By Will Thames
One thing should be made clear from the beginning- no actual healing happened during my stay in psych. There were no miraculous breakthroughs, turnarounds, or life-changing pills. In practice, I slept a lot, met people who were nothing and everything like me. More than anything, I waited. I waited for phone calls, the next group to begin, for my outpatient counselor to decree me fit to leave. The two things of value I received was a radical shift in perspective, and a portrait of Green Lantern. But more on that later...
In the meeting of two equally powerful, opposing forces, time suspends. People who survive horrific car accidents often speak of this phenomena. The seconds spent careening off the side of the road pass like an eternity. The mind, flooding with adrenaline, prolongs the crash.
Then, as the survivor stumbles from the wreckage, the world clicks back to double-time. The sensation of floating through impact feels no realer than a dream. Hyper-detail and stillness give way to blaring sirens, bright lights, and whiplash.
Be it two tectonic plates slamming together beneath the ocean floor, a butterfly blown off course by a sudden wind, or the tide receding in the seconds before tsunami meets shoreline, the same principle applies. Before calamity, there is calm. Disaster is sorted neatly into “before crash” and “after crash” while the crash itself, simultaneously brief and infinite, is resigned to memory. We are remarkable at compartmentalizing, aren’t we?
In my case, I was mid-crash. I’d had “before crazy,”- the moment I was informed I posed substantial risk to myself. Risk great enough to warrant a clinical sleepover. And now, before I could arrive at “after crazy,” I had some suspended time to serve. This is the best way I can describe how that first night felt. Passing into the eye of a hurricane. Gale-force winds whipped around me on all sides, yet I stood still.
A male orderly escorted through two sets of switch-activated doors, down a lengthy corridor, and into a circular room. Couches and chairs that appeared to be purchased from the same catalog my college used to stock its freshman dorms formed a haphazard semicircle around a wall-mounted TV buzzing with static. Nondescript doors with funny looking knobs lined the room on two sides. My hospital gown torn up the front and my eyes were bleary with sleep, I followed the orderly to a door just off from the TV area and found a bed. I was asleep before the door was shut behind me.
The first interruption of the night came as a soft knock at the door. A nurse poked her head inside, looked me over, grunted “Checks...” and departed.
This procedure repeated every half hour for the remainder of the night. Around the fourth or fifth “Check,” I nodded off again. I dreamt of nothing that night. Content to be no one and nowhere.
The following morning, I awoke to the sight of my barren room bathed in daylight. Framed in the glow of my barred window was a brown paper bag on the floor. It must have been deposited while I was asleep. Inside was the stripped sweater and jeans I’d worn the previous day when I first arrived at the hospital. Folded beneath my clothes, hospital-issued gripper-socks.
“Merry Christmas,” I mumbled, changing out of my torn gown and into the only material possessions I had left. Gripper-socks included.
The room was barren of any distinction or oddity. Sterile right angles and the hum of fluorescent lighting everywhere I turned. My bed had an identical double shoved into the corner, unmade and unoccupied.
My eyes fell on the dresser facing my bed. There was something off about the built-in hooks. They were anchored with a metal base, fixated with a ball and socket mechanism. More a rounded prong than a curved hook.
I moved to the dresser and inspected the apparatus. With a single finger, I pressed down lightly. The hook buckled under the weight, tilting down in its socket. It was designed to only take the weight of a couple hangars. Anything extra- say, a bed sheet tied around a human neck, and the prong would give.
The rest of the room proved equally suicide-proof. No pipes or hanging fixtures from the ceiling. The shower door had been removed along with the hinges. The sink taps were consolidated to two metal buttons.
Even the doorknobs were eerily abstracted to a chrome lump of sloped steal. The doors stood without locks and swung inward and outward. This was to ensure no one could barricade themselves inside.
These strange modifications littered psych. As I emerged from my room, I spied clumsy squares of plaster where power outlets had once been. All the silverware was plastic. Any bag entering the ward was screened in the nurse’s station.
