Editor’s note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
By Karen Brode
This was the part of the day I hated most of all. It was social time. I sat alone at a table in the corner. The top of it was covered in some sort of worn laminate that was supposed to look like wood grain. I smudged my finger into a worn spot, so bored I thought maybe I could make the spot bigger if I did it long enough. But then I stopped. Someone was watching, somebody who could make me take more pills. I didn’t need any more pills.
The worn spot on the table was just another reminder of the quality I was living in. I’d seen pictures of other places. Some of them even had real wood tables and chairs, but that would be too fancy here. This place was the bottom of the barrel cheap.
The walls were painted pale yellow. I wondered if it was that color so we’d stay calm. Or maybe so we’d chipper up somehow. It was hard to be chipper knowing I’d probably never see what the walls were made of on the outside. I was locked in and there was no way out. I’d already thought about escape on several occasions. There were too many nurses who probably knew what we were thinking before we did. They were too observant.
There weren’t any books to read. It would have helped me pass the time if there were books. I thought of my bookshelves back home. I once had whole walls lined with books I loved. I wondered what had happened to all those books, to all my things. A tear slipped out of my left eye. I wiped it away quickly so as not to appear vulnerable. That would be the last thing I’d need.
The radio crackled from a thunderstorm moving through. It grated my nerves a little, but at least it was some kind of distraction from the infernal boredom.
I scanned the room for the hundredth time, hoping I had somehow missed seeing a window before. But there were no windows so I couldn’t be certain whether there was a thunderstorm. It sounded like it.
I tuned my ear to what I thought was thunder. Between the scratchiness of the radio and all the other women making noises in the room, I couldn’t be certain. I wished I could just get a peek outside, just to be sure. A thunderstorm is exciting if nothing else. I would have felt better knowing if it was raining hard outside.
It was a mistake for me to be there, but there was no convincing the others of that. Most everyone in the room could appear normal for short periods. The first day I arrived, a blonde-haired woman came to sit by me at the table. She looked to be in her forties. She could’ve been much younger than I thought. Age didn’t really exist in this place. I probably looked much older than I was after all the medication they gave me, but I had no idea what I looked like anymore because there were no mirrors.
The blonde shook a cigarette out of her pack and asked if I wanted one. I told her I didn’t smoke. She lit up her cigarette and blew out the smoke in a slow, methodical exhale. She looked as normal as anyone I’d ever met.
“What’s wrong with you?” I asked, hoping it came out friendly.
“I killed my family.” She said this as if she was talking about the weather, then she flicked the ashes of her cigarette into the ashtray sitting on the table between us.
It felt like such a regular conversation, she seemed so nonchalant and bored, that I momentarily forgot where we were. So I asked, “Why?”
For a split second she locked eyes with me. Hers were blue and they went steely in a flash. She jumped from her chair and overturned the table on top of me. I screamed and hit the ground, landing on my back. People came running, but before they got there, she was on top of me, snorting like a bull and pounding me with her fists. I held my hands over my head to keep her from slamming into my face and head.
The staff managed to wrestle her away. After that, I never saw her again. I don’t know what happened to her, but I was relieved to say the least. I learned a lesson that day: Don’t talk to anyone.
Still, when I looked around the room watching the other women, I wondered if anyone else was like me—there by mistake.
Many of them danced, pretending to be ballerinas. Some shuffled forward, never quite lifting their feet off the ground. They seemed so out of it, their heads empty. I had read about the thorazine shuffle before, but it wasn’t until I “social hour” my first week that I actually got to see it. I wondered if any of them knew where they were, who they were before the windowless walls. It didn’t seem to matter to them. If they took all the pills given to them, they were sure to forget.
I closed my hand around the pills I had saved from breakfast and lunch. I couldn’t tell what they had me taking these days. I couldn’t trust any of the doctors or nurses to tell me what they were giving me. All I knew was that these were not the same pills I had been taking before.
