Savage Mafia Prince:
The first six chapters
“I LOVE this book. One of my absolute favorite reads of 2016. I want…no, I NEED my own savage!!!”
~USA Today bestselling author Natasha Knight
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Savage Mafia Prince: Chapter One
Randall is a rosy-cheeked man with a long gray beard and kind eyes. He sits on a bolted-down bench at the corner of his room in the Fancher Institute, formerly known as Fancher Institute for the Criminally Insane.
Thirty years ago, Randall killed three people on a city bus, then tried to poison a group of office workers with arsenic-laced cookies, gravely sickening five.
Today he is heavily medicated and confined to the small room twenty-two hours a day. To his right, there is a large window where you can see the face of an orderly peering in, one of two orderlies whose entire job it is to sit in the hall and watch Randall during his waking hours. Randall’s one burning goal in life is to behave well enough to reduce it to twenty-one hours.
I decide that’s how I’d start the story if I were writing it as a human interest feature on the patients in the mentally ill and dangerous (MI&D) wing of the Fancher Institute. You always hook a story up to one person’s drama and try to find one killer detail. The ever-present watching face is a killer detail.
Stories about people have power. They humanize people, connect people. But I’m not here to do a story about a person.
I’m here to do research on a story about things. A supply-chain story. The most boring type of story.
A supply-chain story in the middle of nowheresville Minnesota is what you get for kneeling in the rubble in Kabul crying and holding a kitten while you miss the most important meeting of your career.
Everyone called it a breakdown. It’s as good a word as any.
Just complete the assignment, I tell myself. Put your head down and do the work.
Because I was lucky to get this assignment at all. No reputable editor will touch me these days. This assignment was set up by an editor at Stormline, which is not a reputable publication.
A nurse named Zara is introducing me to the patients I’ll be monitoring. She thinks I’m a nurse, and in fact I am. I was a nurse before I decided I really just wanted to be a journalist.
I wear a plastic face shield and gloves, and I’m doing a little something with each patient so that Zara can ensure none will react poorly to me. She also wants to make sure that I can handle these MI&D guys.
The MI&D guys won’t be a problem. The antiseptic smell might be, though. It’s so overpowering, I feel like I’m swimming in it. I don’t do well with antiseptic smells these days.
Nurse Zara doesn’t want me here, and she’s not trying to hide it. “Nurse Ann is going to take your blood pressure now, Randall,” Zara says. “You’ll be seeing a lot of her.”
The HR guy warned me that the staff would resist my presence. Nurse Zara’s friend was supposed to be promoted to this job. Everybody on the team thought she’d get it. Then I swooped in and stole it. So I’m a little bit of a pariah.
I’ve handled worse.
“Hello, Randall,” I say softly. Randall’s face is flat affect—that’s psych-ward talk for no expression. His eyes are vacant as I fit the blood pressure cuff around his flabby bicep. Randall is on a cocktail of drugs they call B-52, which does exactly what you’d imagine it would do—sedating him and slowing his thoughts so much that he’s more garden plant than human. He gets extra medication at night. That’s the only time an orderly doesn’t need to watch him.
I note his progress in a tablet, clicking boxes and entering in the numbers. “Great job! Looks like if you behave well for the rest of the week, you’ll get three hours out in the general room,” I say to him.
Randall grunts and mumbles something that sounds like agreement.
Zara grumbles. I’d put her age at around twice mine—twenty-nine—so nearly sixty. She has short dyed-blonde hair held back in a bright polka-dot hair band. She told me the guys like when she switches around the pops of color like that. She cares about the guys, but she wants me gone.
In addition to the hostility, I’m starting to sense that Zara smells my lie, or maybe she just senses my unease. Nurses can be really attuned to people’s mental states like that, and Zara’s good. Spend three decades in a mental ward, and you grow some pretty fierce antennae. She doesn’t know about my breakdown, of course.
But Zara’s not going to be my biggest problem.
My biggest problem will be Donny, the hulking head of the orderlies. The man has “twisted motherfucker” written all over his face. As far as I can see, the only thing separating Donny from the men strapped to these beds is a conviction in a court of law and a commitment order.
The next patient is a schizophrenic in his early twenties. As a college student, he blew up a highway rest station, killing three. He’s in a two-point restraint, which means his wrists are bound to a strap around his waist. He, too, gets the B-52 cocktail, and he has those same flat B-52 eyes.
Zara stands at the door texting on her phone and half watching me as I take his blood pressure and do a blood draw. The skin prick doesn’t even seem to register with him. I wonder whether he knows I’m here. I pull up his progress chart. He’s working toward having his hands loose for sleeping. “If you behave this well the rest of the week, you’ll have a hands-free sleep,” I tell him brightly.
“Thank you,” he mumbles.
We pause in the hall between each stop to discuss patients. Zara watches my eyes a little too closely during these discussions.
“You can’t do this job if you let these guys scare you,” she barks.
She’s picking up on all the ways I don’t belong, or maybe my fragile, fucked-up state of mind. She’s picking up on something.
I try for a serene smile. “These guys are fine. I’m good.”
What with all of the sedation and restraint, not to mention the watchful orderlies at my beck and call, I couldn’t be safer from these men, especially compared with a lot of the subjects I interviewed out in the field in my long-ago days as a reputable journalist.
A lot of those interview subjects were just as imbalanced as these men, except they usually had assault weapons. And the only meds they were on was coffee and maybe alcohol, not the greatest combo when you’re a dangerous madman.
And yes, Donny, twisted king of the orderlies, will probably try to push me as far as possible.
But it’s the antiseptic smell that’s my kryptonite.
Six months ago, I would’ve laughed if anybody had tried to hand me an assignment like this. I was the intrepid girl reporter you sent to Bhutan or Somalia or Syria. I was the one riding around in Jeeps and Hummers, sitting with fixers in shitty little cafés waiting to meet some of the most interesting people in the world, chasing that fucking story. I lived for the story.
And if it involved the underdog, or the crazy militia leader, or somebody going for the impossible? Sign me up!
Now I’m counting supplies for an editor with a conspiracy theory he thinks the cops are ignoring. I was lucky Stormline needed somebody with a nursing degree.
But this is how I’ll dig myself out of the burnt and blackened crater of my career. I’ll investigate the shit out of this supply-chain thing. I’ll do it like it’s the best, most important assignment I ever got. The Stormline editor will vouch for me on the next one. Then I’ll investigate and write the shit out of that one, and so on.
I’ll focus on the story in front of me like it’s the most important one ever—that’s how I’ll dig out.
I close my eyes, heart pounding. The antiseptic smell is still getting to me, six months later. I thought I was ready.
I knew the smell would be here, but I thought it wouldn’t be a problem. This hospital is not under attack. Nobody will be getting trapped in here. It’s a world away from any war zone.
Worse, the smell is making me think about that kitten. I shake it out of my mind. I remind myself the kitten is fine. You stepped up and saved the kitten. You are a badass.
Well, I used to be a badass.
I don’t feel like a badass. The antiseptic smell is seriously fucking me up. I’ll be smelling it all night—I know it already. I won’t be able to sleep.
You don’t have to tell me how sexy a good downward spiral story is—I’m a journalist. I know.
There is nothing more delicious than the rich Ponzi-scheme guy in handcuffs. The arrogant rock star sliding into drug addiction. The high school heartthrob who was cruel to you who’s now cleaning your toilet.
I never thought I’d star in a downward spiral story of my own. I guess nobody does.
We head farther down the hall. I meet a hippie orderly who monitors four guys from a hub. I can tell that he would make an interesting subject, but I’m not writing that kind of piece. Meth. Supply chain. Stormline.
Donny, twisted king of the orderlies, comes up. Donny has neon running shoes, several empty ear piercings, and a strategy of showing you who’s boss by looking really hard at your tits. His eyes are small and frontally placed. Predator eyes.
“They’re ready for 34,” Donny says.
“Come on,” Zara says.
“Patient 34,” Zara says. “Come on.”
He doesn’t get a name? I grab the cart and push it down the hall to where three orderlies are assembled, talking in low tones. They all have stun guns.
“We go three on standby for hellbeast,” Donny says, looking at me a little too hard. He’s the kind of guy who’s always up to something and who therefore can sense when you’re up to something.