The ward wasn’t without its creature comforts. There was the ping-pong table tilted over a broken leg. I never found any paddles or balls. Other amenities included a derelict elliptical that looked like it hadn’t been touched in years, and a small collection of adult coloring books missing most of their pages. Half-finished mandalas littered the common area floor. A koi-fish partially filled in with rebellious violet and green lay torn along its tail, peering out from beneath one of the couches. A single bookshelf stood opposite the TV. This library was a modest one, consisting of niche fiction and paperback romance novels. I selected a book at random. The cover depicted a blonde woman wearing red silk on the beach swooning into the arms of a burly Mr. Clean-type on horseback.
From beyond the TV room, a clanking of metal trays on cold aluminum. Breakfast was being served in a makeshift cafeteria. Long tables stood perpendicular to more barred windows. Food was served beneath a glass cage. The room was occupied by only two other female patients. I faltered in the door. They were my age, maybe younger. The girls sat together in the far corner of the room, observing me as I entered. I took a brown plastic tray from the pile in front of the serving station.
“Cereal or oatmeal?” asked the nurse manning the breakfast station.
“1% or 2% milk?”
“2%- that’s fine.”
“Apple or banana?”
The eggs she served without question.
My tray assembled, I turned back around to find the two girls waving me over.
I shot them a questioning look but figured I was in no position to pass up friends. As I sat, I half-expected to be presented with a written break-down of ward cliques and social circles; “There are the schizophrenics, pill-poppers, and the plastics sit over there.”
Instead, they introduced themselves as Sarah and Ashley. Sarah was a mousy girl with sandy blonde hair that hung in loose curls around her shoulders. Her smile was guarded and her brown eyes were kind if somewhat baleful. Of three of us, Ashley seemed the most at ease with her surroundings, leaning back in her seat with her feet on the table. Her black hair hung straight to her mid-back.
“So...” I said, fiddling with my spoon. “Hi. I’m Will. Nice to meet you.”
“Get in last night?” Asked Ashley.
I nodded. “How long have you both been here? I mean- if you don’t mind-”
“Three days now,” said Sarah. “They told me I’d be leaving yesterday but... nothing.”
“Two days,” said Ashley. “Fucking heinous- I was on new anxiety meds. Anxiety went away just in time for the seizures. Turns out I’m one of the 15% that experience the side effect. I tried to quit cold turkey and-” she gestured grandly about the cafeteria, “here I am!”
“Students?” I asked.
They both nodded. Sarah and I happened to attend the same college. We were even in the same year.
“Music school,” she said. “I was in the middle of a teaching assistant gig when... when I came here.”
Ashley attended a neighboring university. She was studying architecture and design. Her parents owned a bar in town.
“I only just got here,” I continued.
“Rough day?” asked Ashley.
“What do you think?”
She laughed. “Fair enough. Have you met your outpatient counselor yet?”
“Keeper of the keys. They’re the one who sign off on all discharges. Oh! And you’ll want to attend group sessions,” she added. “Reflects better on your report. They’re boring as hell but...”
“It’s something to do,” interjected Sarah. “Beats napping all day.”
“There’s also visiting hours,” offered Ashley. “One to three. It’s all on the bulletin board- you’ll figure it out. There isn’t much to grasp.”
“Are the others... the patients, I mean-” I struggled for the wording. “... friendly?”
“Depends,” said Ashley.
“Mostly everyone just stays in their rooms,” added Sarah. “A few get loud sometimes but-”
There was a sudden clamoring of plastic hitting table top.
The boy couldn’t have been older than fifteen. His face was spotted with acne and his round face was framed by dark curls. While his smile was friendly, his eyes darted rapidly from face to face, never quite settling.
“Hey J,” said Ashley.
“Hi,” replied J, taking his seat and compulsively fidgeting with the zipper of his hoodie. “I finished Martian Manhunter last night.”
“That’s nice,” said Sarah.
“What happened to Jor-El?” asked Ashley.
J shook his head. “Got bored- maybe later. You’re new?”
I hadn’t registered his turn to me and sputtered through a mouthful of Cheerios.
“H-hi,” I replied. I opened my mouth to say more, but his eyes flicked back to his tray. He began meticulously peeling back the lid of his Lucky Charms centimeter by centimeter. The introduction seemed sufficient enough for him, and I didn’t press further.
