30

ALEX DIDN’T REMEMBER OPENING HIS EYES. He didn’t remember waking. He merely became gradually aware that he was awake. After a fashion.

Everything looked soft and fuzzy, unreal, distant, dim. He could hear snatches of sounds but he didn’t know what they were. Figuring out what the sounds were didn’t strike him as at all important.

He was aware of the world all around him, but it seemed far away, not something he was a part of. He was alone. . somewhere else.

His whole body tingled in a thick, numb, twilight way.

With the way that everything seemed less than real, it occurred to him that he might actually be asleep and only dreaming that he was awake. He couldn’t decide which was true. He didn’t know how to find the solution to such a puzzle.

Try as he might, Alex could not, simply could not, form a complete, coherent thought.

Fragments of ideas, bits of things that seemed as if they might be important, floated beyond his mental reach. He couldn’t pull them in, couldn’t make those fragments come together into a complete thought. He knew that he should be able to, knew what he wanted to do, but his mind wouldn’t make it happen. He could not exert enough willpower to bring himself to think.

It felt like his brain was shut off. He struggled to form a complete sentence in his mind, but his mind could not pull anything together. He would start a thought, but it would trail off into nothing as his brain simply failed to complete the task. He could not coax it to stay on track, to work, to think. Monumental effort didn’t help.

Somewhere in the back of his mind his inability to form complete thoughts, to think deliberately, was giving rise to a vague, distant, claustrophobic panic. Those feelings, even as they began to surface, sank back down into the black depths of indifference, never to fully surface, leaving only fuzzy emptiness.

The panic somewhere inside him could not manifest itself into something solid enough to concern him.

Alex wanted to be angry, but there was nothing there to form anger.

Every time he struggled to feel emotion, he only fell back into feeling nothing.

He turned his dim perception away from the futile effort and realized that he was sitting in a chair. He tried to get up, but his body didn’t respond. With great effort he looked down to see his hand resting on the arm of the chair. He tried to lift it, but it only levitated a few inches. He couldn’t make himself care enough to accomplish the simple task.

He squinted, trying to make out the fuzzy white shape not far away, trying to understand what it was doing.

“You awake, Alex?”

He thought it was a woman’s voice.

Answering was too unimportant to even try.

“I’ll have your bed made in a jiff. Then I’ll let you be so you can get your rest.”

That was what she was doing: making up a bed. She was tucking in sheets. Just grasping that much of the mystery around him felt like a profound accomplishment, but the accomplishment failed to be satisfying.

He didn’t know if he knew the woman in white. He couldn’t make himself concentrate on her face long enough to tell. His gaze kept sinking to the floor. The gray swirls in the linoleum echoed his thoughts.

He wanted to break down in tearful despair at not understanding any of it, but there was nothing in him that knew how to cry, so he could only sit and stare.

“I’ll let the doctor know you’re awake. I’m sure that when he makes his rounds he’ll want to stop in and see you. Okay, hon?”

The woman came closer. She pulled a tissue from the box on the windowsill, then leaned toward him and wiped the side of his mouth and chin.

“That better?” she asked as she threw the tissue in the wastebasket beside the chair.

Alex wanted to say something, but nothing came to mind.

She touched his shoulder sympathetically before moving away. The square of light darkened. He wondered distantly if maybe she had gone out and shut the door.

Snippets of things echoed through his head, fragments of conversations, flashes of sights. He sat unmoving as the obscure turmoil tumbled inside him.

He wondered where he was and how he had come to be there. He couldn’t think it through, couldn’t come up from the depths toward the distant surface. He wanted to get up out of the chair, but it seemed too monumental a task.

The world kept going dark. Each time he again became aware, he realized that he must be nodding off.

As he sat staring, going in and out of consciousness, the daylight behind him gradually went dark.

“Alex?”

It was a man’s voice. Alex lifted his head a little and realized that he must have been asleep again. He blinked slowly, trying to clear his vision. It took great effort to blink, but it didn’t help.

The man leaned down toward him. “Alex, hi, how are you doing?” The man had a clipboard in one hand. A stethoscope hung around his neck. He had on a white coat and a blue tie. Alex couldn’t muster the will to look up enough to see the face.

The man picked up Alex’s hand and shook it. Alex was too limp to participate.

“I’m Dr. Hoffmann, Alex. I’ve met you before. Remember? In the past we’ve discussed your mother.”

Alex didn’t remember much of anything. He remembered that he had a mother, but he couldn’t remember what she looked like. The effort to remember details about her was simply beyond his ability. He could do little more than stare at nothing.

“Well, I can see that you’re still pretty out of it. It’s the Thorazine. After a while, when you get a little more acclimated to your medication, you’ll be able to function better. You won’t sleep so much, either.”

As Alex finally managed to turn his eyes up, the man smiled. He looked nice. Alex hated him. At least, he guessed that maybe he hated him. Somewhere inside he wanted to hate him, but he couldn’t feel any hate. He couldn’t feel anything.

