32

AT THE HEAVY DOOR Henry pulled his keys out on the reel attached to his belt and used one of them to turn the lock. A few people looked up when Henry led Alex into the central nurses’ station, but after satisfying their curiosity they went back to what they were doing.

Alex could see several women in the back, down the aisle between the tall shelves, either pulling file folders or putting them away. Beyond the wide window in the pharmacy room a lone nurse worked at taking inventory. A couple of other nurses behind the front counter were drinking coffee and discussing their home life, their conversation animated from time to time with laughter. None of them gave Alex and Henry any more than a passing glance.

Alex felt invisible.

He shuffled along, unable to move any faster, not caring if he did or didn’t. He wanted to care, somewhere deep inside he desperately wanted to care, but he could not bring forth concern. His mind was mostly occupied with the single, simple task of following Henry.

He noticed the elevator, remembering that he used to use it when he left the hospital. He couldn’t entirely recall how he had come to be locked in the place, to be a patient with his own room. He couldn’t focus his mind enough to put the sequence of events together, to grasp it all. It was frustrating to be so in the dark about what had happened and how he had come to be there. Even that frustration, though, failed to rouse emotion.

At the next locked door, Alex waited for it to be unlocked in order to go into the women’s wing and see his mother, to see if she was all right. He followed the burly orderly through the door and waited as he locked it behind them.

He watched the light from the room up ahead reflect off the ripples in the polished gray linoleum floor as he shuffled down the endlessly long corridor. Henry stopped to poke his head in one of the doors to the side.

“She isn’t in her room,” he said before continuing on toward the sunroom at the end of the hall.

When they finally entered the big, bright room at the end of the corridor, several of the woman clustered near the television looked up, but then went back to their show. There were a few other woman scattered around the room but Alex didn’t pay any attention to them as he followed Henry.

“Helen, you have a visitor,” Henry said.

She was sitting in a plastic chair at a table, her hands nested in her lap. She stared straight ahead, not seeming to hear the orderly.

“Helen, your son is here to see you.”

She looked up at the orderly, blinking slowly. When Henry pointed at Alex she looked over. There was no recognition in her eyes. She didn’t know who she was looking at.

Alex knew that she, too, was on heavy medications to suppress her aggression. He knew just how she felt in that regard. But he knew, too, deep down inside, that with her it was more than just the medication. There was something fundamentally broken in her.

Alex had wanted to know that his mother was all right, but once seeing that she didn’t look hurt, his mind began sinking back into the meaningless static that served for mental activity.

It occurred to him that maybe he should say something.

“Mom, how are you?” His own words rang hollow in his mind. He knew they were the right words, but they contained no meaning for him. He could summon no emotion to pair with the words.

She stared. “Fine.”

Alex nodded. He didn’t know what else to say.

“Satisfied?” Henry asked.

Alex looked up at the man. “Yes. I want her to be well.”

A smile broke out beneath the white bandages. “Good. You remember that. You remember that you want your mother to be well.”

Alex knew that Henry was threatening him but he felt no emotional reaction to that threat. It was frustrating that he couldn’t find a shred of anger within himself.

“Well,” Henry said, “now that we all know that Mom is fine, let’s get you back to your room. It won’t be long until it’s time for your medication.”

Alex nodded.

As he turned, he saw someone sitting not far away on a couch against the wall. She was wearing jeans and a black top, but it was her long blond hair that had caught Alex’s attention.

It was Jax.

Alex froze. He felt a rush of emotion welling up within him, coming close to breaking the surface of awareness, but the too-distant feeling remained mired in a wilderness of nothing.

Jax was sitting alone on the couch. Her hands rested limp at her sides. Her brown eyes stared straight ahead. She didn’t seem to be aware of anything. Alex distantly thought that she was achingly beautiful.

Henry, who had noticed Alex stop and stare, grinned.

“Good-looking woman, eh, Alex?”

For the first time that he could remember, Alex felt the presence of the dark shadow of anger somewhere within.

“Do you want to say hello?” Henry asked. “Go ahead. Might as well as long as we’re here.”

Alex shuffled closer and came to a stop before her.

“Jax?”

She looked up. She blinked slowly.

Alex saw within those beautiful eyes a spark of recognition.

That spark was layered over with the same numbing weight of drugs that he knew so well, the same drugs he hated, but he still saw it there.

If Jax recognized him, and he was sure she did, she didn’t act like it, showing no more sign of recognition than had his mother.

Alex realized that it had to be deliberate. She didn’t want to betray that she recognized him. As drugged as she was, she was trying to protect him by not acknowledging that she knew him.

“Well,” Henry said, “looks like she isn’t interested in a date.” He nudged Alex with an elbow as he leaned a little closer. “Maybe she’d like a date with me later tonight after lights-out. What do you think, Alex? Think she might like that?”

Through the unfeeling haze, Alex knew that Jax was in great peril. He again felt the shadowy presence of anger, but this time it was closer, darker, stronger, even if he couldn’t reach it, couldn’t connect with it.

He managed to muster deception. “Maybe.”

Henry chuckled. “Maybe she’d like you to tell us all about the gateway. Think so, Alex? Think she would be relieved if you did what we want?”

“I suppose,” Alex said in a flat, distant tone, deliberately playing dumb. It wasn’t at all difficult.

Henry turned him and shoved him, getting him moving. As he shuffled away, Alex glanced back over his shoulder. Jax’s head didn’t move. Her hands stayed limp at her sides.

But her eyes followed him.

