This story is by Kit Gower and won an Honorable Mention in our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Kit Gower is about to fulfill her dream of living in a cabin in the woods for the winter with nothing to do but write. She is also aware of the ominous similarities between this plan and the plot of The Shining. If you’d like to see if she makes it through without losing her mind or terrorizing her dog, please visit @kitgower on Instagram and Facebook.
When I try to remember his name now, all these years later, I have trouble. Stephen … that much I know. I think about him occasionally, when I feel melancholy and misunderstood or when the air turns crisp and leaves start to spin down to the earth. What was his last name? Robert? George? A double first name, I think, but this recollection could be a casualty of time. Most of my memories from that October are fuzzy.
Some are still sharp and clear, unrelentingly so, like the long, empty stare from Alma’s eyes after her shock treatments. And the lopsided grins of the paper pumpkins the nurses hung on the walls of the common room, to remind us that fall was still falling outside. The world was still out there, somewhere, spinning, buzzing, getting on with life. For us, the world was only the shabby existence we found within these walls; still, stagnant, and much too quiet.
It’s not like you see in the movies, not really. No one screams. Between the daytime Lithium and Haldol, the as-needed (which is always) Xanax, and the 9pm Ambien fix, we all shuffled along obediently enough. If anything, it’s the most boring zombie movie you’ve ever seen. Empty shells of people wander the halls, stumbling towards the light, desperate to reclaim the brains they once possessed. There is a hunger, buried deep under the layers of drugs and treatments, but the rumblings are faint, and quieted by the thrice daily visits to the nurses’ station.
And sometimes by pudding.
Pudding is a treat of monumental proportions at a place like this. That’s how I met Stephen, actually, at breakfast that first morning. I had spent the previous night in the isolation room, deeply drugged by the nurses for fear I would hurt myself or others. When I ventured out in the morning, I felt the way I imagined a werewolf might, the day after a full moon; feral, defiant, and drained. The morning nurse gave me a big, kindergarten teacher smile.
“Well, look at you! We thought you’d stay in there for days, but here you are, already joining the group.”
She looked absolutely tickled by my participation. Every good girl instinct I’d been raised with, every lesson about respect and politesse, melted away at the sight of that smile and I felt myself drawn in by a cool darkness. It felt good to stare impolitely. It felt powerful to be crazy. I stood in front of her, limbs heavy and Frankenstein-like, eyes and hair wild. I was transforming into something I didn’t recognize, but this creature felt more real than the argyle-wearing, over-achieving people-pleaser who had arrived last night. I glared and glowered and silently dared anyone to cross me. The nurse sighed.
“Breakfast,” she said, pointing to a table scattered with trays.
I trudged over and grabbed one, feeling triumphant and weird.
“I wouldn’t touch anything except the fruit and the potatoes. And the pudding is disgusting, but I can take that off your hands for you.” His voice had a grin in it.
Stephen. He was young but weathered. Blond. He reminded me of the boys from high school, the kind I always liked and was never supposed to hang out with. I took the bowl of fruit and handed him the rest.
“Thanks,” he said, settling in next to me on the worn couch. “Isolation room, huh? I was in there my first night, too. It’s better than sharing.”
He pointed to a tall, gaunt Hasidic man rocking almost imperceptibly in the far corner.
“I’m in with that guy and he has nightmares. Every night. I haven’t slept since I got here and that was, like, 2 weeks ago. Everyone is pretty cool though. It’s the people not locked in here you need to worry about, ya know?”
I nodded. I did know.
“Anyway, I’m only here because I did like twelve hits of acid one night and jumped off a roof. I wasn’t trying to kill myself. I was just trying to get away from some people. But then the cops came and I don’t have an address and then they brought me here ‘cuz this is where they take you when you’re homeless and schizophrenic and HIV positive. Are you gonna eat the blueberries? The pudding is vanilla and it’s killer with blueberries.”
I shook my head slowly, unsure of who or what this person was. And then, for the first time in a long time, I laughed. I laughed so hard I snorted and sprayed strawberry bits all over Stephen’s shirt. I cackled like an idiot and he joined in as if this was all normal. I had survived the first day of crazy school and now I had a friend. A sweet, schizophrenic friend.
We spent every day together for the next two weeks. We watched the shock zombies, the poor souls who were wheeled in to the morning Grooming class to relearn basic personal hygiene, like teeth cleaning and hair brushing. We painted each other’s nails, black for him and midnight blue for me, and felt better about ourselves because our frontal lobes were still intact.
“Don’t give them anything,” he would say. “That’s how you take care of yourself. Tell ‘em whatever they want to hear, but don’t give them anything real.”
The head nurse told us we were the lucky ones. The floor above us was for “extreme” cases. Things happened up there, she said, that we couldn’t even fathom. We should be thankful at least for the soundproof walls so we wouldn’t hear the wailing. She reminded us of this in a whisper, at captured moments in the middle of the hallway, away from the other nurses, because it was macabre and (hopefully) frowned upon by the higher ups to terrorize the patients with allusions to gothic Victorian insane asylums. It thrilled me, and terrified me, and I tucked away the details to share with someone someday. Stephen would roll his eyes after she walked away.
“Bullshit,” he’d say. “That’s just her version of a ghost story. The crazies need Halloween, too.”
We were the crazies, but of course we felt as sane and solid as ancient oak trees. There was Andrea, who had slit her wrists one night after breaking up with her fiancé. There was the Russian girl, dark and feline, who stared me down my first night in and vanished sometime the next day. And of course there was Stephen, who landed somewhere between total disaster and love.
The day they let him out, he didn’t even tell me. I caught him, after my midday nurses’ station visit, rushing to the lobby. He was sweaty and agitated.
“I have to go,” he kept saying to the nurse. “Don’t you get that? I have to go NOW.”
He rambled on about shelter beds and meeting friends, sounding the craziest I’d ever heard him, but somehow it was happening — the papers had already been signed. He could act as crazy as he wanted for the next few minutes and they couldn’t hold him.
“Wait,” I pleaded. “How do I find you? Where are you going? How—”
I stopped. I knew it was absurd. I just couldn’t imagine never seeing him again.
He paused, finally, and looked at me. He shrugged helplessly, grinned, and hugged me, then tipped my head forward to touch his.
“If you really want to leave, you have to play their game. But it’ll be okay, because it’ll be your choice.”
In the psych ward, it’s hard to accept anything as truth. You assume the patients are lying and you’re fairly certain the staff is. The rules are different and truth, like love, means something else. At the time, I was sure I had never known anyone as honest as Stephen. Maybe he was really a compulsive liar, or maybe his brain had been addled by so many drugs that he couldn’t string together a full line of reality anymore. It didn’t matter. The truth he offered me was a truth beyond facts. It gleamed around him like an aura, lighting him up brighter than anyone I knew in the real world.
Before he walked through the double set of bolted, reinforced doors at the end of the ward hall that day, we stared at each other for a long moment. We knew we would never see each other again and we knew we each had lost but also had won. Then his gaze unfocused and I knew he was looking not at doors or freedom anymore, but ghosts sweeping up from the back of his memories.