It’s the hottest day so far. I really like it here. I like the open lawns, the trees, the nurses in their white. How they stand out against the green grass. I like the big white building I get to eat and sleep in. It’s nice not to fear the place I sleep in. To fear my own bed. But the nightmares bring me back.
When I was in prison it was different. Instead of a rolling green lawn, we were surrounded by wire in a dirt-covered pen. Concertina wire curling and writhing around the top of the fence. They brought me to the mental facility not because I was trying to escape, but because I was trying to eat the wire.
Most people thought it was funny. On my way up, the other inmates shouted, “Hey, Jack, where the hell do you think you’re going?”
I had reached the top by the time the guards noticed me. I could have slid over, slicing myself up, but escaping all the same. Maybe landing in a heaping bloody mess on the other side only to be dragged back by the dogs.
But when I started to eat the shiny concertina wire, they stopped aiming their guns. I could see them peripherally. I watched them stare stupidly at me as I licked away at the gnarled metal shards.
See, I had to do something drastic. Earlier that day I overheard the guys planning something terrible for me. It was going to happen that night. And I had just about cracked already. Whatever they had planned, it was going to be worse than the gang rapes, the multiple kicks to the ribs, stripping me down and making me dance. Whatever it was, I didn’t want to find out. And I’m not a big fan of suicide.
When they brought me down, my chin and neck were covered in blood. It’s always one thing making new scars, but reopening them and making new ones in the same place is something special.
No one said anything as they walked me out of the yard. They just kind of looked on, dumbfounded as I smiled at everyone. It’s not easy being a smaller guy.
Now I sit here under an oak tree. It’s so hot that I’ve taken off my shirt. I see Nurse Judy walking toward me. She doesn’t like it when I take off my shirt. Ben, this guy I talk to sometimes, says it’s because it makes her “hot and bothered”. He likes to use archaic phrases that don’t really work in the here and now. I would have just said horny.
Nurse Judy stands over me, her white skirt swaying in the breeze. I look but I can’t see much more than the tops of her thighs.
“Jack, where’s your shirt?” she asks.
“Man, I don’t even know.” I laugh.
“Don’t call me ‘man’.” she says, “Where is your shirt?”
“You should go look for it.” I say, “Do you guys have any of that pudding stuff left?”
“No.” Nurse Judy doesn’t like me because deep down, she knows I’m not really crazy. But if I don’t throw in crazy sentences once in a while, they’ll start to doubt my insanity. She returns from around the tree with my ugly white shirt in her hand.
Sometimes my psychiatrist asks me why I ate the concertina wire, and why I like to eat anything that might be sharp. They wont let me around anything potentially dangerous without supervision. I don’t blame them. I’m not all that interested in cutting up my body. That’s sick shit anyway. I’m no self-despising masochist. But if I see a pair of scissors, I can’t help but spread those blades and drag them down my tongue.
I don’t remember much about my past. Only the high points. Only those days in the bathroom with the door shut and the scissors, tweezers, and nail clippers all to myself. And it’s all a lot easier to do than you think–that is, if you need to do it bad enough. My question is: how can you call it masochism when it feels good? Or when it’s necessary?
Dr. Ritter asks me why I ate the wire. So I just complain about the prison food. How everything was just so fucking bland. And it’s not that far from the truth. There are practically no taste buds left on the surface of my tongue.
“You’re not answering my question.” he’ll say, leaning forward. He likes to pretentiously link his hands together.
I mirror him and say, “Well I’m fucking nuts, what do you expect?”
Nurse Judy holds my shirt in her hand and shakes it in my face. She throws it at me. “Too much for you to handle, Judy?” I ask. I like to think I have the torso of Hugh Jackman.
“Hot and bothered!” Ben shouts from half-way across the lawn. Her pace quickens, and I laugh.
The thing is, she would be pretty if she just relaxed. She’s too tall, thin without the curves, about six foot something, with red hair and big green eyes. She’s a monster. And when I first arrived, this schizophrenic guy Dan told me she had a thing for guys with Napoleon complexes. I told him just because I’m short doesn’t mean I have a Napoleon complex. He didn’t follow.