I ratchet him up from problem to definite danger. And I see how things will play out, like a perfect storm—dangerously lechy Donny sensing a chink in my armor, Zara’s antagonism toward me, the indifference of the few other staff members I’ve met, the fact I’m on probation and, worse, not who I say I am.
Donny opens the door. The antiseptic smell is always worse in the rooms. I’m feeling hot, suddenly.
I thought I was ready.
Donny unhelpfully guides me in, hand at the small of my back, except a little too low. I stop and spin. “I got it.”
He puts his hands up, like I’m being unduly aggressive.
I turn and push the cart into the tiny room. The door clicks shut, closing us all in.
Donny takes up a post at the corner.
“We got it,” Zara says. She doesn’t want him in here, either. Donny just stares at her with his scary, frontally placed eyes.
Fuck it all, I think. And I turn to the patient.
And the breath goes out of me.
Patient 34 has a violent halo of dark curls and a short, unruly beard. Sooty lashes line his amber eyes. His energy is…intense, wild, like he was created in some brilliant hellfire. Something about him pulls at me. He’s gorgeous in a furious way. He’s gorgeous in a stunning, suck-you-in-and-spit-you-out way.
The highest level of restraint is typically a four-point restraint, but Patient 34 is in more like eight points, arms to waist, waist to bed, wrists to bed, ankles to bed, neck to bed.
He stares at a fixed point on the ceiling like the other B-52 patients, gaze blank, but he feels utterly different to me. He feels truly alive.
I look up to find Zara watching me sternly, like she caught me doing something wrong. Did I stare at Patient 34 too long?
I lower my face shield and take my place next to his bedside, ready to take his vitals, though I have half a mind to look around for a camera crew, like this is one of those elaborate joke shows where they play tricks and see what people do. He’s just…not at all like the others.
Not like any man I’ve ever seen.
According to 34’s chart, he’s on B-52 plus a few muscle relaxants and something extra I don’t recognize. Enough medication to take down an elephant.
I wrap the BP cuff around his shockingly muscular arm. Shocking, because this is the kind of guy who’ll be unhitched from that bed exactly twice a day—to use the restroom and eat. And he’s so heavily sedated. When and how is he working out? And what did he do to get himself this level of restraint?
I scroll to the history section of his chart. Blank. I really want to know what he did to get in here. There’s no age, though I’d put him younger than me—twenty or twenty-one. I can’t even find his goals program chart. “Where’s his goals?”
Donny laughs from the corner. “He doesn’t get goals. He will never have his meds reduced, he will never have his restraints reduced, and the only way 34’s getting out of this room is feet first.” If I have anything to do with it is the unspoken part of it.
Donny returns his attention to his iPhone.
This guy—so heavily sedated and restrained with a man like Donny hating on him. How does he endure it? I lay a hand on his arm and feel the warmth of him through my latex glove.
“Escape artist,” Zara mumbles, not looking up from her phone. The people working on the wing aren’t supposed to have their phones, but they all do. They know how to avoid the cameras when they’re on them.
“What’s his escape technique?” I ask. “Does he turn into The Incredible Hulk?”
Neither of them responds. Well, I thought it was funny.
I slip the cuff around 34’s arm, rest my gloved hand on his forearm, and start pumping it. The patients here all wear blue pajama-style shirts and pants. The shirts are short-sleeved and snap at the sides for access.
I glance at his face again.
And the world stops.
Because 34 is there—really there. He’s watching me with intelligence, lips quirked like he thought my Hulk comment was funny.
My heart pounds madly. “Hey, I’m going to take your BP, and we’ll draw a little blood, okay?”
“He doesn’t know what you’re saying,” Zara snaps from the corner, like I’m this huge idiot. “He’s not going to answer. Read his chart.”
I read the fucking chart, I think at her. Why don’t you look at his fucking face? But when I look back down, 34’s eyes are blank again, and the shadow of a smile is gone. Was I hallucinating? “It seemed like he was there for a second.”
“He hasn’t had a coherent thought in his head for months,” Donny says. “And he never will again.” And again, that unspoken end to the sentence: If I have anything to do with it.
Asshole, I think.
I look back down. His eyes are fixed on the ceiling. Back to being a heavily sedated lion. Was I imagining it? I do his BP. It’s high for how much he’s medicated. “One-twenty over eighty.”
Zara pushes off the wall now, annoyed. “That can’t be right. Move.”
I retreat back to where Donny stands while she takes 34’s BP. I’m starting to feel sweaty and a little bit wrong.
Zara calls out the BP results, which are lower—right where it should be for a man on all those drugs. I note it down on his electronic medical record. She thinks I fucked it up out of nervousness.
“Don’t worry, we gotcha,” Donny says. As you can imagine, he makes it sound like a threat.
I just nod. No words, just a nod. You never give a creep like Donny energy.
Zara puts the blood pressure assembly back in the cart, looking at me hard. “You up for doing the draw?”
“Of course,” I say, moving away from creepmeister Donny. I take my place at 34’s bedside, and Zara goes back to her phone, safely out of camera range.
Patient 34’s eyes are blank as sheetrock. Did I imagine that silent interaction? If I did, that’s bad.
If I didn’t imagine it, it means he’s faking. I suppose it doesn’t really matter, considering they have him tied up like he’s King Kong crossed with Hannibal Lecter.
I draw his blood. They probably had a dedicated phlebotomist on this at one point, but budget cuts have hit this sector hard. The phlebotomist would’ve been cut. I try not to watch his face at all.
I think about Donny’s crowing words—Never a coherent thought ever again. Like Donny is a victor over 34 in some imagined and unfair contest between them. That is so Donny, to have vendettas with the patients he’s supposed to be caring for. What did 34 do?
When I’m done, I press a cotton ball to the draw site and set a gloved hand on 34’s arm, which really is startlingly thick with muscle. I know I’m not imagining it.
I look into his golden eyes that gaze at nothing and everything. It’s likely he did horrible things—you don’t end up like Patient 34 because you’ve been a Boy Scout. But there’s a sliver of humanity in everyone. Hopes, dreams, things that unexpectedly touch their hearts.
This is something you learn from telling people’s stories.
“All done.” I squeeze his arm reassuringly, because everybody deserves compassion, and Zara and Donny can fuck themselves.
Savage Mafia Prince: Chapter Two
All done,” she says softly. She squeezes my arm. Heat floods my body. My heart pounds out of control.
She has piercing green eyes and hair the color of peanuts. She tries to hide it by pulling it back, but her hair is big and curly and will not be hidden. She purses her pink lips. I love watching her lips. She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.
Again she squeezes my arm. She seems like a dream with her gentle touch and her talk of The Hulk, like she reached back into another life.
Is it a trick? Another one of their endless tortures? I fight for control, willing her to leave. I can’t concentrate with her here.
I should’ve let the drugs take me under today—that would have dulled the power of her. I sometimes let the drugs take me under as a break from the crushing boredom of this dead place with its buzzers and alarms and the ticking clock that never stops.
And the grating loneliness.
And now her, destroying my concentration. You can never show life in here, or they drug you even more.
She works for them. She’s just another one. I’ll kill her if I have to. I’ll kill them all if I have to. All that matters is getting home. Back where I belong.
How do they even know about The Hulk? I haven’t thought about him since I was a kid, locked up in that root cellar.
She moves out of my periphery. The distance makes it easier for me to get myself under control.
I need three conditions to escape. One—a clear head. I have that. Two—the ability to break out of my restraints. The small pair of clippers I have hidden in the mattress is that. Three—some sort of chaos or diversion to take out the guards around the perimeter. I need a disaster, somebody else escaping, a power failure—something. The perimeter guards were my downfall last time.
I don’t make the same mistake twice.
So I wait. I’ll get my chance. It’s a matter of time.
They can never know I have the clippers. They can never know I’m able to work the drugs through my system. The professor who kept me in that cage said I had a high metabolism. Maybe it’s true. The exercises help me stay clear, though. I know that. “Isometrics,” the professor called them when I’d do them in my cage.
I thought the year that the professor kept me in a cage was bad. Wrong.
The professor would at least read to me, trying to educate me. I would pretend not to hear, not to understand, but the things he read and said were always interesting. I would listen hard, and think things over when he slept.
