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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…