He knew the private, lonely hell she was in. He knew because he felt the same way.

If Alex was in a daze before, he was even more dazed as they made their way back across the ninth floor to the men’s wing, to his room. He was beginning to remember pieces.

He recognized, if distantly, that he had to do something.

He knew that no one was going to show up to save him.

He knew that he had to help himself or things were only going to get worse. Henry had made that clear enough. His mother was going to suffer, but the worst of it would be reserved for Jax.

If Alex wanted to prevent that, he had to do something.

“Here we go,” Henry said as they finally made their way across to the men’s sunroom. “You should sit here and enjoy the sunshine while you think things over.”

“All right,” Alex said.

The orderly guided him over to the couches against the wall. Alex sat without protest. On the other side of the room men stared at the television. Alex stared at the floor.

When he heard squeaking he looked over and saw that the squeak was coming from shiny black shoes. “Snack time, folks,” the overweight orderly said as he pushed the cart into the room.

“You should have yourself a sandwich, Alex,” Henry said.

Alex merely nodded.

“And in the meantime, you think about things. You think real hard on the answers we want because we’re running out of patience. Do you understand?”

Alex nodded again without looking up.

Henry handed him a paper plate with a whole-wheat sandwich on it and a plastic glass of orange drink from the cart. “We’ll talk later.”

Alex nodded again without looking up. As he watched Henry walking away, he took a sip of orange juice, holding the cool liquid in his mouth under his tongue as his mind frantically tried to summon action. It was like trying to push the dead weight of a mountain.

He ate a few bites of the tasteless sandwich to the sounds of contestants in a game show giving answers to questions. Frequently the television audience broke out in laughter. The men watching didn’t react.

Alex needed answers.

Not at all hungry, he set down the plate with the sandwich. He sat for a time staring at nothing, his mind hopelessly blank, feeling overwhelmed with frustration at his inability to think.

The only thing that he seemed able to keep in focus was the image of Jax. The emotion connected to that image was buried somewhere deep within him.

He finally got up and began making his way back toward his room, the whole way struggling to reason out what he could do. But under the dampening fog of Thorazine, his thoughts would not crystallize. Shuffling his way down the hall, he knew that the drugs were preventing him from thinking of a way to fight back.

From somewhere, realization suddenly seemed to be there. Being able to think was not the immediate solution, it was the problem. He’d been focusing on the problem, rather than the solution. The real solution was to eliminate what was preventing him from thinking: the drugs.

In his room, he sat in the chair. Light coming in the frosted window behind slowly faded away to blackness. After a time he smelled food and heard the dinner cart being wheeled down the hall to the sunroom, where they fed the patients. When one of the women from the cafeteria stuck her head in to remind him that it was dinnertime, Alex only nodded. He wasn’t hungry.

As he sat listening to the buzz of the overhead lights, he held tight to the core of the real solution: getting off the drugs so that he could think. He worked at that notion like a mental worry stone. He grasped that if he was to solve anything, he first had to find a way not to take the drugs they gave him. After that, his mind would work.

He didn’t know how he could manage such a thing. They made him take his medication. They waited and made sure he took it. If he didn’t, they would force him. He couldn’t fight them off.

And then, the answer was simply there.

He had to somehow make them think that he had taken his medication. He had to trick them. But how in the world could he do such a thing?

He sat for hours as the evening wore on, struggling mightily to come up with a way to do it. If he didn’t somehow accomplish what he needed to do, Jax was going to suffer.

He wasn’t aware of the idea coming to him. But he realized that it had. Some part of him, some inner will, held on to that solution for dear life so that it couldn’t slip away from him.

He knew that if he could pull it off, then without the drugs his mind would begin to work and then maybe he would be able to come to his own rescue.

He got up and turned on the smaller reading light over the bed, then shut off the main ceiling lights. The smaller light gave off a muted illumination, but it was plenty of light to see by, and it made the room dimmer than the hall. The partial darkness would help cover what he intended to do.

Exhausted from the effort of plotting and adjusting the lights, he flopped back into his chair to wait for the nurse to arrive with his evening medications.

He nodded off twice before she arrived.

He woke with a start when she knocked and announced “Medication time” in a musical voice. She was one of the nicer nurses, a top-heavy woman with at least a dozen moles on her face and more on her plump arms. She always had a ready smile.

“I have your medications for you, Alex.”

Alex nodded and reached up for the cup of Thorazine on the tray before she had a chance to wonder if he might need help.

He tipped his head back as he poured the syrupy medication into his mouth, then brought his head back down, making a face as he swallowed. He crushed the paper cup in one hand and tossed it in the wastebasket beside his chair.

He hadn’t swallowed the medication, though. He held the Thorazine syrup in the hollow under his tongue.

She held the tray out for him. He dumped the second cup with the pills into his mouth and immediately captured them under his tongue as well as he tossed the cup in the trash.

The nurse yawned while she waited for him to wash down the pills. Alex had to repress his urge to yawn in sympathy with her as he immediately took the third cup with the water. He drank it down as he tipped his head back, pretending that he was swallowing the pills with the water, and then as his head was coming back down after swallowing the water, he used his tongue to push the syrup and pills out and into the cup.

Alex immediately crumpled the paper cup with the Thorazine and pills in it as he had done with the previous two and tossed it in the wastebasket.

“Have a good night, Alex,” the nurse said as she hurried away.

Alex sat in the dimly lit room, unable to summon joy, exhilaration, or triumph.

But he knew that when the drugs in his system began to wear off, he would feel all of those delicious things and much more.

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