably my brain, directly through my optic nerve… these fibers could completely deceive my senses, perhaps even my memories. She’d said I shouldn’t have been able to ask that question… how much control did these fibers normally exert?
And why was I now able to detect them, even remove them?
I’ll be honest, I felt like breaking down and crying then, both at my sudden freedom and vindication, and at the implied utter domination I’d lived under for so long - possibly years. I probably would have broken down, if I did not have some terrible notion that these fibers received signals or control from elsewhere.
After cleaning up my blood, I took a quick and surreptitious circle through the halls. Mabel smiled at me, and then turned away - a subtle ridge was evident on the side of her head.
She was infected. I kept walking, kept looking - they all were.
I returned to the safety of the emergency operation room as the pain in my head began rising again. I looked in the mirror, horrified - I could literally see the skin on my temples rising, as the nerve fibers inside began to regenerate.
I remember quite clearly - I laughed out loud, a hearty, dark, full belly laugh. This was too much. Infecting me, growing back even if I cut it out, what the hell was I supposed to do?
My laugh died as my medical knowledge supplied an answer.
Disinfecting my hands and donning gloves, I prepared for something I knew was probably insane - and I’d promised myself I wouldn’t cross that line when I came to it, but, oh, how foolish I’d been then - and I readied several mirrors.
I had no painkillers, because I couldn’t risk dulling my amateur surgical ability.
Breathing hard, surging with adrenaline, I placed a separation tool against my eyelids… and ratcheted them open. I steeled myself against what I was about to do…
My eye slid out more easily than I’d expected.
Just an inch or two, just enough to keep the optic nerve at tension… frozen with unbelievable discomfort and pain the likes of which I’d never imagined, I brought the scalpel up, carefully cutting away at the connected foreign nerve fibers.
Five breaths… ten… twenty… I took as long as I could stand it, carefully severing the connections at their base. My animal mind screamed incessantly in my head - I could see my own eye out of my head, see a bundle of blood vessels and nerves connecting it! - but I fought the impulse to panic.
I pulled the rest of the nerve fibers out through the side of my eye socket - they came quite easily, from that direction… and then, incredibly, I was done. I carefully took my eye between my gloved fingers and slid it back in.
I took five minutes to calm myself, to test my eye, to let my panic subside… and then I did the other eye.
By the time I finished, my headache was gone. The nerve fibers did not regenerate. I’d gotten them all.
For an hour, I lay in that room, enjoying my freedom, thinking, breathing, calming…
Where did these nerve fibers come from? There was unmistakably a will behind the ongoing deception. Who was it? What was it? Deception would not have worked against the bonewalker’s slaves - they did not know the reasons behind their actions; they simply followed its orders on threat of death…
And the patients were free of the fibers… why? The illuminating realization struck me that the reason was quite possibly the same as it might have been for society: containment. The people here were dangerous, and their insanities even more so.
Maybe all the explanations shared a common thread: the world was dark and grim, growing overpopulated as my mentor had said, creating increasingly virulent and dangerous insanities on the sheer weight of numbers and probability…
And maybe this other force, whatever had infected people with nerve fibers and used deception for some purpose… the next step was obvious. I wouldn’t want my nerve fibers connected to a brain full of delusion and virulent ideas. I wouldn’t want those ideas broadcasting through my network of nerve-fiber-controlled slaves… infecting them, ruining them, destroying them… and, possibly, freeing them.
I was losing my mind. I knew it, then, quite certainly. The pain killers, the exhaustion, the obsession… I’d let the other patients' delusions get to me, regarding their ideas as increasingly real, and there I was… free. That was why I could now see the nerve fibers, why they constricted around my skull, why they fought me at every step.
It was ironic, really… the doctor, becoming the patient; growing insanity, bringing reality…
But my stories were on the internet. His story, the male patient that had stabbed out his own eyes - his story was on the internet. How was it that the Opponent allowed such a thing to happen and spread? Was it the same notion that kept the patients here contained and uncontrolled? Was the idea itself anathema to its network of control? It couldn’t identify the ideas, couldn’t regard them, without understanding them… and becoming infected.
I was laughing often, alone in that room, as the logical steps increasingly fell into place.
There is no defense against an idea.
I walked back into the hall a new man. I was free, and there was nothing the Opponent could do. It could no longer regard me, no longer think of me. I must not exist to it, because to acknowledge me would be to think of me, and then understand me, and then… become infected. I had the black and hilarious notion that the nerve fibers would probably have left me of their own accord at some near point, had I allowed my descent into madness to continue.
“What did you do to yourself?” the chief of medicine shouted, seeing me from down the hall. I heard him call urgently for orderlies, but thunder obscured his first shout.
