The catatonic girl was beautiful but disheveled. With a soft-bristled brush Skip combed some of the tangles out of her curly red hair, pushing it away from her face. She sat unnervingly still and rigid at the small armchair by the window, barely moving or reacting aside from the occasional wince as he undid a knot.
“Tender-headed, huh?” he asked, knowing there would be no reply but feeling the need to talk nonetheless. “Sorry.”
He always drew the blinds when he came in so warm mid-morning rays saturated the room, banishing enduring shadows that crept into each corner by nightfall.
But they never really go away because they accumulate inside you over time like mercury and make you think things that aren't true, and do things you just wouldn't do.
Skip had begun to dread nightfall. On occasions when he had to put in extra hours at night it was mostly uneventful aside from the expected “disturbances” made by more restless patients, but that still didn't remove the feelings this place gave him. As if time had begun to spin backward, bringing back reprisal fears of childhood, he stayed in the light whenever possible, dreading his occasional excursions into the basement's labyrinthine tunnels to retrieve supplies and even patients, easily transported from building to building this way. Usually other staff members were with him but sometimes he was alone. He could usually tolerate being alone, but here, it was different.
You've been watching too many horror movies. Grow up, a bored, no-nonsense facet of his mind often complained, and that lessened the fear somewhat.
Though he was 23, Skip's blue eyes and general facial structure still had many boyish qualities, as did his personality. He was intelligent and grounded but hope and enthusiasm lifted his heart.
As did kindness, which had tried and apparently failed to help this girl sitting before him now. Perhaps his expectations had been too high. He was just an orderly, called upon to take care of those who couldn't take care of themselves, to still screaming, struggling people, lift heavy objects, or anything else the nurses couldn't or wouldn't do. But he couldn't make people's demons go away.
People tended to overlook Penelope, perfectly content to leave her where she was, as if she were part of the scenery. A month ago Dr. Thorneburg had appeared to reach a breakthrough with her. He'd gotten her talking again and doing things on her own, and though she was still way out touch with reality, Thorneburg mentioned he had tentative hopes that she would be brought fully to the surface again, freed from her traumas, cured. What happened after that? She relapsed, the doctor said lamely, and didn't explain why, appearing irritated at Skip when he pressed the issue.
One thing that had permeated Thorneburg's entire attitude was an apparent lack of caring.
Maybe he was dead wrong. Maybe he was just having an off-day or his own perception was muddled by exhaustion, but it needled at Skip; the barely perceptible shrug when he'd said the word relapsed.
Thorneburg had been acting odd that day; moving slowly through the hall, quick eyes darting all over as if suddenly fascinated by everything. He seemed distracted and also rather giddy, excited about something. Though he usually wasn't keen on confronting people, especially one of the psychiatrists he worked under, Skip wanted to pry further because, dammit, he worked hard trying to keep things peaceful around here and the least Thorneburg could do was give him some answers about the patient he so diligently took care of.
Why was she worse when she had been getting better? Why did no one come to visit her? Maybe it was none of his business, but he still couldn't help but care. Someone needed to.
But before he could ask any more questions, a hyperactive male patient had suddenly run up behind Skip and jumped on his back, demanding a piggy-back ride, and smirking, the doctor used that as an excuse to make a retreat back to his office.
Sometimes he thought being a fry cook or clerk or even a bag-boy at the Mini-mart would be better than working here, despite the difference in pay, but seeing patients leave better off than when they came in, seeing them smile when he cracked a stupid joke or stop listening to the voices just long enough to realize that somebody really did care, was the reason he hadn't left.
Staring out the window at the dissonant sunny day, he argued with himself about what the truth might be, but truth could be hard to find, a shy creature that rarely came into full view. Lies, on the other hand, were everywhere and loved to be seen, to be admired.
Nurses passed by in the hallway talking amongst themselves and clouds swathed the sun, lending the room a grayish tint. He hoped there wouldn't be a storm, because that might mean an electrical failure, and an electrical failure would bring back the shadows that haunted him and, when they were feeling playful, wore his face and used his voice for their games.
“Stop with this sh*t,” he hissed, then covered his mouth with one hand, looking bashful. The girl's eyes blinked occasionally but were otherwise fixed on nothing.
Penelope responded to little but there was vibrant inner life no one else saw, secrets and talents that were being slowly siphoned away.
Even in her current condition she had an unmistakable elegance; sharp cheekbones, full lips, a pert nose and a high forehead, which was currently furrowed with the stress of faraway places. Concealed beneath a long-sleeved blue plaid blouse, her scars could be pushed from awareness. She hadn't hurt herself in a long time. He wondered why she ever had.
If not for the disordered state of her mind, she looked to be someone who would do well in life; sensitive and creative, no doubt destined to find love and success and brighten the spaces she moved through.
Due to patient confidentiality the doctors told him little about her past, so he relied on overheard conversation and what had been slowly gleaned in the time he'd spent caring for her. Her mother had passed away not long before Penelope ended up at Sunnygrove. Obviously she hadn't fared well; falling grades in school, dislocation from friends and social interaction, and eventually, from reality itself.