He hope to educate me and get me to understand supposedly important concepts, so that we could have discussions about how I survived in the wilderness, and mostly, how I got a pack of wild wolves to trust me. He’d guessed—rightly—that they’d let me live in their den.
I would not confirm it. I would tell him nothing.
I felt so lonely, caged up like a savage. Missing the pack. My only friends.
Here is far worse.
They drug me every twelve hours. I strain against my bonds whenever they leave—hard enough to get my blood pumping, to break a sweat. Hard enough to stay clear in the head, ready to kill everyone.
She draws her finger along the shiny front of her computer pad. The screen flashes. Then her fingers are back, a whisper on my arm. I fight to keep my expression dull and lifeless.
She squeezes my arm. Nobody ever touches me like this. I think my heart might explode.
Nurse Zara: “Come on.”
She’s gone. I follow her footsteps down the hall. I track the squeak of the cart wheels.
You develop strong hearing in the wilderness. It’s a form of paying attention, of disciplining the mind. That’s something the professor would say, and I always felt he was right, even though I never said so.
Back when he had me in that cage, he would give me sneaky tests on my sense of hearing and my sense of smell, too. Once I caught on that it was what he was doing, and that overdeveloped senses made me different from people who hadn’t grown up wild, I pretended not to hear or smell things so well.
You can never give people anything. They only hurt you with it.
If I listen hard enough, I can hear birds singing beyond these walls. Bird songs can be the most lonely thing of all in here. But on some days, on the good days, those songs help me to get back there in my mind, and I can almost convince myself I’m running through fields and forests with the sun on my face.
Wheels squeak. Her heartbeat grows fainter. Room 39.
Mitchell DesArmo is in that room. A dangerous man. I follow their conversation. I stay with her all the way through the rest of her rounds.
The farther away she gets with the power of her beauty and her gentle touch, the more control I feel.
It’s a trick—it has to be.
Everything has a rhythm, a pulse. This hospital is a system, just like the forest. Things move. Holes appear. I’ll be ready. Nobody else will be ready, but I’ll be ready. Stillness is an effective way to hunt.
Stillness is how I killed the professor. He thought he could write a book on me. He thought he could make a sideshow out of me. He thought he was educating Savage Adonis—he told me that was the name the reporters gave me when I was pulled out of the wilderness.
The professor thought that if he got the Savage Adonis’s head filled full enough with words and concepts, that I would be his loyal helper.
The professor wanted Savage Adonis’s secrets. Instead he got Savage Adonis’s hands around his neck.
I waited for my moment just like I’m waiting here.
The squeak of the wheels.
Nurse Ann leaving the wing. A door. Another door. Gone.
I should feel relief. Misery gnaws at my gut instead.
If I can endure the boredom and pain of this place, I can endure her gentle touch.
I shut my eyes to close out the feelings. Three things to escape. The path I cut back home will run with the blood of anybody who tries to stop me.
Does he escape by turning into The Incredible Hulk?
It’s coincidence that she talked about The Hulk. It’s been so long since I thought of my boyhood before the forest. The piano wire. The tree. The root cellar.
She’s a new torment, that’s all.
A new torment that hurts more than Donny’s stun gun.
After we finish our rounds, Zara and I head to the general room, which is a type of rec room with bolted-down chairs and tables and a TV on the wall that only staff—meaning Donny—controls. Two dozen patients are in here, coloring and watching TV. Zara tells me about where the different groups sit, who doesn’t get along with whom.
These are the most well-behaved patients, but still, orderlies hover all around, watching, tracking things on tablets. This is a place of immense bureaucracy and paper trails denoting every action of every patient right down to when they take a piss, and I mean that literally.
We head to the staff room, where it’s a little easier to breathe thanks to the cooking smells overpowering the antiseptic smell. In a way, though, it’s worse, because I’m in a room full of people who don’t want me here.
I hold up my head. Stay pleasant. This isn’t my life, right?
There are more than a dozen nurses and nurse aides: a few guys out of the army, some older women from the float pool—substitute nurses, basically. There are full-timing young mothers—the sister hospital across town has a great free day-care program they get to take advantage of.
Sometimes in a strange group of mostly women, I’ll try to get the talk around to kids and get people pulling out pictures. It’s nice as an icebreaker. And the truth is, I really do love seeing the kids. I love the way women’s faces look when they show you. I love to hear the little stories they tell about pictures. Stories bond people, humanize people to each other.
When I first entered journalism, I believed that understanding each other’s stories could solve all of the world’s problems.
It takes strength to believe big things like that, and I don’t have that kind of strength anymore.
And I have a feeling that, in this group, my questions will be seen as nosy.
When they ask me whether I have kids, I tell them no, I don’t have kids. The truth. I tell them I’m from Idaho and that I did a ton of travelling and volunteer work around the world, which is close to the truth. I know my story doesn’t make sense to them, to go from worldwide travel to a notorious MI&D facility in an impoverished rural northern Minnesota town, a place where I have no friends or relatives. They may not acknowledge it consciously, but deep down, they know I don’t add up.
The best lie would be to say that I’m really into camping and that I want to be at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Quetico, the massive swath of pristine wilderness between Minnesota and Canada. But I can’t talk outdoors talk, so I tell them instead that I think it’s gorgeous, and that I want to buy a canoe and explore this beautiful area. Zara warns me about winter. It’s early October and already cold as fuck. She asks me whether I’m ready for the true cold.
“So far, so good,” I say.
She proceeds to tell me the horror stories about six-foot snowdrifts and stretches of subzero temps. The group joins in; they seem to enjoy telling me how bad it’s going to be, like, you made your bed, now lie in it.
Will this be their attitude if I have trouble with Donny?
Somebody has brought cake along with bright paper plates and plastic forks in celebration of a young nurse’s birthday, and I find I’m hugely conflicted about taking a piece. Will they dislike me even more if I pass up this offering or if I take one? I decide it won’t matter either way, so I take one.
Talk ceases as we eat our cake. Back in the magazine office where I worked in New York, we would celebrate birthdays just like this, except nobody would actually eat the cake.
The cake is delicious, and in spite of their vague hostility, I’m seriously hoping that if there is a meth supply pipeline running through here, it’s all Donny.
If there’s a pipeline at all.
Murray Moliter, my editor at Stormline, could be smoking crack with the whole thing. He got a tip he felt was credible for whatever reason, and the tipster suggested the cops weren’t investigating because they’re in on it.
Fine by me. I’m getting double pay here—my nursing wage along with a per diem from Stormline. I’ll get Murray the facts he needs on what’s going in and out of here. I’ll do a good job. Work my way back.
Each of the ten nurses under Zara oversees the medical care of ten patients. They all seem to know I have Patient 34. I suspect I got him because I’m new, and he’s the dangerous one nobody wants.
I was surprised when Zara called him an escape artist. The layers of security here are insane—how could anyone escape? “So how many times has Patient 34 tried to break out?” I ask. “Has he actually gotten close?”
They glance at each other the way people do when there’s juicy gossip. Soon the stories are flying.
It seems Patient 34 once used a ballpoint pen to wear down his canvas wrist restraint. Another time he got free and tied up orderlies and nurses. He has smashed through the supply closet door and two walls. He has jumped through safety glass. He once beat up five stun-gun-wielding orderlies.
Twice Patient 34 has made it to the parking lot. The electrified fence stopped him once. For the most recent attempt, he created his own rubber mitts with art materials. He smashed Donny’s head on a wall, knocking him out, and almost made it, but the guards around the perimeter took him down with tranquilizer guns.
It seems the Fancher Institute has implemented quite a number of new features thanks to Patient 34. The general consensus is that he won’t be trying to escape anymore, but people are a little voodoo about him.
“Why doesn’t he have a name?” I ask.
“Because he’s a John Doe,” one of them says, like I’m stupid.
“But surely he knows his own name,” I say. “He could’ve told you it before he was so sedated.”
“Patient 34 cooperates with nobody.”
“What was his original conviction?”
“We don’t have that,” Nurse Zara snaps, like it’s an outrageous question, which it definitely isn’t.
It’s important to know whether a patient is a firebug, whether they have women issues, various triggers, all of that. All they know about Patient 34 is that it was some sort of violent assault around a year ago. “A year and some change” is how Zara had put it.