The side door’s lock had been fixed - damnit! I used my keys, unlocking each door as I passed, releasing the patients as a distraction. I heard the orderlies shouting and organizing somewhere nearby - I had a sudden idea as I passed the maintenance room. It was easier than I’d expected. I flipped the circuit breakers, and all the lights went out.
As I emerged back into the hall, strangely at home in darkness and rotating red emergency light, the only sounds were the rain slamming against the roof, and intermittent thunder.
Strange… I’d imagined this… or not imagined this… the night before… no, this time there was rain…
I grabbed my laptop from the on-call room, slung it over my shoulder in its bag, and ditched my white coat. I stuffed as many snacks from the vending machine in my bag as I could, promising to pay it back someday for the broken glass and cost of what I took.
Screams and grunts filled the shifting darkness. I could hear staff members shouting and trying to find one another. I could hear patients muttering… and somebody screamed in pain.
I smiled as I crept through the darkness. The confusion was working perfectly.
Thunder shook the building as I approached the main door. The area was empty, as the orderlies contended with the escaped patients - I was free.
“Wait!” he called, as I put my hand against the door. I could hear rain slicking the other side. “Don’t do it!”
It was my mentor.
“I’ve been following your actions as best I could,” he explained, concerned. “That patient, at the end of the far wing - we keep him back there, attended as little as possible, for a reason. Remember what I said to you?”
I stared back at him, ready to bolt through the door, but willing to hear him out.
“His psychosis, it’s infected you!” he shouted over the grunts and screams from the back halls. “And I know you believe insanity is a choice. Choose to stay, to remain here, to be part of the staff and real life!”
I turned away, ready to leave.
“What’s out that door for you?” he asked loudly. “What are you going to do - run, hide from society, hurt people for whatever reasons you’ve come to believe?”
His reasoning and compassion made sense… perfect sense. I hesitated. Was I really that far gone? What if I did accept that reality? Whether some entity was deceiving me or not, life was… decent enough, right?
This was the moment. I felt it. Out that door, I was de facto insane, at least compared to whichever reality society bought as true - here, I was one of them, a staff member, accepted, and normal…
It made too much sense. It was too perfect.
“It’s you!” I realized, practically screaming it.
Lit in crimson, he shook his head, confused… I didn’t expect the Opponent to reveal itself, just because I’d figured out that it was speaking through my mentor - no, his body's reaction was perfect, deceptively real.
Thunder boomed, and I pushed out into the rain, running for my life.
Life will be a bit harder from now on, I’m sure. I’m outside the construction of society’s reality… but it can’t regard me anymore, can’t think of me, without risking itself. I am free to move undetected and ignored, for the most part. I think I’ll change my name, get a job, put on a façade of normalcy, and operate from behind a mask - because it must ignore me, so the only people I have to fool are other humans.
It can’t stop my ideas, which I release to the world like the virus they are. We are all being deceived, every one of us. I saw the true nature of the world once the rain cleared. I see what has really happened to us.
I was on a hill, outside the city, when the clouds parted, and the blessed sun finally brought long-sought relief. I’d seen indications of the truth, as I ran through the rain, but the darkness and water obscured the extent…
I stood and looked down on the city.
Growths hung high up, between buildings, street lamps, and trees - thick, ropey fibers - nerve fibers. It infested most everything, wrapped around the trappings of civilization like a strangling vine. I had a flash of understanding then - this thing, this infestation, stretching the world over most certainly…
Nerves, neurons, brains, interconnected, deceived, a similar network to the internet itself… the entity may have begun as just an idea, a meme, or a mutation somewhere, and spread from there… and now it was a massive parasite on humanity. I could feel its past influence on me, now that it was gone, and I understood what it wanted.
It wants more people, more brains, more stress, more consumption. It loves caffeine. It loves stimulants of any kind, but caffeine especially. It wants you to drink more. It wants you to eat more. It wants you to consume and reproduce, as it guides the human race toward some dark and unknown goal… while the pressures it creates, humanity’s own needs sharpened to the extreme, crush whole swaths of people underfoot.
Whether it be body image, or the desperation of being poor or on the street, or financial slavery to massive debt, or the need for affection, or - in my case - the basic desire to believe that suffering is not the normal fundamental nature of life… whatever your stress, your weakness, it will grind increasing numbers of us up and push us past our limits of will and reason, for it is society, and it is us, and we are all expendable.
But today is the first day of the Resistance. I post now from free wireless at a coffee shop, smiling at passersby. The Opponent cannot regard me, and everyone else is consumed in their own private struggle against society’s extreme and rising pressures. They’re all too stressed to notice that someone like me - someone insane, as compared to society’s reality - is sitting among them. After this post, I’ll disappear even from here, and no one will be the wiser.
But don’t worry. This is my life’s work, now. I took my scalpel and tools with me. I will find you, and I will free you all - one pair of eyes at a time.