Following breakfast, I returned to the common room searching for the daily schedule. Hanging on the wall next to the nurse’s station, a massive homemade calendar decorated with paper butterflies and flowers cut from brightly colored cardstock.
“8 to 9- breakfast,
9:30 to 10- group 1
10:30 to 11- group 2
11:30 to 12- group 3
12 to 1- lunch
1 to 3- visiting hours...”
I checked the wall clock on the adjacent wall.
While I waited for group 1, I returned to the bookshelf and selected another title at random. On this cover, a willowy blonde woman in black silk in a forest peered over her shoulder at a man built like a Grecian statue and framed in moonlight.
Between breakfast and group 1, the cafeteria tables were rearranged to form a square. A white board was wheeled in from the nurses station and excessive chairs were sorted and stacked in the corner. I was the first in my seat. Sarah and Ashley entered shortly after followed by J. As J took his seat, a final patient emerged from her room and took the seat next to mine. She had gray hair matted with tangles and frayed at the ends. Her eyes were blue and deep-set. She offered the four of us a meek bow as she entered and smiled at no one in particular. While we waited for group to begin, she wrung her hands close to her heart as though in prayer.
At 9:32, a nurse entered with a ream of paper and a coffee can full of colored pencils. She introduced herself as Maureen and instructed us to take a piece of paper and as many pencils as we pleased. We were given ten minutes to write something.
“Anything you please!” said Maureen with a little laugh. “Let your imaginations run wild. It can be about the ward, your homes, your friends, yourself... anything at all.”
In truth, I don’t remember what I wrote, only that I chose to write in green. At the end of the allotted ten minutes, we were prompted to share our work with the group. The contents of my fellow patient’s stories also escapes me, with the exception of the woman with blue eyes.
“Hello,” she said with a toothy grin. Her voice was like sea glass. “I’m Gladys.”
On her page, Gladys had drawn a crystalline staircase in royal purple ascending into clouds of scarlet. On the staircase was a crude stick-figure in a ballerina’s tutu and hair done up in a tight bun. Streaks of rose highlighted the dancer’s cheeks as she leapt skyward. At the peak of the staircase, a violet crystal-
“Amethyst,” explained Gladys. “Amethyst is my favorite.”
“And who’s the ballerina?” Asked Maureen.
“Paulina.” Gladys beamed at the name. “We were friends in school. She was a dancer- professionally. She was so pretty when she moved... the crystal was hers. It’s on my dresser at home right now. She left it for me before she passed on. So here she is leaving for Heaven. I like to imagine her dancing as she went.”
The room fell quiet. Maureen eventually offered unanimous praise to us all, her eyes and hands lingering on Gladice’s creation. With a polite nod from Maureen, we were turned back out into the common room until the next group.
Waiting outside was a woman wearing white and carrying a clipboard. Her hospital badge identified her as “Kimberly- Outpatient Counselor.”
“Will?” She said. “Could I snag you for a moment?”
The question threw me, structured in a way to lend the illusion of choice.
“Um... Sure,” I shrugged.
“Fantastic, just over here is fine,” she said, leading me to a secluded table for two next to my room.
“I’m Kim,” she said. “Nice to meet you.”
“Ok...” I replied. Then, “How long am I going to be here?”
Kim offered a consolatory shrug and continued as though I hadn’t spoken.
“For now,” she said, “keep going to groups and get as much sleep as you can. Once you see Dr. Seabury, we can start on meds.”
“And when am I seeing Dr. Seabury?” I asked.
Her lips pursed. “His schedule is pretty full today,” said Kim. “If he can’t see you today, you’ll be spending another night with us. But by tomorrow at the latest, I’m sure.”
In the end, all I could muster was a deflated “Okay.”
“Alrighty then! I’ll be seeing you. And don’t forget to drink lots of water.”
Alone again, I returned to my room. The prospect of one more night in this place made me numb with defeat. I had a bed waiting for me back home. Laundry to do and homework to catch up on. How long could they expect me to sit still? I didn’t have another five minutes in me, much less twelve more hours.
