I spent some time in Psychiatric Observation Unit after that. A Psychiatric Observation Unit is a politically correct padded cell.
The first night they strapped me into a gurney like a Soviet space monkey welded into his capsule. They trundled the gurney into a room crowded with medical equipment: monitors, tubes, and drips; accordion lungs, oscilloscopes, and little, round sensors to be applied to the scalp. In the heart of it all was a gurney shaped hole and I was slid into it – a missing piece, a perfect fit – all the machinery hummed to life.
I was no longer just me, my essence had been captured in the works. My dreams were drawn in jagged lines on a feed of paper. My heartbeat pulsed on a scope. My breath rushed in and out of a tangle of tubes. My consciousness was dissolved in the wires, my being mingled with the electrons. In the roomful of engines I was become the beating heart which powered it all. The ghost in the machine.
An orderly in scrubs as sterile and white as the linoleum floors came in; aloft he brandished a gleaming pair of garden shears. With a grin he lowered the shears to the hem of my suit.
I screamed, a violent, raw sound. The shears descended.
I flew up against the gurney’s bonds but the leather straps were broad, the steel buckles strong, and the diabolical gurney secured to the floor. Still the shears descended.
I begged and pleaded with the orderly, “Please, don’t. They’ll get me.”
The imps hovered at the room’s edges, their faces twisted into cruel sneers, golden saliva dripping from their snapping maws. Oh, how they had longed for this! After 16 long years they’d finally have my mind. A few quick snips and the war would be over. I was going to be one of them: the daylight people.
The orderly took his first cut, the shears snickered. The imps reared savagely, kneading their taloned hands together. I cried and cried and cried until my cheeks and eyelids were sore. “Please don’t. They’ll get me. They’ll make me their slave.” I wrestled and slammed against the gurney’s restraints, but they held fast. The orderly drew the shears away as I roared and raged and loosed all the violence pent up in my shackled shoulders. And he waited. Cold as the winter that will reign long after men have extincted themselves, he waited. Patient as abandoned streets and crumbling monuments, he waited. Deadly as eternal silence, he waited. And the imps looked on in hunger while all my fury – a raging sea turned back by a stony shore – spent itself against the unyielding gurney.
Then, when I collapsed in a puddle of my own exhaustion, he lowered the shears and began anew.
I had no more strength to breathe, no more strength to cry. My freedom was mourned for and buried. I fixed my eyes on the imps and committed my soul to them. The blubbering tears that came now were viscous and heavy with hatred, with regret. The night was lost.
The shears chewed their way up my middle, peeling away the suit from my ankles, my knees, my thighs. The imps cheered and clambered over each other, fighting to be the first upon me. I lay wasted and ready on a stainless steel altar of sacrifice.
The shears crawled further: past my navel, past my sternum, over my ribs. Lesser imps were trampled and killed as the greater pressed eagerly closer.
The light! Their light! It intensified to a blaze until a glare of white purity completely blinded me. My eyes were burned and a thin smoke rose from the sockets, but I held them open to the last.
Finally the shears revealed my neck, my chin, and split my helmet asunder. The regal carpeting flopped to the floor like a tumbling corpse.
The imps rushed in with a bestial cacophony and a sigh of satiated victory.
What the orderly revealed under the helmet was a mass of stringy hair, sticky with sweat, and wrapped around my face and my t-shirt. What he found under the suit were the mummified remains of a high school kid, mold and fungus eating at his ancient jeans, a phosphorescent paleness of the skin like deep-dwelling fish.
He summoned grooms to cut away that mass of hair and bathe me with water from an ewer. They had to bring sunglasses because the naked light seared my eyes. Three of them worked on me for over an hour. Three of them in those sterile, white scrubs – snipping, swabbing, shaving – while I lay inert, cold, and weak. Three of them, like priests preparing Pharaoh’s corpse for the long anonymity of the pyramids.
When they were finished the doctors trooped in. A round dozen of them maybe, surrounding the gurney, conferring with their clipboards, indicating my ribs and eyes with the butt end of their pens.
After 20 minutes – maybe 20 hours – they were ready. A new set of tubes was connected, new fluids pumped in, old ones out. An array of sensors was jellied to my head wherever the orderlies revealed fresh scalp. The pumps and monitors re-doubled their efforts and the doctors gave a collective sigh.
One tube ran out of the very top of my head. In it was sucked up a viscous rivulet of a piercingly clear liquid, liquid as pure and potent as grain alcohol. In that stream were hidden miraculous colors: ghostly shades of blue, green, and red, colors seen only in dreams; fantastic shades of night.
Peering into the glass jar where the seething spirit was pooled, one of the doctors smiled and gave his colleagues a thumbs-up.
I spent three weeks in the Psychiatric Observation Unit – the subject of experiments, the object of speculations. That one tube was always fast to the tip of my head, always distilling a capillary stream of that ardent fluid straight out of my skull. Every two or three days the jar it bled into was full and a phantasmagoria of twilight blues, greens and browns swirled in it. Then an orderly would come, replace the jar with an empty, and congratulate me on my progress.
Some days I was strapped into the gurney and rolled out away from the machines. Then I would be queued in a line of gurneys stretching to either infinity down the hall. Each gurney was strapped with its own experiment; sometimes shrieking, sometimes cackling, sometimes crying either hysterically or softly to itself. This symphony of discord rang in the halls as we were all passed under the gaze of the fluorescent lights, through the eyes of nightmare machines and stamped with the symbols of arcane technocratic rituals. We were examined, poked, prodded, cleaned, marked, packaged, and passed on to the next station.
One day I woke in a normal room, with no padding on the walls, and in a normal bed with no restraints for the arms and legs. A nurse was flinging the drapes open. A scherzo of green-smelling air in harmony with a paean of morning light breached the windows and flooded the room, spilled across the floors and filled my soul where it effervesced until I rose out of bed, percolating like fresh coffee. A laugh escaped me like steam leaping out of a blow-off valve.
“Good morning, young man!” She was gray around the edges and matronly but buxous. The kind of woman found in Italian kitchens and silk-garter fantasies alike. “Welcome to Halloway House. My name is Nurse Joppers.” She turned at me with one of those confident, institutional smiles and prattled, “Breakfast is every day at 7 AM sharp, lunch at noon and dinner at 6 PM.”
I let her words roll over me, calming the exuberance the morning had poured into my soul. She was reciting a familiar speech, like the common cold it would need to run its course before it could be stopped. As she spoke she turned me out of bed, laid the closet doors open and presented me with a clear, orange vial.
A roll of tiny, white pills rattled inside. “What’s this?”
“That,” Nurse Joppers punctuated, “is your elixir vitae; your extract from the philosopher’s stone; your fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. That is your anchor and your guiding star: whenever you’re confused or things begin to get strange, I want you to take one of those.”
I peered down into the vial. The sunlight glowing through the windows backlit the jar, illuminated it, until it seemed filled with a trapped, liquid light. I shook it and the light rattled inside.
“Why don’t you try taking one now?” I looked up at Nurse Joppers and she awarded me a motherly smile.
The vial-top flipped open and out of the light I shook a tiny, white pill; a little, condensed bit of light. I popped it into my mouth. As I did, the military cut of Nurse Jopper’s arms-akimbo pose seemed to drain just a bit.
Three months after the cafeteria incident the doctors declared me fit for society – if not outright cured. They loaded my bags with orange vials, Nurse Joppers shed a happy tear or two, and my parents appeared to bus me home.
Climbing up into my room I found that familiar darkness but it was empty now, cold and un-peopled. In the morning I would open the windows, but that night I curled up in that old, inky womb.