Last week of October. The light changes now, lends a translucence to things that never quite achieve transparency. The curtain hung between worlds never really comes down, not even now. But it’s now that the light from beyond shines through the strongest. Silhouettes and snippets of things can been seen if one stands still long enough and waits, watching. Mostly at dusk. Dusk is a room we briefly occupy as the house of the day ends and the abode of night begins. Some see better in the night. And there are others who can see through the curtain, to the other side. They see the invisible surge and manifest as October fragments in the undertow of November.
psych ward #1
At night they turn out almost all of the hall lights. But they leave some on, the ones that no one can ever turn off. The forever lights. They go on shining, no matter what. I close the door to my room when I go to bed. But when the nurses check on me, with their flashlights, they never close the door all the way again. Then the forever light across the hall shines into my room. I close my eyes tight or roll over. But sometimes I can’t close my eyes or roll over because I see something standing there, black because of the glare from behind. Mostly, the thing will disappear if I blink. But occasionally, it will stand there looking into my room until the next nurse comes round on suicide watch. Then it’ll creep away. A hospital’s like that, I guess. There’re people that don’t make it out alive. They become ghosts like a caterpillar becomes a moth.
I have a ghost in me. The doctors, nurses and police call it suicide, the thing I keep trying. The thing I feel so compelled to do. But I call it letting the ghost out. It’s all I want to do. Not because I’m crazy. But because if I were a ghost trapped inside somewhere, I’d want out too.
The halls never end at night. It’s like they get longer in the dark, with just the forever lights shining. I notice it when I go to the toilet on the other side of the ward. Then the halls start to slope up like hills. It’s exhausting trying to get to the top where the washroom is. It takes hours to walk to the toilet, sometimes. And then it’s hours getting back. The halls are just as long and slope up the same in the opposite direction.
All along the way there’s dead people standing around in their hospital gowns and pajamas. Some with tubes still hanging out and real bad wounds that’ll never close. What’s it matter if a wound closes when you’re dead? They don’t care. They just stare with the bulging bug eyes the dead have. They all look like they’re caught in the headlights. And they’re real still. Like they’re stuck in a moment, maybe their last. But the eyes move. The eyes see. They follow me to and from the toilet at night. And they whisper. Even when they scream, it’s just a whisper. I’m always surprised at how loud a whisper can be. Even though they don’t move when you see them, some of them always find a way of following me from the toilet back to my room. Then they just stand in the door for the rest of the night. Their lips don’t move, but they whisper.
Sometimes I dream the dreams they dreamed when they were alive. They’re in the dreams, that’s how I know. They say, “This is the dream I had once. This dream gave me cancer. This dream caused my emphysema. This was the dream that made my boyfriend stab me five times and then take too much heroin.” They’re not the kind of dreams you forget in the morning. You never forget them. You never forget the screaming, the desperate scratching at the firm yet fleeting elements of life speeding past as the moments disappear into a nearly invisible mist against the empty dark. The dead in the dreams look so calm, like it’s all a matter of going through a simple series of steps toward their individual ends. But underneath it all, behind the fake calm, the acquiescence and beatific smiles, they’re screaming. Like hell.
It’s 5.30 a.m. I awake to a lab tech prepping my arm to draw blood. I hate waking up this way, and I hate it when they try to draw blood in my darkened room. They rarely hit the vein right, first time. They make a show of wrapping the latex strip around my arm and slapping my forearm at the elbow joint to bring up the vein. They leave the lights off because, they say, they don’t want to wake me.
The light coming through the curtained window is dim. Dead people move in to watch. Their eyes really bulge when they see the needle go in.
“No,” I say, still weak and groggy. “Turn on the lights.”
“It’s okay, it’s okay.”
“You can’t see what you’re doing. It hurts.”
“It’s okay, it’s okay.”
It’s because of the insulin. They give me four injections a day. Then they test and test and test. My life is punctuated by needles.