Severe depression over her mother's death, doctors said, had been the cause of this withdrawal, but Skip was unconvinced. He had seen people who'd done this prior to the loss of a loved one, but it was usually temporary and if it persisted, there were other deeper factors involved.
You're not a doctor though, he reminded himself. God knows what other kinds of craziness is going through this poor kid's head. Trauma or grief can often be a trigger for such things.
He had been working here for five months and during that time Penelope had gone rapidly downhill.
Something else had driven her deeper into her shell, something unspeakable. He didn't know much about psychology in its official, textbook sense, but he knew people, and people only hid from the world when they had no choice, when they were too traumatized to face it. Her mother's death would have been devastating, but that didn't explain this sort of shock, fear. She even went through a period where she was terrified to take a shower for fear that “things in the pipes” would devour her.
One thing he was beginning to notice was that all the patients had scores of strange stories relating to the hospital itself, just as much if not more so than their own personal delusions. He wasn't exactly surprised, but what interested him was that all the stories were eerily similar, even across wards.
“This hospital is infested with monsters,” an older gentleman named Lloyd Morris in the Disturbed ward had informed him. “There are holes in the walls, in the ceilings and floors, like the holes in everyone's minds. That's where they come from. From the inside, you know?”
Skip was a rational person. Lloyd was an irrational person. That's why he was here, after all. So why was he thinking about what he'd said so much?
Before, Penelope had talked occasionally. Her dialogue was alternately eloquent and childlike, but always flavored with that Southern accent, softened with a lisp. She also made brief but precious eye contact and drew pictures at the desk in her room, usually happy ones, though as time went on they became progressively darker.
She was actually quite good, able to replicate objects and scenery with a large degree of success, though she appeared to struggle with figures.
One of her most recent drawings disturbed him. It was on simple sketch paper but the subject had been rendered with obsessive detail; a sinister-looking black and gray spider, legs splayed to take up the entire page, a huge pair of viselike jaws opened wide. She'd done it in colored pencil and charcoal, smearing it all over her hands and the desk, bearing down so hard it had ripped holes in the paper.
A web had also been drawn behind it, spiraling chaotically around a small, cocooned figure apparently about to be eaten by the spider.
When asked about it Penelope burst into tears. “This is him! He did this to me! I saw him in the between-place! The between-place is where I go, where I dream, but he came and...he screwed it all up!” Skip had asked her who “he” was but she just kept sobbing, mumbling about spiders and flies and caverns and dead people, so he hugged her, holding her until she stopped crying.
After that point she drifted even farther away, hour by hour, day by day, week by week.
If they didn't patiently urge her out of bed every morning she would keep lying there.
If they didn't feed her, the girl would refuse to eat. She had been losing weight and he desperately hoped it didn't ever get bad enough where they would have to force-feed her.
Skip saw a lot of patients during his shift, and many of them were difficult to deal with, combative and violent. But with this one, the sheer passivity made him sick to his stomach.
Catatonic people weren't always so docile. Sometimes they'd be in a state known as “catatonic excitement” stricken with constant, purposeless, even violent movement, oblivious to any attempts to calm them. One thirteen year old boy who came here for catatonic schizophrenia would either run back and forth across the room and mindlessly knock over anything and everything, or just sit on the floor and bob his head up and down as if dancing to some tune no one else could hear.
I wish I could make it stop, just take it away from her, from all of them. They deserve peace.
He suspected she was an abuse case, either physical or emotional or...worse. He'd met people who had gone through that, who had been unable to cope, and though none of them surrendered to unreality as much as Penelope, their behavior told a lot. Too much.
When before there had been words and the promise of burgeoning brilliance, now there were only subtle cues; wordless sounds in the back of her throat, occasional facial expressions, squeezing your hand when you took it.
She loved flowers and when patients were allowed out, used to enjoy picking some from the garden to put them in plastic vases and baskets. Irises, daisies, tulips, and roses were her favorites.
Now she rarely went outside, especially not to the garden.
During his break time Skip had gotten into the habit of picking flowers and putting them on her desk and night stand. When they wilted, new ones would be brought in. Maybe it was a lost cause and maybe she was too far gone to notice, but he did it, anyway.
Skip didn't yet have a daughter of his own but protective instincts stirred in him. Here she was, all alone in this nuthouse, seemingly with no friends or family, or at least none that would come to visit. So as much as possible he checked in on her, spoke to her, commenting on how wonderful the flowers were and how she should keep drawing pictures, and though Penelope never said anything back, he knew she was listening.
As Skip shifted his attention from the window to the reflection in Penelope's haunted eyes, Tiffany came in, rolling a a breakfast cart.
“Hey, Tiff. How's your morning going?” He turned around in his chair to face the nurse, smiling.
“Good.” Though she smiled back, her stare was empty, her manner distracted. That usually sleek bobbed hairstyle was mussed as if she'd forgotten to comb it.