I have these nightmares. Sometimes they’re about prison. Sometimes I’m stuck at the end of a long, concrete alley inside the prison walls, crouched down. My ass is facing the wall. There’s Dirty Frank. He was named after the bar he used to frequent and pick up murder victims in. There’s Hairy Joe, the red-headed child molester. There’s Icy Fin. I have no idea how he got his name, but I remember the black tattoo tears running down his face and decide he must have been in a gang or something. The guys are really big, about six foot something. They reach out with their fat fingers and suddenly my face is to the wall. Just like that. And the pain comes back and it’s so goddamn real. Like it’s really fucking happening again.
Sometimes my dreams are about my dad and how he used to hit me. Sometimes my dad replaces the prison inmates. But most of the time, my dad is feeding me.
In my dreams, he’s shoving the food down, but I don’t taste anything. In my dreams, I’ve beaten him at his own game.
But in my nightmares…
Eat your damn peas, Jacky. He’ll say, shoving a spoon deep into my throat. You’re too tiny, you gotta eat. The peas always pass my tongue and make me gag. In my nightmares, my dad is shoving broccoli down, brussel sprouts, green beans…everything I hated–hate to eat. I can taste them in all their putrid, green vomit-covered glory and I just want to die.
I wake up screaming and the nurses rush in to strap me down. I don’t need to be strapped. But they think it’s the right thing to do so I let them. Sometimes it’s just nice to have people around.
Sometimes Nurse Clara, a new nurse at the ward, stays beside me until I fall asleep. She looks to be about twenty-one. She’s very pretty but I don’t tell her. She only started taking care of me about a month ago. Everyone says she’s a transfer from another hospital. No one says why she transferred, but it doesn’t really matter to me. I just want to hear her voice.
Tonight I awoke strapped down again for the third time in a week. They’ve gotten worse over the month. In the dream I was young. There was a little girl with me but I couldn’t make out her face. We were crouched down over a frog, trying to shove it into a little toy car. We were going to push it down a hill. I wanted to crash it into a rock and she wanted to dress it like a princess. We started to fight. I began to hit her with the frog until it fell apart. Then the little girl started to bleed from her hands. Icy Fin was smiling over us, five times our size. He switched to Dad with a spoon in his hand; green conglomerate ooze was slipping from it, but the spoon stayed full. It got closer and closer.
That’s when I wake up.
I’m covered in sweat and I think I’ve wet the bed again. My bladder has never been so weak as it is this month. Not since I was four or five. Nurse Clara is sitting beside me. She has tears in her eyes. Other nurses are in the room too but they move so fast I can’t tell who they are at first. I hope they can’t smell the urine. I hope they just think it’s more sweat down there.
“You okay?” I ask Nurse Clara.
“He’s awake.” Nurse Rachel says.
I ask her again, and she says, “I’m fine.”
All the nurses leave but Nurse Clara. Her hand is on my forehead.
“Your hair is starting to grow.” she says, “We’ll have to shave you tomorrow.”
“Why are you crying?” I ask.
“Nothing, it’s nothing.” She wears a smile that I don’t believe.
“You can tell me.” I say. She takes a clean white cloth and wipes my face with it.
“What do you dream about?” she asks.
“I can’t remember half the time.”
“What about the other half?”
“Prison.” I say. It’s not entirely true, but it’s good enough for her. She smiles a little, looks down at her hands.
“Do you remember why you went to prison, Jacky?” she asks. She closes her mouth quickly, as if trying to catch back some words.
“’Jacky’?” I ask, “No one calls me that….”
“You’re right.” Nurse Clara stands up. Her eyes flick down my bed. To my legs. I tense. “I’ll send in Nurse Judy for you.”
“For…?” I didn’t want to say the reason. I swallow. “I don’t want her. Doing that.” I say.
She looks at me for a moment.
“Nurse Rachel then.”
“I’ll be okay.”
“I’m sending someone in.”
She reaches for the doorknob.
“I’m not…I never used to do this.”
She angles her head funny and for a moment, her eyes seem to sparkle. She leaves me in the room with the lights on.
“Mr. Flannery,” Dr. Ritter says, “tell me about the concertina.”