This morning I see someone standing at the foot of bed. Just her head and shoulders showing over the mattress. A little girl, maybe five. She’s dressed in a tiny stained hospital gown. “Hello,” I say as I look at her between my feet. She doesn’t respond, except to stare. “What’s you’re name?”
“Amanda,” the lab tech says.
“Not you,” I say pointing. “Her.”
Amanda looks over her shoulder and then back at me. “Ain’t nobody there, honey,” she says. She’s smiling the satisfied smile of a person whose most contented moments in life come from knowing that, despite her innate and considerable deficiencies, she is not numbered among the truly deranged. “I’ll let your nurse know you’re seeing little friends,” she says as the vacuum vial fills too slowly with my blood.
“No,” I say, a little too loud.
Amanda feigns mild shock, like she didn’t expect me to protest at her plan to inform on me. “For your own good, buddy boy,” she says. Then she wiggles the needle unnecessarily as she removes it, causing a blunt pain. She tapes a cotton ball onto my arm but intentionally misses the wound. Then she pushes my hand up to my shoulder, using too much force.
The little girl stands impassively, watching. “She’s mean,” she says. “I can push her down the stairs.”
I shake my head, imperceptibly I believe. But no. Amanda sees it. Inhales triumphantly, packs her kit and leaves the room.
“What’s your name,” I ask again.
“Ruby,” the little girl says. Her lips barely move, not enough to really form words.
“That’s a sweet name,” I say. “Don’t hurt Amanda, though. Okay?”
“She hurt you.”
“Not that much,” I say. “Not so bad that she needs to be hurt in return.”
“She’s mean to everyone,” Ruby says. “She was mean to me. She went through my things. She took a dollar and ninety-three cents out of my Hello Kitty purse.”
“That was a mean thing to do,” I concede. “Was that all of your money?”
“Were you saving up?”
“Ah, I see.”
“Now I’m like this,” Ruby says.
“Like a ghost, I guess. I guess I died.”
“Does that make you sad,” I ask. It’s hard to know what else to say.
“It’s scary. I don’t know when to go to bed anymore, and the other dead people just stand there and never say anything I can hear. They just watch me wherever I go. I guess I don’t really need my dollar and ninety-three cents now. They put all my things in a bag.”
“Will someone come for them,” I ask.
“Maybe,” Ruby says. Then, “I have to go.”
“Back. There’s still some of me left. They’re keeping me in the cold. I’ve never been so cold.”
“No,” I say getting up. “Don’t go back there.” But she’s gone.
The early sun is rising. Shining, for a moment, between the two curtains. The light is a narrow, vertical beam revealing particles moving on currents through the air. A lifeless galaxy of abandoned planets swirling.
psych ward #2
This part of the hospital is over a century old. It suffers the dull, monotonous ache of dissolving stone and warping timbers. There are rooms that have been sealed shut and are lost to the world. Inside of these rooms, the oldest ghosts fret and remember. I know these rooms are there when I walk past. The dark inside of them is absolute. But there’s the occasional sound of water dripping, steam pipes banging and, sometimes, there is weeping. A deep melancholic weeping for which there is no comfort. These are the ghosts with the biggest eyes, who see the most. They know Ruby’s death is a recent one, and they cannot condone her innocence. They hate her, but observe her greedily. They’ll feed on her if they can, even though she is little more than mist.
I know this like I know my own name. And I know the name of the oldest ghost, the most ravenous one. Danfort. I can’t make out when he died. Only that it was a long time ago. A century, perhaps more. When the hospital was a single granite building, some of which is still visible against the more modern, sprawling construction. Danfort was an amputee. His leg was smashed as he fell a tree. His stump went septic, then gangrenous. When they finished slicing away to the hip, and there was nothing left to cut, they injected him with ever increasing amounts of morphine. But the infection and pain grew in him like a monster. The monster thrived, and left him raving until the end. The end, when the nurses thanked Jesus that the horror was over and they were no longer required to endure in His name.