“The rumor is that he’s in WITSEC,” one of the guys says. “That the stuff is sealed for his own protection.”
I nod like this sounds reasonable. It’s not. If he was in witness protection, he’d have a fake name and a fake history. “Who handles his board hearings?”
“Fancher,” one of the nurses says. “You could ask him about it,” she adds with an innocent shrug. People’s faces are carefully blank. Which tells me that going all the way to the top of the Fancher Institute—to Dr. Fancher himself—is a bad idea.
Still, I think about it. I pass Fancher’s office on my way to HR to drop off my insurance forms. His door is cracked. I pause. I tell myself not to get curious. I tell myself Patient 34’s story is irrelevant.
And I knock. And then I think, fuck fuck fuck.
A booming voice: “Come in.”
Dr. Fancher is a man of about fifty with a military haircut, strangely wet lips, and frontally placed eyes just like Donny. In fact he looks a lot like Donny. Possibly a relative. Great.
“I wanted to introduce myself. I’m Ann Saybrook—I just joined the team on the MI&D wing.”
“Welcome.” He taps his pen. He doesn’t get up.
“Are you and Donny—”
“He’s my nephew,” Dr. Fancher says. “So far, so good?” He asks this in a way where you know the only answers he wants to hear is “yup-thanks-bye!”
“Yup.” I smile. I should go away. I’m not here to draw attention to myself. At least that’s what I’m repeating over and over in my head. But I keep picturing Patient 34 in his crazy restraints, and Donny’s hatred of him, and the way he looked at me.
The way he felt. So intense. So alive.
I suck in a breath. “Patient 34 is one of my cases, and I noticed there’s not much on him in terms of family history or incident history. The more I know, the better care I can deliver.”
Fancher levels his gaze at me. “If we were at liberty to add that information to his chart, we’d add that to his chart, don’t you think?” He says it as though I’m just a little slow-witted. “I don’t imagine you could have any issues with him already…”
“Everything’s going great.” I give him my best “no-threat-here!” smile. “I just want to deliver the best care possible.”
Fancher rocks back in his chair, relaxing. “He’s an extremely troubled and dangerous John Doe. Of course we do everything we can to locate family and get family members involved in the patients’ care, but they’re not always out there, Ms. Saybrook.”
I nod like I’m swallowing his utter bullshit. “Of course.”
“You let me know if you have trouble with him.”
Smile smile smile. “I will! Thank you!”
I leave, telling myself I’m here to count supplies, not draw attention. Supply chain!
That afternoon, I learn that there are two places medications are kept. Pharma One is controlled by a staff pharmacist during the day and locked at night. Pharma Two is where we get medications that don’t require a pharmacist’s sign-off—the kind of stuff you’d find in a drugstore, including ephedrine, which is one of the substances I need to keep an eye on. I’ll figure out who’s doing the ordering and set up a ghost system for tracking it.
Over the next few days, I work on being the invisible observer.
Randall earns his three hours in the general room. Zara and I set a new goal for him: behave well enough in there to earn a drop in meds.
The rewards for the guys here are always either a reduction in the level of restraint and medication or an increase in freedom. It is up to me to suggest rewards for my men to work toward.
But when the patient behaves poorly, Donny and Zara decide on what happens—increase in restraint, increase in meds, reduction of free time out in the coveted general room. And then it’s a climb back up.
I’m like these guys in a way. I fucked up and now I’m digging myself out, trying to regain a few privileges. Win back some professional respect.
I monitor Pharma Two like a hawk. I take my own personal inventory and find out shipment days before the week is up.
On the downside, the smell doesn’t get better. Some days I feel like I’m drenched in antiseptic.
The antiseptic smell brings me back to being trapped in that rubble with those kids. Singing. Maybe a vat of it spilled during the bombing, I don’t know. The smell clings to me at night. More and more, I wake up in the middle of the night gasping for breath, reliving the kitten incident, my sleep broken into useless bits.
Patient 34 is a complete zombie when I visit him the first time on my own—or as much on my own as you can be with three stun-gun-wielding orderlies in the hall. They’re supposed to be watching through the window, but as usual, they’re all on their phones—mostly Facebook and YouTube, from what I’ve noticed.
I carry around two phones—one dummy one, and one in a knee sock holder under my pants. It’s an old habit from the field. You always have a little bit of money and the phone you’re willing to let them steal out and visible, and you hide the stuff you need to protect—the important phone, the real money.
I’m struck again by his beauty. There’s something utterly powerful yet totally vulnerable about him. Somehow, this man hits me right in the gut.
It’s not just about his moment of seeming consciousness; it’s because of how he calls to me. How something in me answers. Just lying there, he calls to me.
I find myself reaching for my important phone—my secret cell—to get the shot.
Taking photos like this is second nature. A shot like this isn’t just about recording a subject, it’s about seeing from a new perspective, seeing more deeply. Honoring something amazing.
I photograph him close up and full body, then I slip the phone away.
I pull out the blood pressure and blood draw stuff. Not even the crinkling paper seems to attract 34’s attention. His face is a perfect blank.
I should be relieved that I’m seeing the blankness everyone else is seeing. Ask most people who fucked up in a big way and they’ll tell you their first goal is simple normalcy.
In truth, I’m disappointed 34 is so blank.
I made that joke, and he smiled yesterday. It was a nice moment. I want that consciousness back, if only just for a moment.
It’s probably a bad sign that the warmest human connection I’ve felt all week is with a guy strapped to a bed in an institute for the mentally ill and dangerous. Because he’s in an institute for the mentally ill and dangerous.
I fit the cuff around his arm and press the Velcro pieces together. “You should at least have a name. A fucking name.”
He doesn’t answer. Not that I expected it.
It offends my sense of fair play that he only gets a number. Fancher’s stonewalling offends me even more. “But the family is not always there, Ms. Saybrook,” I repeat under my breath. “Ms. Saybrook. What an asshole. You wanna patronize me? Really?”
Patient 34’s blood pressure is way up yet again. The last thing I want to do is call Zara in again and have her get a normal reading, as though I’m fucking it up.
But I can’t ignore it.
I step away and lean against the door to give him space, just in case my talking did it. He could be picking up on my anger at Fancher and this whole situation. Unbalanced people can be extraordinarily sensitive.
I go back for a redo, trying to use Zara’s super low-touch style. His BP is down a little on the second try. At least in normal range. I jot down that reading and do his blood and the rest of my check.
The rest of the week is uneventful, aside from my not being able to sleep, thanks to the antiseptic scent clinging to my skin and nose. It feels like it’s inside me sometimes, which I know is crazy.
On the upside, with every visit, 34’s blood pressure drops a bit more. At the end of the week, it’s right where it was for Zara.
He always exhibits that flat affect, but there are times, as I go about my business, that I could swear he’s almost glowering at me, or at least staring at me intensely, but then when I look directly at him, his face is blank…though sometimes it’s more like furiously blank.
Which sounds a little odd, I know. It’s just that, even when he’s staring blankly at the ceiling, he feels aware. Sometimes I have this weird sense that he doesn’t want me there.
But I’m not sleeping, so I’m a mess. I could be imagining things. Projecting.
I keep talking to him. It’s not like anybody else there wants to talk to me. I say little things at first, like, “It’s me again. What do you think about that? Not much, huh?” Or I report on the ever-evolving cake and treat activity in the staff room. I tell him I’m thinking about bringing cookies. “Maybe the way to their hearts is through their stomachs,” I say. “Wow, that kind of makes me sound like a termite, doesn’t it?”
A muscle in his cheek twitches at that. I tell myself it was a shadow.
I come to look forward to seeing him. Strange that the most engaging person in this place would be a John Doe on so many drugs that he probably has the consciousness of a cantaloupe, but there you have it.
Still, there are these moments when I’m sure he’s fucking with me.
It’s exactly ten days into my brilliant career as a Fancher Institute team member and secret tracker of ephedrine supplies that I catch him.
I’m sitting at 34’s bedside updating patient charts on the Fancher-issued tablet. He’s his usual blank self, and as usual, I’m talking to him like he’s there.