“Best thing to do is just take it easy for now, maybe get up in bed and take a nap. You’ve been through quite an ordeal, from what I’ve heard.”

With all his strength Alex managed to say, “What?”

Dr. Hoffmann looked down to search through his papers. He lifted a page on his clipboard, then another.

“Well, from what I’ve been told and from this report, you became violent, apparently convinced that the staff was trying to harm your mother. Seems you hurt one of the orderlies, Henry, pretty badly. Alice was shaken up as well.”

Alex remembered only foggy flickers of a fight. He thought that he remembered being afraid — not afraid for himself, but afraid for someone else.

“The staff here would never hurt your mother, Alex, or any patient, for that matter. They’re dedicated to helping people who are ill.”

The man looked through the papers on his clipboard again. “With your mother’s history, I’m afraid that your violent outburst is not entirely surprising.” He let out a sigh. “Sometimes this sort of psychosis runs in families. In the case of your family, it seems to lead to violent aggression.”

Alex managed to lift his back away from the chair a few inches. “What about. .”

The old bed squeaked as Dr. Hoffmann leaned back against it. He clasped his hands together as he held the clipboard in them and stared down at Alex.

“I’m sorry, Alex, but I don’t understand what you’re asking.”

“Someone. .”

“Someone? Who are you asking about?”

Alex didn’t know.

“Your mother? Is that who you’re asking about? Helen is doing fine. She was understandably frightened by the whole episode, but she’s fine. I saw her earlier. She’s resting comfortably. I don’t think she even remembers the incident.”

Alex wanted to talk, but he couldn’t. He could feel drool running down his chin again.

“Here, let’s have your arm before I go, make sure you’re doing okay.”

The doctor pulled Alex’s arm out and wrapped a black blood-pressure cuff around it. He put the stethoscope to the crook of Alex’s arm as he pumped the bulb in his other hand. He concentrated, remaining still for a moment as he watched the dial, then turned the knob to release the rest of the air.

“It’s pretty low,” he said as he wrote on the chart, “but that’s to be expected with Thorazine. We’ll need to keep an eye on it. As I said, you’ll acclimate to the medication over time.”

“Over time?”

The man looked up from the chart. “Alex, I’m afraid that you’ve had a full-blown psychotic episode that requires aggressive intervention. Considering what happened, along with your family history. .” He peered down at his chart, reading for a moment. “As a matter of fact, your mother was the same age, twenty-seven, when her psychopathic symptoms first manifested themselves.”

Alex was dimly aware of his nearly lifelong fear of ending up like his mother.

“Well,” Dr. Hoffmann finally said with a sigh, “let’s hope for the best. Often, with the right balance of medications, people like you don’t have to live with the delusions and mania of such an illness.

“But I’m afraid that you’re going to have to be here for a while.”

“While?” Alex mumbled.

“With the violence of the assault there is the possibility that charges will be brought.”

The doctor patted the side of Alex’s knee. “But I don’t want you to worry about that at the moment.” He smiled. “If it comes to that we’ll ask the court to have you confined here, under our care. Jail wouldn’t be the proper setting for a person with a serious mental condition. I’m afraid that it might be necessary to have you placed here indefinitely — for your own safety, of course.”

Alex was not able to form a response, but somewhere deep inside he felt a distant sense of alarm.

With a thumb the doctor clicked the cap on the end of his ballpoint pen and slipped it into his coat pocket, all the while watching Alex.

“Once you get used to your medication, once it settles you down, we’ll talk more about all of this. I’m going to want to know about the thoughts you have that seem to control you and make you do the things you do.”

There was a soft knock at the door. Someone with a tray poked her head in. “Am I interrupting, Doctor? It’s time for his medications.”

“No, no, come in. We’re done for today.”

A woman in white came close. She held the tray out as if she expected Alex to do something. He could do little more than focus his vision on it.

“I think he’s going to need some help until he’s more used to the medication,” the doctor said.

The woman nodded and set the tray on the bed. She held a small paper cup up to his lips. Alex didn’t know what to do. It seemed so unimportant. With her other hand on his forehead she tipped his head back and poured syrupy liquid into his mouth. She pushed his chin up with a finger, closing his mouth.

“Swallow. That’s it. There you go.”

When she removed her hand Alex’s jaw hung from the effort of drinking.

“I’ve got rounds, Alex,” Dr. Hoffmann said. “I’ll check up on you in a day or two. For now try to take it easy and let the medication do its work, all right?”

Alex sat unable to form a response as the man patted the side of Alex’s knee again before leaving. The room darkened a little when the door closed.

The woman in white tipped another cup up. This time pills rolled into his mouth. She poured water from a third cup into his mouth. He swallowed to keep from drowning.

“Good,” she said in a soothing voice as she swabbed his chin with a tissue. “Soon you’ll be doing it on your own.”

Alex just wanted to go to sleep.

“Soon,” she said, “we’ll have you talking up a storm.”

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