When he died, as Danfort’s ghost rose out of his body, it continued to rave and seethe. It was decades before the memories of the physical pain faded. He became a jealous ghost, envious of physical human existence. Unable to impact it, he directed his jealousy onto the newly dead and their fresh memories of tangible life. He became a predator, hunting them down and consuming them. Grinding them down with his blunt, grudging spectral molars, then swallowing them into his interior hell. There they shared his ever-growing anguish, hopelessly and without end.
I have seen Danfort in the halls at night. He chooses the darkest corners of the longest and most remote passages, avoiding the forever lights. He sees me and whispers my name, confident that human frailty will deliver me to him eventually.
I’ve watched him stalk the newly dead. They drag themselves, and the insubstantial remnants of what they left behind, an IV tower, a respirator or catheter, through the depths of the darkest corridors. I know what they’re looking for and know it’s nowhere to be found. They seek welcome and induction into their new world. Their expectations and inclinations remain, for now, the same as those they had while living. But here, there is no spiritual conduit. No hand for them to clasp that will lift them above. Perhaps that’s what Ruby hopes for. But there’s only darkness and isolation. Only immeasurable things.
“So,” Danfort says to me one night. He’s cornered me as I walk the darkness. “You speak with this Ruby.”
“No,” I say. “No Ruby. No talk.”
“Yesss,” Danfort says. “Yes, I think you do. You and Ruby, talking. She’s charming. You want to protect her. How darling. How hopeless.”
psych ward #3
During the day Danfort hunkers down in shadow, gnawing on his discontent like a bone. I, on the other hand, must face those who staff the ward…
“How is your mood today,” a nurse asks. “On a scale of one to ten?”
“One,” I say.
“That’s very low,” she says looking down at my chart as though it’s some newly discovered artifact. “No better than yesterday. Any suicidal thoughts?”
“I’m swimming in them.”
“Thoughts of hurting anyone else?”
Our eyes meet, and I say, “Absolutely.”
“Hmm. That’s not good, is it?”
“Let me out of here,” I say. “My mood will improve vastly.”
“If we let you go, you’ll try to hurt yourself.”
“I didn’t say I’d hurt myself if you let me go.”
“But you just told me that your mood is one out of ten, and you’ve admitted to having suicidal and homicidal ideation.”
“But that’s because I’m here, you see. In these crappy pajamas, answering these ridiculous questions, eating the god-awful food, enduring your loathsome company.”
“The lab tech who took your blood sample this morning reported witnessing you responding to auditory hallucinations. Looks like we’ll have to increase your seroquel.”
“It wasn’t a hallucination,” I say a bit too loud. “This place has ghosts up the wazoo.”
The nurse begins to scribble. “Have you thought about ECT? Dr Myer asked you to consider it.”
“Forget it,” I say and slouch in my chair. Down the hall, Danfort steps out into the middle of the corridor. He’s smiling, displaying his considerable incisors. I sit up. “Look,” I yell, pointing.
The nurse calmly looks over her shoulder, but Danfort is gone. He’d never let her see him. She returns to her scribbling, and sighs the words, “Haloperidol injections….”
“Fuck,” I say.
Pavilion: Ruby Night #3
It’s night again. They’ve increased my medication. I feel sedated and go to bed believing I’ll sleep straight through. The forever lights are burning when Ruby wakes me up.
“Don’t like it here,” she says.
“Me neither,” I say propping myself up on my elbows. She stands perfectly still at the end of my bed.
“My birthday’s tomorrow,” she says.
“Really? That’s November first. All Saints Day. In honor of all saints known and unknown. That’s you, sweetheart. Saint Ruby, the unknown.”
“Forget it. How old?”
“A noble age.”
“No,” I say.
“Why you here, then?” she says.
“I contradict conventional philosophy,” I say.
“What’s that mean?”
“Crazy,” I say. “Because I want to let my ghost out.”
“It says it wants out.”
“That’s stupid,” she says. “It’s better inside of you.”
“You know that thing with the big eyes?”
“They all have big eyes, sweetheart.”
“The biggest eyes – and the teeth.”