“I know what you’re doing. You want to lull us into complacency and make your big break. I’ve heard the tales of your last attempts. They sound brilliant, for what it’s worth.” I flick through screens while I talk. “And I hear you smashed Donny’s head into a wall. I don’t know why they have you strapped up here. Between you and me, you’d have to be insane not to want to smash Donny’s head into a wall.”
I look up and our gazes meet, or, more accurately, his eyes are momentarily riveted to mine. He quickly looks away, all blank, but it’s too late—I caught him.
I stand, shocked.
I know what I saw. He’s only pretending to be out of it. Fooling everybody.
I don’t know what to do. I’m inclined to keep his secret, because I feel this strange connection with him, but he could be really dangerous.
Who am I kidding? Of course he’s dangerous. Everybody in here killed at least one person. And he’s also an escape artist.
I think of the innocent children beyond these walls. I think about the nice girl at my coffee shop. The cops. My fellow nurses.
I have a responsibility here.
I walk out and tell the orderlies to stay put. I go down the hall to find Zara at her computer. I tell her that I suspect Patient 34 has found a way to skip his meds. “He is highly aware, and his thoughts are as fast as yours or mine.” I say. That’s one of the main effects of the drugs they give the patients—slow thoughts.
“They do move and twitch,” she replies, like I’m stupid.
“It wasn’t that, Zara. This man is acting. He tracks speech and responds.”
She heaves out of her chair, annoyed. “He’s ingesting every bit of his medication.”
We head down the hall. “I know it sounds improbable,” I say.
“He’s on B-52 with zyzitol. It’s not improbable, it’s impossible. What exactly happened?”
“I was…kind of talking as I went about my protocol. I, um…think the sound of a voice can soothe, you know, and I made this joke, and—”
“What was the joke?”
“Just some dumb joke.”
“What?” she asks.
“Oh, I was talking about his escape attempts, and I said…a joke about how he knocked Donny’s head into a wall…”
She stops and turns to me. “Do you think it’s appropriate to joke about violence toward the staff?”
I suppose I could say that he’s supposedly on so many drugs that it shouldn’t matter what I say to him, but seeing as how I’ve been saying all along that I think he’s alert, I decide to go for a simple answer—“No.”
She leads the way into his room. Patient 34 has his perfect flat affect. She checks his pupils, his pulse, his blood pressure. She runs through a few low-tech tests, poking his foot and so forth. Patient 34 passes with flying colors…if your goal is to appear barely conscious.
“Do you need me to have one of the other staff members take him over?” she asks.
“Of course not.” I’m on probation here. Why couldn’t I keep my big mouth shut? And it’s not like he’s going to ever get out of his huge amounts of restraints. “It must have been a twitch,” I say obediently.
She turns on her heel and heads out. Angrily. The guys in the hall return to their social media empires. I go back in and sit down on the side of 34’s bed with my back to the hall window so they can’t see my face—not that they’re watching. Still. I fight back the tears.
Maybe I really am losing it. What if the whole world is right about me and I’m wrong? That I really am messed up?
“Happy now?” I ask him.
He stares vacantly at the ceiling.
“Oh, fuck you, you fucking faker.” I take a deep breath, trying to center myself. I have to collect myself. I can’t go back out into the hall like this.
It’s my lack of sleep, that’s all.
Patient 34 just stares on and on, eyes fixed on a point on the ceiling, godlike features perfectly fucking arranged. I decide it’s the contrast that makes his golden eyes pop, because his lashes are so dark and inky.
“Fuck you for that, too,” I say. “For those lashes. Oh my God, I’ve officially sunk to a new low. A guy in a loony bin has gotten the best of me without saying a word. Oh, I’m sorry, mentally ill and dangerous ward. Is that better? Do you prefer that?”
I’m feeling all emotional, like I did with the kitten.
“Fucking kitten, I should’ve left it trapped.” I rub my eyes. “What was I doing?”
Still he stares vacantly. His lips are lush and full for a man’s. They don’t shave a lot of these guys; they just clip their beards and hair, and not really well, but somehow the slightly choppy look is awesome on 34. Like a hot post-apocalyptic warrior youth. On goes the stare. The somewhat mechanical blinking.
“Don’t even,” I say. “I know you’re there. You don’t have to playact anymore. Just don’t even.”
I need to get myself under control.
“If I wasn’t sleeping so shittily, maybe I wouldn’t be obsessing about the kitten,” I whisper. “Or do you think it’s the other way around? If I wasn’t obsessing about the kitten, maybe I wouldn’t be sleeping so poorly. What do you think? Or is this just like that movie. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, right? Will I end up in here? Damn.”
I focus down on the tablet.
“It was so tiny.” I bite back the tears. I will not cry. “I never talk about the kitten, and now I’m telling you. That’s not messed up.” I take a deep breath here. “Except you don’t talk back. That would really make me look crazy! Wouldn’t Nurse Zara love me then? You should try to squeeze out a few words. That would really be some badass gaslighting.”
I feel that awareness from him, and when I look, I think I catch a flick of his eyes. Or do I? B-52 with zyzitol. It’s not improbable, it’s impossible.
I suck in a breath. “I remember once in driver’s ed, they showed this movie where it simulated if you tried to drive while on drugs. They showed this windshield, and everything was blurry except a bug that splattered there. They said, ‘If you are on drugs, you might focus on something like a bug instead of the road.’ Maybe that’s what I did back in Kabul. But it’s not like I endangered anybody.” I look at the time. I need to get to my rounds. “I couldn’t pass it by. Its little screams. I couldn’t not hear them.”
He says nothing, of course.
Myself, I laugh-cry a little. “It cost me everything. So yeah, I guess there’s that. No, that’s a good point. But I had to save it, you know? It was like I hit a wall, and I couldn’t let my fixer drive on by any more than I could’ve swallowed my own tongue. It was a physical impossibility.”
I grab a tissue just to rip it up.
“That little paw sticking out of that gap in the rubble.” My voice is hoarse. “I felt like I wouldn’t be able to breathe if I didn’t get that kitten out of there. Literally couldn’t breathe, you know what I mean?”
His chest rises more abruptly than usual. Just twitches. I won’t let him fuck me up again.
“I know what you’re thinking—the kitten was Freudian projection.”
I pause, surprised. I actually never thought of that before. How did I not think of that before?
“Yeah, you’re right. It seems so obvious—no, you’re right. I walk out of that hospital collapse like it’s nothing. All that time like it’s nothing. But then a few weeks later, we pass a tiny kitten trapped in rubble, and I lose my shit. Pretty suspicious, right?”
I focus on his strong hand, mind racing. Could it be projection?
“Yeah, you think the kitten is me. Crying. And I rescue myself, and then I just sit there holding it, crying. But why would I sit in the road and cry if I rescued myself? That’s a flaw in your theory, 34, clever as it is.”
My blood races. Strangely, I feel better.
I straighten up. Do I honestly feel better, having talked about it? I pack up the cart. “Should we meet here tomorrow? Yes? Tomorrow’s good for you? Awesome.”
The back door of the storage warehouse is secured with a chain and padlock.
I smash the fuck out of it with a sledgehammer. This is the seedy part of Chicago. Nobody’s around—nobody that will care, anyway.
I slip in with Tito at my side. We’ve worked together, bled together, killed together for years, me and Tito. We don’t even have to signal, we just slip in, weapons out, and start clearing rooms. Five guys slip in behind us, quiet as night.
The choreography of crime has sunk deep into our bones.
Gunfire sounds from the front. Tito raises his brows. The point was for us to handle the fighting part, being that my brother Viktor is still injured.
We head up to find Viktor standing over ten men. They’re all on their bellies, arms outstretched. Viktor’s girlfriend, Tanechka, walks up and down the row of them. Tanechka and Viktor came out of the Russian mafiya. They know how to hold a room.
“So much for the intel about them being in back of the warehouse,” Tito mumbles, holstering his Luger.
I catch Tanechka’s eye and put my hand out, palm down. It’s our sign for Kiro, our lost baby brother, like patting a little boy’s head. Of course Kiro would be a grown man by now—twenty-one years old. My heart twists at the thought.
Kiro was just a baby in a crib, fat little arms waving, when they ripped him away. Sold him into a shady adoption ring, we later learned.