“I believe it’s a musical instrument, like an accordion with keys–”
“The wire, Mr. Flannery.” he says, “Why did you try to eat it?”
I look at him.
“I didn’t eat it.” I correct him. “I tried. It was too hard.”
“Give me that.”
“Give you what?” he looks at my hands slowly unwinding a paper clip I snatched off his desk. I pop half of it into my mouth like a toothpick and lean back in my chair. I smile.
“You’re being very difficult today. I heard about your incident last night.”
“That isn’t an answer.”
“There was no question.”
“That’s Mr. Flannery to you.” I say, “I’m a married woman.”
“You’re not funny.” I really wasn’t. There wasn’t a quiver of a smile on his weathered face.
“You ever catch lobsters?” I ask.
“You look like you used to catch lobsters.”
“I fish on the weekends. Not in the ocean.”
Your face looks like a ship captain’s. You would have been better as a fisherman.”
Dr. Ritter looks at me a minute.
He lifts his eyebrows at me. “You should have been a guidance counselor.” I laugh. Now he’s funny.
“You’re right.” I say. I scratch my neck where the stubble is creeping down. I glance at the clock. “Time’s up.”
I stand, put his paper clip back with the others and head for the door.
“Stick out your tongue.”
I stop and turn to him.
He stands. He never stands. “Stick out your tongue, Mr. Flannery.” The man is shorter than me. He’s fucking shorter than me.
I widen my eyes, bear my teeth, and stick out my tongue. “HAAAAAAA.” I breathe. He recoils, probably expecting to see a torrent of blood or something. But I’m unscathed.
Nurse Clara stands beside me with an electric razor in one hand. I can’t take my eyes off it. If you break the guard and turn it on, it can do some damage. But I notice this guard isn’t broken.
I’m wearing a wife-beater instead of my regular white shirt. She throws a dry white towel around my shoulders.
“You have little ringlets.” she said, turning on the razor. It makes a sound like a hundred pissed-off bumblebees. She touches my hair with her hand, and something familiar flows through me but I can’t place it. Her hand lingers on the top of my head for a moment too long and I turn to her.
“You alright?” I ask, “You’re acting weird.”
“Fine,” she says, turning my head back to face forward, “I’m fine.”
I look into the mirror as the razor edge begins to buzz off my hair. I watch some fuzz fall onto the towel. Nurse Clara has hair like me. It’s blonder, but just as curly. I look at myself for a long time. I have big brown eyes. Clara has big brown eyes too. I have a straight, hard nose that curves up slightly at the end. So does she. I have a very distinctive jaw-line, as does she. I look at her. I look at me.
She continues to buzz off my hair until my entire head is one very short length of potential curls.
The razor switches off. She bends down, unplugs it, knocks out the loose hair. I watch her put it into an upper cabinet. She locks it.
“Safety.” she says, when she catches me watching her.
“I know.” I say.
“Two-thirty.” she smiles.
“Mr. Flannery,” Dr. Ritter begins, “Why did you ask about the lobsters the other day?” I groan and kick my foot up onto the chair beside me. He watches my foot and continues. “Is it because they have sharp snappers?” I don’t answer. “Do they attract you? Mr. Flannery? Do you find them enticing?”
“Do they attract me?” I laugh at him. “Look, I didn’t climb the fence and try to fuck the wire, I ate it.”
“I don’t mean it in a sexual sense.”
“Then be straight with it. Don’t screw around.” I put another foot on the chair, “I’m not attracted or intrigued (the better word) by lobsters. The only reason I asked is because you remind me of one.”
“Well don’t look like that. That just makes it worse.”
“What am I doing?” he touches his chest, open palmed.
“You have poor circulation?”
“Either it’s poor circulation or you’re an alcoholic.”
“It’s…the circulation.” he says. “How do you know that?”
“You’re nose is as red as a tomato.”
“You moved the paper clips.”
He closes his mouth. Opens it. “Yes.”
“Safety.” I say.
We each take a breath.
“Some new detectives are coming by later.”
I swallow. I must have gone pale because a sadistic smile grows on his face. “I don’t care.” I say.
“Just letting you know.” he looks at the clock, “Time’s up.”