“You stay away from him,” I say sitting up.
“I can’t. He finds me where ever I hide.”
“Then stay here.”
She’s quiet for a moment. Then she says, “I want to go back.”
“Inside of me, my body. I don’t think he can get me there.”
“Your body gave you up,” I say. “You can’t go back.”
“I’m still in that cold place. I can hide there, inside of me.”
“No, baby. You can’t. That thing in the fridge, down in the morgue, it ain’t you no more. You’re all that’s left.”
“It’s too scary here. I hate it. When do I get to go home?”
“I don’t know, sweetheart,” I say. There’s something like a tear in the corner of my eye.
She’s fading now. Perfectly still and expressionless, slowly disappearing. When she’s gone, her weeping begins. The sound of it penetrates all that’s substantial within the room, tearing it apart. I’m overwhelmed, powerless. I throw off the blankets and stand on the cold floor, weakened by the meds and staggering. I swing at the empty air like a boxer going down, and I move toward the glare of the forever lights.
* * * *
There’s an obscure logic that dictates the morgue must be in the lowest basement of a hospital’s oldest section, buried completely in the element of our ultimate end. There are tunnels here, nothing as civil as halls or corridors. Above me are dripping pipes and dim yellow bulbs strung on brittle wire. They expose the rough, unfinished century old concrete. The floor is smooth from a hundred years of gurneys conveying the dead. Somebody has written the word farewell on the wall in small cramped letters using a red felt pen. It’s the only graffiti.
I push through the double set of swinging doors at the end. Here there are white florescent tubes emitting an incomplete white light. There’s dripping in a sink, and a chemical smell that fails to mask decades of solemn human decay. Water from some unchecked source has pooled on the floor. On a counter, next to an array of electrical outlets, sits a soiled autoclave, opened with used scalpels and other sharp implements glinting in the light. Ruby stands beneath a square dingy door to a cooler. Her lips are moving rapidly now, as if she is speaking very fast. But I only hear a hiss. Danfort is here also, loitering maliciously in the bricks and concrete.
“You can’t be here, sweetheart,” I say.
“Then where,” she says, sounding strangely adult.
“I don’t know.”
“Mine,” Danfort whispers. “She’s for me.”
“No,” I shout, looking for him everywhere.
“Then intervene, weakling,” Danfort says. “Be her hero. Confront me.”
I look down at my cold bare feet on the wet yellow tiles. The blue veins conspiring to sustain a wasted life.
A bolt disengages and the cooler door swings open on its own. Somewhere a compressor begins to hum as the pallet cradling Ruby’s wasted corpse rolls out. Whatever took her life ravaged her body. It’s jaundice and skeletal; its eyes partially opened and lips parted, dried spittle on its cheek. The little gown it wears makes it seem obscene. The tiny hands are clenched into helpless fist.
“I want to go back,” she says.
“No,” I say. “There nothing left to go back to.”
“Delicious,” Danfort whispers. Now he’s standing on the other side of the room. His huge eyes are moving wildly, back and forth and in exaggerated circles. He grins to reveals his teeth. “Come, my dear. Time for us, now.”
“No,” she says. “I won’t.”
I step in front of her, between her and Danfort. It’s a pointless gesture I know. I can only truly face him on his terms, on the other side. It’s an idea that came to me hours ago, or was it a lifetime ago? Not to end my life for my own selfish reasons, but to come to Ruby’s rescue. To find a way to guide her away from this place and out of the hands of Danfort. He appears before me and begins to walk towards us. Eyes wild but unseeing.
Scalpels in the autoclave shine through the gore. I reach over and take one. I hold it to my forearm and encounter a sudden, unfamiliar conflict. Something inside won’t allow me to apply the blade.
“Weakling,” Danfort whispers. “Yesss. Cut your wrists and take an hour to die. I will have devoured her whole by then. Go ahead.” Then he reaches out as if to take Ruby, and I see the 220 volt outlet next to the autoclave.
“I have a better idea,” I say, pushing the surgical steel knife into the outlet.