Tanechka nods and places a boot on one of the men’s heads. I never met him, but apparently she has. “Hello, Charles.”
“I’ll tell you where the cash is,” Charles says. “You can have it.”
“Is not enough.” Her Russian accent sounds extra harsh, and I wonder whether she’s doing it for effect. “You remember me?”
Charles says nothing. The correct answer would be yes. Nobody forgets Tanechka.
“You kept me in a little room. Prisoner, auctioning me off like eBay. You kept all those girls. You made them cry. You think all I want is cash? Cash is where we start. Can you guess where we end?”
The man says nothing.
My brother Viktor grins, stupidly, madly in love with Tanechka. Tito just leans against a wall, enjoying the show.
Tanechka demands cash, records, and communications equipment. She’s not going to kill Charles, but he thinks she will.
Any one of us could threaten him, but it feels good to leave it to Tanechka. He wronged her and a lot of other women. He probably has a thing against women.
He starts spilling. Tanechka smiles over at Viktor. The information he’s giving up will help us destroy our enemy, Lazarus, aka Bloody Lazarus, and take back what’s ours—namely, the kingdom he stole from us when we were too young to understand.
But our real goal is Kiro. We’ve heard rumors that Lazarus has a lead on finding Kiro.
Lazarus wants to kill Kiro. He needs to kill Kiro.
It might seem strange that Lazarus, a powerful Albanian mafia kingpin, would need to kill a man he hasn’t seen for twenty years, but that’s the power of a prophecy for you.
I know, it’s the twenty-first century, but the Albanians are a superstitious bunch, and the prophecy holds that we brothers together will rule—me, Viktor, and our baby brother, Kiro. Enough people believe the prophecy that it matters—a lot.
It’s bad. We have to get to Kiro first.
Unfortunately, Lazarus has ten times the men we do, and ten times the resources.
The prophecy was given by an elderly crone who supposedly had the evil eye. She had blood-red fingernails that transfixed me as a child, and I can remember her pointing to baby Kiro in his crib and saying that nobody could beat the three of us. That together, we brothers would rule.
It was the week after Kiro was born. I was eight or nine, and Viktor was maybe two.
People have been trying to tear us apart ever since. Or, barring that, to kill at least one of us.
That would be Lazarus’s goal. He can never truly rule if all three of the Dragusha brothers are alive with the potential of uniting.
Viktor and I are hard as hell to kill. I doubt there are any guys left who are willing to try anymore. But where’s Kiro? He has no idea of any of this. No awareness of the firestorm with his name on it. He could be easy to kill.
A sitting duck.
Viktor and I found each other last year. Now we just need Kiro. Kiro’s more important than ruling or being invincible. But short of finding him, the fastest way to protect him is to take down Lazarus. Keep him hurting. Rattle every cage.
It’s about family.
A few months after the prophecy came down, Lazarus and his mentor slaughtered our parents in the nursery where we used to play. They carried off Viktor and Kiro, both screaming and crying.
I saw it all.
A family friend grabbed me and hid me before all this went down, but he wasn’t quite fast enough to get me out of the house. The best he could do was to pull me into a dark nursery nook and hold me tight while the bloodbath raged. While my brothers were taken. His arms were iron bands around me, his hand a cigar-scented seal over my mouth.
That was the last time I saw Kiro. A baby with big, bright eyes.
I make the sign again. Little boy. Ask about Kiro.
“What is this about Kiro Dragusha I hear?” Tanechka asks Charles. “Is it true Bloody Lazarus has found him? Perhaps if you tell me, perhaps I won’t make you a pincushion for my pika.” She moves her blade in a figure-eight, silver flashing in the light.
“Kiro Dragusha is dead,” Charles says. “Everyone knows.”
Viktor shoots me a glance. I shake my head grimly. Not true. I’d feel it if Kiro were dead.
“You have seen the body?” Tanechka asks.
“Not me, but people have.”
“Sabri, I think…”
I shake my head at Viktor. It’s bullshit. This guy doesn’t know.
We start pulling them out.
Tito comes up beside me. “It’s bad that everyone thinks he’s dead.”
“He’s not dead,” I bite out.
“I get it,” Tito says. “But the more guys think Kiro is dead, the more they want to go over to Lazarus. Be on the winning team. And the more powerful he gets. Perception is reality, man.”
“Fuck that,” I say. “The reality is that we just took down Bloody Lazarus’s most profitable operation and took ten of his guys off the street. The reality is that we’ll just keep hitting and hitting until Laz is ended and Kiro is back.” I turn to Viktor. “Get that C-4. I want this place rubble.”
Tito eyes me. “You sure? This warehouse is a nice fucking asset.”
“Now it’s a fucking message,” I growl.
Wait for my chance to escape. Destroy anybody who tries to stop me. A simple strategy. It was always so simple here.
Morning. I catch her clean, spicy scent in the hall. Starting her rounds for the day. My body floods with heat.
I try to calm myself. I listen to her with Randall. She rips the Velcro. Pumps the pumps.
The cart squeaks nearer. My heart pounds. Lightness in my chest.
Her kindness is the most dangerous weapon they’ve brought out because it screws me up and makes me forget she’s one of them. Makes me forget she’s the enemy.
I recite my three conditions of escape: a clear head, bonds broken, gate guards distracted or incapacitated.
Three conditions. Ann is irrelevant. She’s just one of them. An enemy.
The cart wheels squeak, then stop. Four stops before she gets to me.
She doesn’t ever sit and talk with the other patients, but she almost always sits and talks to me these days.
I turn her words over in my mind in the hours after she leaves. I don’t know half the things she talks about. I don’t know what Freudian projection is. I don’t know what One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest means or what Kabul is.
I don’t understand her story about the kitten or the rubble. I can’t tell if it’s one story or many stories, or what any of it has to do with being a nurse.
The professor tried to stuff a lot of words and concepts into my head over the year he held me and studied me, but there’s a lot he didn’t teach me. I understand nothing about the pads and phones they all have. Always touching the glass to light it up.
The professor was studying me, but really I was studying him. Absorbing his language. Learning how to act like him so that he could forget what I was. So that he could forget I was dangerous. It worked.
I killed him.
And ended up in this place—a far worse place. Never mind; I’ll get out of this place, too.
Nurse Ann found herself holding the kitten in the middle of the street. Drawn by its cries. I understand that part.
The squeaky cart wheels. Another door. Another patient. Soon it will be me.
I love it and hate it when she talks to me.
It’s the worst when she sounds sad. I want to break my bonds and grab her, hold her, speak to her in soft tones like she does with me. It’s stupid to blow my one chance at escape just to comfort her.
She’s one of them.
Nurse Ann has already tried to hurt me—she ran to get Nurse Zara when she caught me staring at her.
If they understood my head was clear, they’d give me more drugs, and my chance to escape would be gone. Everything in me needs to be pointed at getting back home—not at Nurse Ann with her sad stories and pretty green eyes and the unbearable torment of her touch.
I have to get away from them all, back to the wilderness where nobody can find me.
Ann thinks I’m playing games. She couldn’t be more wrong. I’m in a struggle for my life.
Voices. The orderlies gathering outside. Waiting for Ann.
I resolve to keep my face and eyes perfectly blank this time.
I was angry when she raised the alarm, but I still felt sorry for her when Nurse Zara made her feel stupid for thinking I was alert.
Do you need me to have one of the other staff members take him over? Nurse Ann was so upset, so distressed. God, I could feel her pain like a blade.
The impulse to break away was nearly overwhelming. I wanted to rip Nurse Zara’s throat out. I wanted to hold Nurse Ann in my arms.
My heart was racing so wildly, it was a miracle nobody noticed.
I loved the angry way she spoke after Nurse Zara scolded her, though. Fuck you, you fucking faker. I felt so proud of her for the way she refused to collapse.
I stare at the water-stained tiles above me, getting myself under control. They’re waiting for the third orderly, following the rules. They like three out there. They think three could stop me.
Three would not stop me.
I’m not good with words or technology or knowing TV or movies or the names of faraway places, but I’m good with my hands. Good at killing. I just need the perimeter guards handled—that’s the lesson I learned the last time I tried to get out. There will be a storm. A disaster. Any day now, a hole in the security will appear.
And I’ll be ready to take advantage of it.