I looked over at the nurses’ station. It was a little box of an office with a large window that looked into our social room. The nurses were safely ensconced behind that window. The glass was thick and it had wire criss-crossing through it. It was no use to approach the window. They didn’t acknowledge anyone unless you banged long enough. They wanted to make us feel like we didn’t exist. They wanted us to believe we were invisible. But I wasn’t invisible!
I felt a little shiver go down my back when the doctor walked in. He walked through the room with his clipboard and a nurse following him. He watched each of us in turn like we were zoo animals and then scribbled notes onto his pad. He never said anything to us—just scribbled and walked away.
There were so many things I needed to tell him—for his own sake! I closed my eyes and watched the scene play out on the back of my eyelids. I didn’t know when it would happen, but I knew the car crash would happen on a stormy night in a secluded area when he was on his way home from work. I also knew that he drove to that area for the express purpose of meeting his mistress. And I knew that the accident would prove fatal for him.
If he would just listen to me, he wouldn’t have to die. But no one believed me. I was just a crazy woman in a loony bin.
When I was a child, I had not realized what I had was a gift. I’d used it for entertainment when I was trying to go to sleep, but now I’d seen too much. After what happened to those people in that terrorist attack, I knew that all the things I saw were things that eventually came true. It was only when I started talking about what I saw that I ended up in a mental institution.
Doctors didn’t believe me that I was just trying to be a good citizen. I begged them to get the President on the phone. I wouldn’t have done it if it hadn’t been a matter of national security. All they did was take their glasses off and look at me, like I was some sort of alien species. I was beginning to think maybe they were right. And yet, if they had listened to me, they would have caught those men before they boarded the planes and used them to kill thousands of innocent people.
I guess I can’t blame them. If I had known then what I knew now, I might have saved myself a lot of trouble. I might not be locked like a hamster in a cage. I saw my future long before it happened. I had seen this place on the backs of my eyelids. At the time, I didn’t understand how it related to me. I wish I had.
Now I understood it everyday. I was marched to different parts of the hospital in single file with all the other crazy people. I knew this place by heart. I knew it was Monday and I knew that there would be Chicken al a King for lunch, along with some canned vegetables. If Gertie was working, there might be squares of cornbread. Otherwise, we just got a piece of white bread from a store-bought loaf. Martha stood by the bread and kept tabs to make sure we only took one piece each.
“People misjudge their appetites,” she had said to us on the day of orientation. She paced back and forth in her thick cafeteria shoes. They squeaked across the linoleum tile floor. Her eyes burned with anger and her hairnet slipped down on her forehead. “When I see even a little piece of bread get thrown out, it just ticks me off!”
I remember watching her and wondering how it was she was allowed to roam free when the rest of us were being locked up. I didn’t know any sane person who would go mental over a piece of bread. Still, her tactic worked. None of us took more than one piece each. And we all made sure to eat the one we took. Nobody wanted to make Martha mad.
I kept my head down and tried not to make eye contact with Martha. It seemed wiser that way. In fact, I kept my head down a lot now and tried not to talk at all. It seemed talking got me in trouble. Telling people what I had seen on the back of my eyelids made people nervous. And I usually ended up having to take more pills.
I stared down at the pills in my hand and closed my eyes, feeling them lie there against my skin. I pushed back the scenes crawling up in front of me. It was no use to pay attention to them. It didn’t matter that I had seen things before that ended up on the news months later. No one would listen.
The first time it happened, I ran screaming around the room pointing to the television, telling anyone within earshot that that is what I had been talking about. That plane crash. I had tried to warn them before it had happened. I had even written down the numbers that were on the plane and given them to my doctor. But like everyone else, he had ignored my warnings and, as payment, I got two more pills added to my prescriptions.
That’s when I stopped talking. That’s when I gave up. None of them wanted to know the truth behind what I said. And, really, why would they want to know? Even I thought it was too much. I didn’t want to know about the wars that would happen or the murders. I didn’t want to see the crashes and the fires.
I squeezed my eyes tight until all I saw were flashes of abstract lights. Then I threw the handful of pills in my mouth and swallowed them all without water. Maybe it was better not to know.
Karen Brode is a senior contributor for Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972. She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.