A knock came at my door.
“Will?” Came the voice of an orderly.
“Sorry?” I asked, pulling my head from my pillow.
“Phone for ya.”
I was up like a shot and following the orderly to a wall-mounted payphone. The coin slot had been taped shut and the phone was being held by Sarah.
She held out the phone. “For you,” she said.
I took the receiver and Sarah returned to her incomplete jigsaw puzzle on the ward floor. Something with windmills and windswept fields.
I pressed the receiver to my ear. “Hello?”
My mother’s voice greeted me on the other end.
I’ll spare you the weepy details of our conversation. Mostly, we rehashed the finer details of my- for lack of a better word- confinement. I relayed to her what Kimberly had relayed to me. About the busy psychiatrist, the promised medication, and the ominous advice to get cozy.
I can’t know what my mother was feeling on her end of the line, but on my end, head bent low against the metal face of the payphone, I felt something like hope teasing at the corners of my eyes. This all had to go away. With every seconds contact with the outside, that much became clearer and clearer. One more night, perhaps. But beyond that, this place was going away. It had to.
As I said goodbye and hung up, I slumped against the wall. If anyone was watching me, I didn’t give a shit. I let the tears come. This isn’t forever, this isn’t forever; over and over again I chanted this silent prayer. I could wish for a speedy discharge with all my might, but it wouldn’t change anything. I simply didn’t have the agency or need to worry.
Straightening up, I felt something like stability return to my legs. Not knowing where to go or how to fill the abundance of empty time, I found myself picking through the bookshelf again. My fingers grazed the bottom shelf and I made another final selection.
The book I’d selected; “Confessions of a Shopaholic.” I think it was the bright colors of the jacket that drew me. Something light and full of clutter- the polar opposite of where I was. Expecting little more than a breezy way to pass the time, I read the first chapter and soon became downright ravenous. I’d read for enjoyment, for good grades, even for escape, but survival? That was new territory.
Who cared if the doorknobs were suicide-proof? How was Rebecca going to cook the perfect curry and remain on-budget?? As nurses rushed to quell a sudden disturbance in the ward -something about “government agents” and “DON’T TOUCH ME MOTHERFUCKER,” I found myself enraptured by the trials of a well-meaning socialite with severe impulse-control issues. In two hours, I’d cleared 300 pages.
I only looked up when visitors began to trickle into the ward.
On the floor in front of the TV, a woman was setting her bag down next to J. He looked up from his work long enough to say “Hey Mom,” before returning to sketching laser beams and capes billowing in the wind. The woman sat beside him, saying nothing. The way she sat there, with her head resting on her son’s shoulder and her feet sprawling nonchalantly across the floor, I gathered she’d done this before.
Across the room sat Sarah, accompanied by two college-age girls. She thanked them profusely for coming and declared how much better she was feeling. I positioned myself on the other end of the couch, craning my ear. Financial details of that month’s rent were being picked over. From the fatigue in Sarah’s voice, I guessed she’d had this conversation too many times. She tired quickly of the money-talk and inquired if they’d brought a book she’d requested. Her roommates obliged, turning over The Biography of Alexander Hamilton. Sarah thanked them profusely and hugged the volume to her chest.
In spite of myself, I rolled my eyes. What a sucker. Who wanted to read about hurricanes, dead mothers, and cabinet meetings when I’d struck gold with fluffy, easy Rebecca Bloomwood?
“Hey,” said Ashley. I hadn’t seen her approaching from behind the sofa.
“I just finished this and thought you might like it,” she said, revealing a paperback with two well-worn hiking boots on the cover. “Wild,” by Cheryl Strayed.
I snorted. “How appropriate.”
Ashley tilted her head to the side. “How do you mean?”
“I... nothing,” I said. “Thank you. Really I do appreciate it.”
“No worries,” said Ashley with a smile. “Chicken soup for the manic-depressive soul.”