My feet are on the floor again but I don’t remember taking them off the chair. My hands are gripping my thighs. I feel my bladder loosen a little.
“When?” I ask.
I stand up, head for the door.
The bathroom is just down the hall.
Please don’t let me pee in front of him…please don’t let him see that….
Just around the corner and down the hall.
Please, God, please…
I can make it.
I reach for the doorknob but it’s too late. The warmth creeps down my legs fast, gathering at the cuffs of my pants, making a pool around my shoes. I can’t look at him.
I’m playing gin rummy with Nurse Clara in the rec. room but I can’t concentrate. Ben is watching us, giggling into his sleeve, whispering to his friend Carl. Carl is deaf, but Ben doesn’t seem to care.
There are many different versions of gin rummy but Clara and I happen to know the same one.
Since three o’clock I’ve had a headache. Now it’s five and it’s only gotten worse.
“You look terrible.” she says, placing the threes together in front of her.
“They’re coming today.” I say.
“I know.” she takes my hand in hers. Our eyes meet. Ben laughs loudly and we break apart. “Let’s go somewhere else.” she says.
We walk into the smallest waiting room in the facility. It’s hidden away in a tiny alcove in the wall. It’s also one of the most private places. It would be completely private if not for the 24-hour surveillance camera.
“You need to tell me the truth, Jack.”
“The truth about what?”
“The truth is, it was terrible.” What does she expect to hear?
“No, not…” she sighs, “Tell me why you went to prison.”
I don’t say anything. She continues, “You don’t have to tell them the truth. But tell me. Just…don’t tell them anything if you don’t want to, but please tell me. Please.”
“Listen…” I can’t seem to speak. My throat tightens. I’m very tired. “…do you know how many people have been asking me this? Did I do it? Am I guilty? Do you know what I’ve gone through? I’ve been through hell, Clara! I’ve been beaten by four cops because I couldn’t tell them. I’ve been humiliated, denied food, put in solitary confinement for it.” her eyes widen, “Oh yeah. You don’t think they torture people? Well they fucking do. And do you think for a goddamn minute if I knew what happened I wouldn’t come out with it?” My words emerge in sputters, my throat is tight. My snot and spit is hitting her but I don’t fucking care. This is two years of frustration coming out.
“And you know what?” I say, “I would tell you. I would. But I don’t remember anything! All I know…” I sit down on the little blue couch and she follows me.
“It’s okay, Jack.” I meet her eyes. She’s crying. She touches my hand again and I pull away from her. I rest my head in my hands.
“All I know,” I say after a moment, “is that I hurt some kid. They show me pictures. I don’t know who he is. I don’t remember…” I wipe my nose with my sleeve. “I don’t even know what my parents look like. I…I get these dreams but I don’t know if it’s memory or not.”
“Do you tell Dr. Ritter any of this?”
I sneer. “He’s a fucking tool. I don’t tell him shit.”
“What are you going to say? That he’s trying to help me?”
“Yes.” she says quietly.
She deliberately takes my hand, and puts hers inside of mine. Our palms meet. She asks, “See this?”
She shows me a tiny moon-shaped scar on the back of her hand, right between her thumb and forefinger. It’s about two inches long and very thin.
“How’d that happen?”
“We were playing with dad’s knife.”
I laugh, “What?”
“Dad let you borrow his knife. The red one with the white cross on it.”
“I don’t…you’re my sister?”
“Are you fucking with me?”
“Jack, I would never do that.”
“I feel like everybody’s just fucking me up.”
“I’m not lying.”
“I don’t know…you could…could tell me anything and I wouldn’t know! You get that? What am I supposed to…?”
I liked Nurse Clara the moment I met her. I felt no impulse to rag on her like I do to the other nurses. There was always something different about her. Maybe I do trust her. I give her a chance and listen.
“You caught a frog in the yard and you were cutting it up. So I ran at you to stop. You started to chase me around, and you cut me.”
“I would never hurt you.” I say.
“You felt bad afterwards. About the frog but especially me. So you threw the knife into the woods. And then Dad asked for his knife back and you couldn’t find it. Do you remember any of this?”