Squeaky cart wheels. She talks with the orderlies in low tones.
I shake the thoughts from my head.
The door opens. She walks into the room. Heat floods my veins.
“Hi, 34.” The pain in her voice cuts me.
She sits so near my right hand, I can feel her warmth.
She folds her hands and rests them near my hand. So near.
I stare at the ceiling, fighting the urge to look into her eyes and show her she’s not alone here. She sighs. The sensation of her crashes into me.
“Another shit day at Casa Fancher.” No, it’s not sadness; it’s distress. My muscles buzz with energy. I stare at the ceiling, faking blankness.
It’s here I smell Donny on her. My pulse spikes. My blood races with the need to go crazy.
Donny touched her.
Every nerve ending in my body goes on wild alert. I ball my fists before I can stop myself. I force myself to relax them. Luckily, she doesn’t see.
I remind myself that Donny touches people all the time. He touches Nurse Zara. He slaps guys on the shoulder. It doesn’t mean anything.
Still my blood races.
She’s rustling wrappers. Something’s wrong—I can tell by her face, and even if I couldn’t see her, I would know from the way she rustles wrappers. Wildly, recklessly, I study her profile for clues to her state of mind—sadness, desperation, fear? I study the swoop of her nose, the way her lips plump out in silent concentration. I love her lips.
When she’s upset, pink spots mark the skin under her cheekbones. When she’s embarrassed, pink creeps up her neck. Her emotions live at the surface of her pale skin.
She’s so pale, but her spirit is rich and wild. Her heart beats strong and true.
It’s hard not to stare at her. Hard not to imagine touching her. Feeling her warmth. Kissing her.
She takes out the computer tablet and studies the screen, tapping it now and then. I’m grateful she’s not looking at me—my eyes are anything but vacant. I imagine pulling her to me and burying my nose in her neck—that’s where her clean spicy scent comes from. Mostly from the left side of her neck. I imagine putting my nose there and sucking in her scent, of taking just that one thing for myself. Like everything might be worth that one moment of holding her.
I want to do it so badly, spots appear before my eyes.
I haven’t felt sunlight on my skin since that brief race for freedom some months back. If I ever want to feel sunshine on my skin again, I need to ignore her. I tell this to myself over and over.
I manage dull eyes just in time for her to look over at me.
“We’re going to do blood pressure first. What do you think?” Rrrrip. Velcro. “Please be low,” she whispers. “Please just be low.”
Desperation. Weariness. What happened?
My blood pressure won’t be low. Her distress is ruining my calm.
It would be better if Nurse Zara sent a different nurse to manage me, but I think I would die if I couldn’t see Ann again.
Electricity slides over my skin as she takes hold of my arm. With gentle movements, she fits the cuff around my arm. The sweetness of her touch kills me, even through the gloves. What would it be like if she touched me skin to skin?
She sighs the way she sometimes does before she speaks.
Every fiber in me strains toward her. She mumbles something unintelligible about counting, then, “Fucking antiseptic.” More mumbling. Then, “If I just didn’t smell it at home. If I could go an hour without it in my nose. Like particles of smell are stuck in there. Or is it some hallucination? Fuck. Sorry.”
She rips off the cuff and repositions it. My mouth goes dry.
“Maybe I should wear that stuff mortuary workers wear, you know? Under their noses? To mask the smell? That menthol. What do you think? That menthol. A little menthol…lotta menthol.” She sighs.
Her sad sigh makes me want to rip the clouds down. She repositions the cuff and pumps. She won’t like the number.
“I should do that, huh? Anything’s better. If I could go a few days without the smell, I could sleep. It’s just the smell. It’s the smell. Of course it’s bothering me. Who wouldn’t be bothered?” She checks the numbers. “Fuck.”
You get a lot of self-control living wild. I could stay hungry for days. I could catch and kill prey with my bare hands. I could sit in a snowy glen for hours and melt the snow around my skin long before I felt cold. I used to be able to control my blood pressure here, once I’d realized that a higher number meant more attention, sometimes more drugs.
Try harder. Fight for the sunshine. Fight for your life.
She sighs. Everything about her is beautiful.
My desire to touch her twists my heart.
The problem with being sleep-deprived is that you lose your center, your ballast. I feel like I’m drifting in a boat at the mercy of wind and waves.
I tell myself that people go without sleep for days on end all the time. I tell myself it’s fine.
It’s not fine, though.
I’m tired. Mentally fragile as a tissue. I cried on the way driving here because of a Tom Petty song on the radio. Fucking Tom Petty, right?
It doesn’t help that Donny was out in the parking lot when I arrived. He popped up out of nowhere and scared the shit out of me.
It was pretty clear that he was waiting for me. Thank goodness I had my keychain in my hand with a mini-canister of mace attached. I smiled and twirled it on my finger, then clasped it, making sure he saw it. A silent threat.
A man like Donny, he’s had mace in his face before.
We went into the facility together with its fog of antiseptic smell. Of course I had to ditch my mace with my keys in my locker before I passed through security. Mace and keys are on the list of things you’re not supposed to bring in. Can’t have the patients get hold of anything they could use as a weapon.
Donny smiled and headed through security ahead of me. I let him get some distance, then I went through.
Without the mace, my self-defense skills amount to what places to kick a guy. A guy like Donny would be ready for those kicks.
I said hi to the other staffers in the hall. Most grudgingly said hi back. It’s better to force people to pretend to act civil—that’s the decision I’ve come to.
The antiseptic smell is strong today. Sometimes I have this feeling that the smell will cling to me and chase me even after I quit here. Maybe it was already there. Maybe it seeped into my soul after the hospital bombing. It never bothered me before that.
A lot of soldiers who see action end up with tinnitus, a permanent ringing in the ears, from exposure to explosions or loud gunfire. Maybe the antiseptic smell is my tinnitus. The smell. The screams. The songs that didn’t work to cover the screams.
Just do the job and get out, I remind myself for the zillionth time. And no more thinking about Patient 34. No more wondering about his history, no more wondering whether he’s faking his stupor. No more.
Yet an hour later I’m sitting at his bedside, studying his eyes.
He stares at the ceiling with his hellfire beauty. He feels…unusually alert.
His blood pressure is going to be up this time, I just know it. I fit the cuff around his arm. I get it crooked and redo it. “Calm and steady,” I say, kind of to both of us.
I watch the numbers stabilize. Too high. This is the kind of number I’d need to report.
I have this feeling that if I report it, Zara will come and get a normal reading like the past two times, and it will be another demerit. I could enter a fake number, but what if something is really wrong? It’s a huge load of toxic chemicals they’re giving this guy.
“I’m going to try this again in a minute. We’ll pause and rest.”
I take a deep breath, modeling restfulness. I glance over at the backs of two orderlies’ heads through the window that looks out into the hall. On their phones.
“Yup.” I turn back to 34. I study the proud line of his nose, the curve of his cheekbone. He’s beautiful in a stormy way, a statue hewn in hell, hair black as night. Short downy beard. He has a very Mediterranean look—as though he has Italian or Greek or maybe Middle Eastern heritage. I shouldn’t think he’s hot. He’s in his early twenties and I’m almost thirty. I’m his nurse. He’s supposedly criminally insane. Or is he?
“I would give anything for your story,” I say. “And seriously—no name? No history? It’s like putting a lit sign over your door saying, ‘We’re hiding something about this guy.’”
He keeps up his blank stare, eyes the color of fire. Occasional blink. He doesn’t look aware, but he feels aware.
And what if he is? But if he was sane and aware, the boredom and immobility would drive anybody out of their mind. I rest a gloved hand on his arm, so solid under my fingers.
“We’re going to go again. We’re going to sit here, and then do the BP again. I could do the blood draw first. But I’m not going to poke your arm and then squeeze it with the cuff like an asshole. Unless I did it on the other side. Hmmm. What do you think?”
I decide it’s not a bad idea. I move the chair to the other side of him and do the draw. He doesn’t react to the prick at all. I fill the tiny vial and drop it into the marked tube.
One thing down. I take a centering breath, filling my lungs with the antiseptic smell.
“Okay.” I set my hand on the bed next to his muscular arm. It’s ironic that my presence seems to shoot his BP. I find his presence calming.