The laugh we shared boomed through the ward, drawing the attention of more than a few visitors. Sarah’s roommates shot us a curious look and I realized they may well have passed me on my own campus. Would they recognize me again? Would Sarah and I pass each other in the hall? Would we talk about this place? Inconsequential questions with drastic implications. In the end, I laughed even louder. If, after the ward, anyone from here picked me out of a crowd, I’d rather they remember me for being the one who laughed too loud than the one who was still putting up a deafening fight against the nurses.
“I SAID DON’T TOUCH ME CUNT,” screamed a man from down the corridor. “NOT A FINGER BITCH DO YOU HEAR ME?”
Two groups and one dinner (PB&J sandwiches and popcorn in a paper cup) later, I retreated to my room. I almost made it past 100 pages of “Wild,” before nodding off. “Checks” came and went on schedule- I wasn’t awake for any of it.
On waking the following morning, the first thought in my mind was “I’m getting out of here today.” This mantra stayed with me all through breakfast. The cafeteria was deserted save for myself and a woman eating in the corner opposite me. Her blonde hair was tied back with a yellow scrunchy. She wore black horn-rimmed glasses and appeared to be in her mid-30s.
As I was finishing my cereal, J shuffled in. When he saw me, he waved. I waved back as he haggled for extra cereal with the nurse serving food. He drove a hard bargain but eventually got his way, carrying his prize of two packets of Lucky Charms over to where I sat.
“Hey!” he said. “Mind if I eat with you?”
I tried to show him my empty tray, which seemed to him an irrelevant detail. “Thanks,” he said, cracking open his milk carton.
“You like superheroes?” He asked between mouthfuls of Lucky Charms.
“Oh- um... yeah they’re cool,” I replied.
His eyes lit up. “Which one’s your favorite?”
“Is there a right answer?”
He considered the question for a moment, fiddling with his front zipper in thought. “Not really... depends on the person.”
“I guess... Spiderman. Yeah, Spiderman,” I said.
J’s head bobbed emphatically. “He’s awesome,” he affirmed. “Why do you like him?”
“Well...” I said, “Well he’s a superhero, right? But he’s also a... a regular kid. He’s... er- relatable, I guess.”
“He’s one of us,” J agreed with wide grin. “A good hero needs to be approachable. They also need a tragic flaw. A... crutch. That’s why Superman is so boring.”
“Well... not exactly. Not anymore. He’s got Kryptonite but that was only written into the radio show so the man playing Superman could take a vacation. You ever heard to the radio show? The original- from the forties?”
“Er- no,” I said. “I never did.”
“It’s funny,” said J. “And until they invented kryptonite, yeah- Superman was pretty boring. But Spiderman had his weaknesses from the beginning. So he’s much more interesting for sure.”
“And who’s your favorite?” I asked.
“Green Lantern,” he said without a second’s consideration. “The original, though. Alan Scott. He’s the best.”
“And what’s his tragic flaw?” I continued. “He can create anything, so how can he have a crutch.”
J’s eyes gleamed. “That’s the flaw, right there. If you can create anything through willpower alone, you’d be pretty lonely. I mean, sure he has Carol Ferris. She’s nice but-” he had moved on to his second bowl of Charms, “he’s got the entire universe to defend! Him and the rest of the Lanterns. They literally defend the entire cosmos from fear itself.”
“That’s badass,” I replied.
“I know,” said J. “So yeah- Green Lantern. But Spiderman’s cool too!”
My internal monologue of “leaving today, leaving today,” saw me through two group sessions. One on the appropriate ways to voice frustration. The other, a mandatory open forum for the entire ward. We were all assembled in the common room and given a sort of come-to-Jesus talk from a burly male orderly with short-cropped hair and several nicks on his neck from a recent shave.
Morale, we were informed, was actually at an all time high! Completely unaware of this fact, I looked about the room at the collection of blank stares from the ward’s populace. Apparently, we were the most orderly and jovial bunch the hospital staff had overseen in ages. The information was delivered as a compliment. Before any of us could work our egos up too much, the “don’t touch me, cunt!” guy emerged from his room. An agent of chaos bestowed by the universe to restore disorder.
With deft precision and impressive volume, the man began to dismantle everything the orderly had just praised us for.