“He hit me in front of you.” I say.
“I wet myself.”
“And he just got angrier.”
I look at her. I can’t hug her because she looks terrified.
“Mr. Flannery.” I jump. Dr. Ritter is standing behind me. “The detectives are here to see you.”
“Tell them I’m sick.”
“Clara, in my office immediately.”
“I’m sorry, but I…I needed to know.” she stands, her hands ripping each other apart.
“And you’ve broken the agreement.” Dr. Ritter says. Nurse Judy comes around the corner followed by three men in suits. I start to sweat.
“This was a delicate process Clara. You’ve disrupted months of work.”
“And I’ve gotten more from him in a month than you ever have.”
“And what good is that? We didn’t get to hear any of it, it wasn’t recorded, there were no witnesses–it’s useless! It was a mistake bringing you here!” He says through clenched teeth.
“In. My. Office.”
She wraps her arms around me. I don’t remember the last time I was hugged. I squeeze her back.
“I’m so sorry, Clara. I’m sorry about Luke.” I whisper.
“You don’t need to tell them anything.” she whispers, “I just wanted to know–”
“Ms. Flannery.” Dr. Ritter stamps his foot like an angry child.
Clara and I let go, and she kisses my forehead. She turns a corner, followed by Dr. Ritter, and I think it’s the last time I’ll see her.
“We can do this here.” A suit says to Nurse Judy. His hair is cropped like a frat boy. I sit back down on the couch, squeeze my thighs together. I can still smell Clara. Like vanilla, something mild and sweet.
I think about the last thing she said to me:
You don’t need to tell them anything…
“Mr. Flannery,” the frat boy sets a running tape recorder on the coffee table between us. “we’re here to understand some things.”
“This boy…” he takes a file out of his briefcase. I hadn’t noticed it before. He sets it down, face open on the table and shows me a photograph. The same photograph they’ve been showing me since I was arrested. I had never remembered the kid until now.
And now, I remember everything.
“He looks like you.” Another suit says. This guy has red hair and freckles and reminds me of Hairy Joe. He’s about as big as him.
“Has your eyes, your features.” the frat boy agrees.
“Your powers of observation are incredible.” I say. My mouth is so dry. The third guy just stands there, clicking his tongue. He has a pen in his pocket.
I decide I don’t like any of them.
“Mr. Flannery, why did you assault your nephew?”
And I make another decision.
I could tell them everything right now. That I was watching Luke one day while Clara was out. I decided to show him something. Let him in on the greatest secret I’d ever discovered. I took a paring knife to my tongue and showed him how I did it. He was only six. He didn’t understand. Things just got out of hand.
See, he wasn’t doing it right. Cutting in deep enough. I wanted to show him. I wanted him to understand because no one else probably would. People have negative prejudices about things like this. They don’t see what freedom it gives, they just see the blood. He was young, impressionable. It was harmless. And once you’ve fucked up your mouth enough, you can eat anything. Anything at all and no one will have to force you to eat. You wouldn’t know the difference between Big League Chew and a brussel sprout. You’re invincible. Immune.
But when I saw how much blood this kid had in him, and how gray he was, I panicked. Blacked out.
I decide to keep them guessing. Keep myself here, in this safe, clean hospital. Away from the prison, away from being just another bitch. Am I sorry? Of course I’m sorry. But it hasn’t sunken in yet. I think it will soon. Tonight when I’m sleeping, maybe. I’ll have a new load of nightmares to deal with from now on. I’ll scream into my pillow, hate myself, I know it. But I can’t break now. Not in front of them.
And I say, “Did Dr. Ritter ever show you his toy ship collection?”
The suits frown. I can feel the control coming back to me.
“It is really really something.” I smile at the clicking guy. I see a pen in his pocket.
“Can I see that a minute? I want to write something down.”
He hands it to me. They all lean in with incredible curiosity.
“No!” Nurse Judy takes a frigid step forward. I click the pen open and take a sheet of paper from inside the frat boy’s file folder. There is a black and white picture of Luke on it before it all happened. I write:
I hold it up to them.
“Jack, give the pen back.” Nurse Judy says.
I smile at them and slowly drive it downward into my tongue.