Another deep breath. “We’re okay. And you know what? The kitten is okay. And I’m not there.”
I scratch my finger back and forth on the sheet, so cheap and coarse I can feel the grain through the glove. Sometimes this thing happens where I forget about it momentarily, but then I get this feeling of dread, and then I think, What bad thing am I forgetting? And then I remember the kitten.
“It’s okay. I fucking saved it, right? But in my mind, it’s still in trouble. Trapped there.”
“It could be worse. I could be talking to a whiskey bottle, right? I know what you’re thinking. Many kittens die in the world. Why did that one kitten take me down? Yeah, that is definitely the question of the day. You hit it right on the nose, 34. Nobody asked me, but that’s what they all wonder. It’s like death or cancer or something. Nobody wants to ask. They think you want to forget. They don’t know you’re still in it. Really, I don’t want to talk about it.”
So why am I talking to him? This completely inanimate man who burns with intensity.
“It’s so much suffering over there, you learn to tune it out. The hungry kids chasing the car, the bombed-out shells of homes that were once places where happy families lived. You remind yourself you’re there to make a difference. It’s a matter of relative weight, right? So much is a matter of weight. Things need to not weigh the same, you know? You can’t just react to every tiny thing, or you can never do anything big. And then I went and reacted to the tiniest thing.”
I pinch the bridge of my nose. One good night’s sleep, that’s all I need.
The kitten incident happened while I was on my way to the assignment of a lifetime—to interview a female warlord. It was going to be amazing. She was going to let me spend the day with her. A female warlord in the hills of Afghanistan.
“You can’t even imagine what a coup that would’ve been,” I say to 34. “This was somebody you couldn’t get to—like ever. And like a fucking miracle, she agreed to this meeting. The one meeting she’d do—ever. Everyone wanted that meeting, but I got it.”
I scratch against the grain of the sheet, throat too thick to talk, remembering the way my fixer looked at me when I got out of that Jeep. He was being paid by the magazine to take me around and translate for me and protect me to a limited extent, but in that Jeep, I was boss. We stalled out in this ruined intersection. The engine cut, and that’s when I heard the tiny mewl.
My voice is a whisper. “And then I see the paw poking out of that hole. I couldn’t leave it, crying like that. At first I thought, ‘I just have to see what’s up,’ you know? I got out and I go over, and I could see it in there. It was under a bunch of steel and mesh under this stone slab. And once I saw it, I had to get it out, you know?”
The clock on the wall clicks away. One second. Another.
I’m back there a little bit. “I made my fixer pay a few guys to move the slab. It took two fucking hours to round up enough guys to move that stone slab. They thought I was insane. Maybe a little like you do right now.”
His pulse is a drum in his neck—even I can see it. I smooth down his sleeve, wondering who cuts his beard. I hope it’s not Donny. Fucking Donny.
“Fuck fuck fuck, you have to calm down,” I say, and I don’t know who I’m talking to—him or me. “They freed it, though. Put it in my arms. It was every kind of selfish, I guess. I passed by so much suffering there. You pick your battles. Until you don’t. And mine was the kitten. What was I doing?” I close my eyes, and it’s like I can feel the grit on my knees and the kitten’s tiny ribs. I’m back there breathing in the dust, with my fixer looming above me, unsure whether to watch me or look away.
“I’m holding that little thing, crying. I’m sure the mother was long gone. Probably dead. I couldn’t stop crying. So yeah, that was impressive. And then like an asshole I get in the Jeep with the kitten in my shirt, and he’s driving like hell to make time to get to the meeting, but we both knew she’d be gone. I kind of didn’t care. I got it to drink water. It was so scared, but it liked being in my shirt. That’s all it needed, you know? It just needed somebody to hold it. To give a fuck.”
Am I really pouring my guts out to 34? Suddenly I can’t stop.
“We got to the market where the meet was supposed to happen, and the warlord had already left. I would’ve spent a day with her. It would’ve been amazing.”
I think back, remembering how excited I was to land that interview. When you get to spend a whole day with a subject like that, they start to forget you’re there, and you get really genuine stuff. Unguarded truth. The stuff they don’t know not to tell you. Of course she was gone by the time we arrived. I just felt numb about it. I was all about the kitten. I had my fixer drive us to this small village at the edge of a relatively lush area. Just this random area I’d seen pictures of.”
I sigh, remembering.
“I was basically Caligula at that point,” I add. “Caligula with a kitten. I dropped it off. It seemed like a nice place for a kitten. A good food supply. And then I went out and got so fucking drunk. God.” I tip my head back and gaze at the stained tiles on the ceiling. This is 34’s view forever. “You’d at least think saving the kitten would make me feel better. But it didn’t. It made the kitten feel better. I hope.”
Those next couple weeks I drank and drank. Fixers gossip like old women. The world of journalism is not a large place, and there’s always somebody hungrier. With every sweating bottle of beer, I felt my career crumble a little more. I’d found the one thing that was worse than getting emotionally involved. Worse than fucking an interview subject. I missed a career-making interview to save a trapped kitten.
“It was just so helpless and scared, though,” I say to him. “And so thin. It weighed nothing and its little claws…its little fucking claws. It needed me. It just needed…” I gust out the last word—“something.”
The room starts to look wavy through my tears. They trail down my cheeks like hot, wet fingers.
“Okay! See? Happy now?” I sniffle, thankful my back is to the window. “This is why I don’t talk about the fucking kitten. This—”
My throat thickens up, like a band, tightening around it.
“This—” I whisper as the sobs take on chest-convulsing lives of their own, like too many got trapped inside my heart that day, and now they’re all trying to punch out at once.
Everything inside me is a chaos of heat and pain. The room is wavy. I can’t see. I can’t think.
I grab hold of the sheet, telling myself I’m in Minnesota, but really I’m in that collapsing hospital. I’m on the dusty street. I’m in the half-crushed cooler, I’m swimming in antiseptic, I’m in a Jeep, I’m holding the kitten crying against my belly, sobs like a fist inside me.
Something crushes my hand. Hard grip.
My eyes fly open.
Patient 34 is holding my hand.
He pins me with a torn expression.
My mouth hangs open. My heart thunders.
He just watches me, fierce and true, holding me in the strong container of his hand.
“Oh my God,” I whisper. I’m suspended in his grip, a stunned rabbit, caught in a cloud of shivers.
Patient 34. Really with me.
My gaze falls to his steely, sinewy hand gripping my latex-covered one. Our hands form a defiant knot against everything normal.
My chest softens. My sobs calm. Suddenly I can breathe again.
I look back up at him. “You’re here.”
He just watches me. I have this sense we’re the only two people in the universe. I have this sense that his hand holding mine is the only true thing in this place. The only thing that has weight in a world that’s spinning off its axis.
He shifts his hand, gripping stronger, harder, conflict raging in the fire of his eyes.
Some wild part of me doesn’t want him to let go—ever.
Don’t let go.
“You’re here,” I repeat.
Silence. Again I get that crazy sense he’s angry, somehow. Or maybe “anger” isn’t the word. He’s a dangerous fire, flames licking my core.
I could call out. I could hit the cart alarm. It’s the last thing on my mind.
“You’ve been here all this time.”
“No,” he whispers. “I’m not here.”
Breath whooshes through me. This really is happening. I wait, but he says nothing more. I simply dwell in his harsh, strong hand. He has me.
I shouldn’t need that, but I do.
Suddenly the fire goes out of his gaze. He lets go of my hand. He turns back up to the ceiling.
“Wait! 34!” I whisper. I want him to come back. “It’s okay. I won’t—” Won’t what?
A scrape behind me. The door opens. It’s Raimie, one of the nurses. “I’m out of kits. You mind?” She grabs a few of the draw kits I put together. “God, you’re behind.” With that, she swoops out.
I look down again at 34. He’s got the zombie act going again. “She’s gone,” I say softly.
He doesn’t react.
“It’s cool now.”
“Seriously?” I wait, wanting him to come back. But why would he? My blood races. I don’t want to leave.
I have to leave.
With trembling fingers, I punch in a fake number for his blood pressure.
I turn back to him. Staring at the ceiling. “Thank you,” I say. The thank you comes from my heart—I hope he hears that.
I straighten my stuff and push out.