“You sure?” he asked, and Tiffany seemed unfazed by his concern; detached, as if she too had discovered a world on the inside that had proven to be more hospitable than this one. Or perhaps it was the opposite; the world she'd found was so nightmarish that sleeping became an afterthought. There were bags under her eyes, and she moved sluggishly, as if barely holding herself up.
“Don't take this the wrong way, but you look kind of rough.” Skip said.
“I'm fine,” she insisted, wheeling the breakfast cart next to the bed and glancing briefly at Penelope. “Just a little tired.”
“More like a lot tired,” he disagreed. “You put in extra hours last night?”
“I guess you could say that.”
Without another word, she turned on her heels and left the room.
Did this place change everyone? Skip debated on calling the nurse back, but what could be said? All the fear and strangeness he knew his fellow staff members felt was unspoken, conveyed through meaningful stares and symbolism and just listening to Sunnygrove's monstrous heartbeat, which, after a while, became indistinguishable from the rhythm of your own.
Enough of this crap, said rationality, and Skip envisioned a stern-looking man with thinning gray hair, brown eyes, and an aura of authority despite his willowy appearance. In other words, his father.
You care way too much for your own or anyone else's good. It's all starting to get to you, Skipper. With all the stress and emotionalism, paranoia without fail begins to set in, and following that, sheer craziness. There's a reason hospital orderlies, especially in psycho wards, have such a high burnout rate. And there's only so much you can do for these people. You've already gone above and beyond the call of duty. Just get this over with and move on. Pay back the student loans, protect your own sanity, for god's sake, and get the hell out of Dodge.
But it would never be that easy. Until his patience ran out and his goals were reached, he couldn't bring himself to leave. As if he were a ghost, he felt like he had unfinished business here.
So, sitting in this gilded cage with yet another broken bird, Skip did his job; spooning blueberry oatmeal out of a bowl and, bit by bit, giving Penelope the daily nourishment she needed to fuel her body. But that wasn't the only thing you needed to survive. No, you needed hope.
The spider was apparently a symbolic representation of the man who had hurt her.
Thinking about it, he felt a hot, liquid rage that blurred his vision and made his heart skip beats. Suddenly he wanted to hurt this cruel stranger badly, but that wouldn't bring Penelope back to reality. The anger caught him off guard, even frightened him, as he had always been a gentle person who rarely sparred with anyone.
What made it so much worse was that there was no one to fight or punish or blame, and perhaps there never would be. Some things just were. Some people were just ill. But he didn't like it and he didn't accept it; he needed a reason; a tangible reason.
Though it was next to impossible to know how, Skip was stricken with the conviction that “the spider” was close. So close she resorted to the only method of protection she knew; retreating deeper and deeper into catatonia, dead but alive, awake but asleep, once shining brightly but now tarnished like rusted steel.
But at least she wasn't alone.
Professionalism aside, Skip now thought of himself as her protector, and though he couldn't undo what had been done, he could make this place seem like less of a bleak and lonely nightmare and more like a home. That was Sunnygrove's modus operandi, after all.
“Come on, Penelope. Finish a few more bites for me, okay?”
A ribbon of saliva oozed out of her parted mouth, and he wiped it away with a paper napkin.
Those opaque green-gray eyes, once determined but now transfixed by some horror only she could see. As if what lay behind these walls wasn't bad enough.
What have they done to you?
“Maybe today I'll go find some yellow roses, you know, to go alongside the red and white ones. You'd like that, wouldn't you?” he said, and fed her another spoonful of oatmeal, which she took mechanically, chewing for a moment before swallowing hard. “Will have to cut the thorns off to bring them in here, though. Wouldn't want to be responsible for any incidents.”
He felt his eyes burning, threatening to tear up. Much like the random burst of rage, it was surprising, causing him to wonder if he really was cracking up. He looked toward the door, hoping someone wasn't watching or listening.
But Sunnygrove is always listening.
He shuddered, focused on the sunlight, on the spaces where shadows weren't.
But there is no true absence of darkness, Skipper, a cheerful thought reminded him. It's all around you, inside you, inside everyone. It'll be easier to just get used to it, accept it, because it'll be there for a long, long time.
“You need more irises, too. Purple irises. They're so exotic-looking, aren't they? Almost too pretty to be here, to be real. I'm sorry you can't walk in the garden anymore.”
She was always just sitting there, like a doll. You could even pose her somewhere and she would remain in that same spot and position for hours, staring at nothing. They called that “waxy flexibility.” Skip called it a f*cking tragedy.
She hadn't drawn anything since that spider, that god-awful spider which wasn't really a spider at all.
“My break's not till later, but I promise I'll go find you some more flowers, Penelope.” His voice broke, and again he looked around to make sure no one was watching.
Skip's heart jumped when, just for a moment, her eyes swam into focus and locked with his, her expression not afraid or disconnected but quietly concerned, sympathetic.
She reached out to softly squeeze his hand.