“CAN YOU PUT THE WIND IN AN MRI MACHINE, MOTHER FUCKER?!” He shouted. “CAN YOU CATSCAN A HURRICANE?”
The orderly’s eyes fell to the floor.
“So moving forward-”
“DO YOU HEAR ME MOTHER FUCKER? LOOK AT ME AND TELL ME I’M CRAZY I DARE YOU, PIECE OF SHIT COCKSUCKER.”
“I’M RIGHT OVER HERE BITCH-”
“-let’s remember that this is a shared space and-”
“PUNK-ASS MOTHER FUCKER. CAN YOU DIAGNOSE THE WIND?”
The logistics of giving the breeze a brain scan was never opened up for group discussion. I maintain that the question was valid- even compelling. The kind of query a Philosophy 101 class could stretch into weeks of debate. It was just the seething delivery that made it hard to engage. This dance between orderly and patient continued for some time. The orderly dispelling even-toned urges to respect the space of others cut short by the man’s booming sophistry.
It was the orderly who caved first, calling the meeting to an abrupt end with ten minutes early. Patients and staff alike fled with sudden agility, leaving the screaming man alone with his stirring, if somewhat abrasive, questions. Without a proper audience, even he fell silent. Mumbling under his breath, he skulked back to his room, never to be seen by me again.
Soon after, Kimberly returned.
“Will?” she said, tapping me on the shoulder. “Dr. Seabury will see you now.”
My heart leapt. Finally! Someone who could attest to my sound state of mind and even-tempered demeanor. If the bar of civility was set at “don’t shout down the orderlies,” I felt like the living embodiment of sanity.
I followed Kimberly to what she referred to as “the calm room.” The “calm room,” revealed itself to be a standard hospital room cleared of beds and medical equipment. In place of the usual fixtures, a bookcase and two chairs were stuffed into the corner. A toy chest filled with stuffed animals and Sudoku books sat in the opposite corner. On an end-table separating the two chairs, a store-bought zen garden sat in pristine condition. Stones encircled by rings of uniform sand. I briefly wondered who had taken the time on this added touch. I hoped it was an especially caring and disciplined patient. Someone who took a few minutes away from waiting for the doctor to make something of modest beauty. Or perhaps it was multiple patients, elaborating upon the work of the gardener before them. That thought was comforting. Or perhaps it was the nurse who took the stones and sand out of their plastic packaging and threw the thing together on an order. That thought was less comforting.
I sat waiting for only a minute before the door opened again. A man in a white coat came in. He sat opposite me and reclined as best he could in his stiff plastic chair.
“Hello, Will,” he said, offering a comforting smile.
“Hi,” I said. My voice came out haggard, void of expression.
Clipboard and pen at the ready, he began to ask questions.
“Have you experienced symptoms of anxiety before?”
“Do you consider yourself a typically happy person?”
“Do your parents know where you are?”
After asking after roommates, girlfriends, boyfriends, grandparents, siblings, self-harm, depression, coping mechanisms- Dr. Seabury seemed satisfied.
“I’ll just send for your aptitude test and we’ll have a proper picture of what to do next.”
“Test?” I asked.
“Yup,” he said. “Basic aptitude quiz. 200 questions. No written portion, don’t worry.” He gave a little chuckle, as though we’d just shared an intimate joke. “Most people finish in 30 minutes. For best results, take your time and answer on impulse. We find that most questions can be answered honestly within five seconds. Just... try not to think about it.”
“Um... yeah,” I replied just as an orderly arrived with a blue booklet and a number two pencil. He handed me the book and pencil and took his leave along with Dr. Seabury.
“You can leave the test with the nurses station when you’re done,” he said before shutting the door.
I can’t stress this enough- the redundancy of this aptitude test floored me. For 45 minutes, I circled either “strongly agree,” or “strongly disagree,” in response to questions such as;
“Do you consider yourself a happy person?”
“Have you had symptoms of anxiety before?”
“Have you ever experienced thoughts of hopelessness.”
The questions stuck to this clerical air throughout. Nothing about “what color are you?” or “What 90s movie heroine is on your zombie apocalypse squad?” At least that would have broken up the monotony.
“Do you ever feel as though an iron band is compressing your head?”
“Have you ever inflicted harm on yourself?”
“Do tests and exams make you uneasy?”
I’m not joking- that was an actual question.
Once I’d finished, I approached the nurses station and submitted the booklet. Dr. Seabury returned ten minutes later.
“So... some depression and anxiety, huh?”
No shit, Sherlock.
“You chart slightly above average in both but anxiety is definitely more prevalent.”
No. Shit. Sherlock.
“25 milligrams of Zoloft to start, I think. Most don’t feel anything until about 100 milligrams, but you can’t run before you walk, right?”
As he disappeared to fill out the proper paperwork, it occurred to me that his diagnosis and prescription had taken a little over one hour. Two nights for me, one hour and thirteen minutes for him. I felt a strange urge to destroy a zen garden.
As I emerged from the calm room, I was intercepted by J. He had a mischievous smile on his face and a piece of paper clutched to his chest.
“I know you said Spiderman was your favorite,” he said. “And that’s okay.” With a proud flourish, he turned the page and presented it to me as though it were a Picasso. Green Lantern, fist raised high above his head in mid-flight, stared up at me. The likeness was crude- white circles representing his hands intercut with black dashes to suggest fingers. On his right fist, a dab of electric green, meant to be his ring. The colors bled together and the proportions were slightly lopsided but, where I was standing, it was a masterpiece.
“J... I- thank you. It’s amazing.”
J shrugged. “Made it two days ago and thought you’d like it. You can keep it if you want. I’ve got plenty.”
“J, are you sure?”
He nodded. “You can put it on your wall. When you get out, I mean.”
He gave another smile and returned to his station beneath the TV. Strewn across the floor were reams of paper and what appeared to be every art supply the ward had to offer. Pencils rubbed dull with use were scattered across his work. True to his word, J was well-stocked with heroes. His own personal rogue’s gallery. Without another glance in my direction, he took his place, selected a marker in red, and began shading in Ironman’s breastplate.
When I took my first Zoloft, I had Green Lantern tucked under my arm.
When I returned to my room, another brown paper bag was waiting for me. Inside was my phone, my keys, and my backpack. Turning each item over in my hands, I felt a cautious hope.
A knock came at the door. I whipped around to see the orderly who’d been shouted down in the TV room.
“Time to go?” I asked.
He nodded. “You’ve been approved. Congrats.”
I assembled my personal items with the speed of a greyhound and followed the orderly to the nurses’ station. My parting gift consisted of a capsule of Zoloft, and a detailed graph of my test results (guess what I had anxiety issues). I tried waving to J as we approached the first set of locked doors, but he didn’t see me.
Through the first set of doors.
“Got everything?” asked the orderly.
I nodded; phone, keys, clothes, backpack, Green Lantern. The orderly spied the drawing in my hand and halted, his hands on the final set of doors.
“I’m sorry about this but you can’t take that out,” he said, pointing to the drawing.
“Sorry?” I shook my head, not understanding. “The drawing? It was a gift, I-”
“Hospital policy,” he said, taking the Green Lantern. “... sorry.”
He opened a filing cabinet in the corner full of other phones and keys.
“Are you sure?” I insisted. “I didn’t steal it or-”
“You can only leave with what you brought and what the doctor gave you. Sorry... I’ll make sure J gets it back.”
I followed him through each door I’d passed through two days prior. Past the interview room. Past the emergency ward. Into the hospital lobby.
I expected to be left at the lobby, but the orderly walked me all the way to my car. Alien and implausible, the sight of it gave me pause. Everything felt alien. The parking lot, the trees rustling in the wind, and the asphalt beneath my feet. In a strange way, I was surprised to see it was all still here. The world had indeed gone on turning without me.
“It’s Will, right?” asked the orderly as I opened the car door.
“...yeah,” I said.
“Don’t be back.” His eyes were kind when he said it, but the unmistakable seriousness in his voice wasn’t lost on me.
“You got it,” I said, turning the key in the ignition and watching him leave, hands in his pockets and head bent low.
“Get Ur Freak On,” blasted through my open windows as I drove away.