Twitch’s urine-soaked gown trails a smell leading throughout the brightly lit hospital hallway. It’s unofficially the worst, yet most efficient, alarm clock the unit has ever had. We joke to all the newbies that it’s an acquired taste. With heavy bags under my eyes, I sleeplessly shuffle towards the morning meds line. Waiting nervously for a disagreement with the head nurse, I begin biting my fingernails anticipating a code green. Things have been relatively calm for the past few days, a skirmish with the MHW’s is long overdue. MHW, or Mental Health Worker, seems like they’re always out to get us. Most times it’s a buff dude who seems to enjoy restraining kids just a little too much if you catch my drift.
Like clockwork, I hear screaming from the front of the line. Code Green is called over the intercom and two MHW’s rush onto the unit, grabbing Twitch. Missing his first punch, he begins scratching violently at one of them. Digging into their skin, the MHW becomes enraged while attempting to restrain Twitch. Burying his knee into his back, the MHW finally wrangles Twitch as backup approaches. We all stare while Twitch laughs madly as they carry him off to the quiet room. As soon as that thick lumber-slabbed door shuts, most of us sprint toward the nurses’ station where a live feed broadcasts Twitch’s agony on a small, black and white surveillance screen. He’s no stranger to this type of spotlight. Taking turns, multiple MHW’s tie each limb with restraints as Twitch attempts to spit in their faces. Suddenly, we hear the med window slam shut. Some of us scattering into different directions, but the veterans stick around knowing they have about thirty more seconds before the nurse passes by with the sedative.
“C’mon Twitch, hit em’,” I hear Annie whisper to herself staring anxiously at the screen.
Face down before they can attach the last restraint, Twitch takes a shot in the dark, headbutting an MHW in the nose.
“Ooooh!” We all flinch with one foot already out of the nurse’s station.
Annie smirks with gratification before we run off to the day room. Finding our usual seats, we decide to get comfortable knowing we’ll probably head to breakfast late.
“Can’t believe Twitch noggin clocked that asshat in the nose,” Annie says to me amused.
“I know…how long do you think he’ll have to stay in there?”
“Who cares? Totally worth it. Those guys deserve every bit of hell we put them through,” Annie finishes.
Annie and I are considered veterans here on the unit. Which means we’ve been here more than twice, or longer than a month in a single stay. Oddly enough, both of which are true for me. Currently day thirty-four into my third admittance, I’m no stranger to this place. Not bragging, but if you want something done, you come to us. Sick of the golf pencils and broken crayons? We’ll show you how to snag pens from the nurse’s station. Miss your shoelaces? We can teach you how to tape makeshift grips to the bottom of your socks. All in all, this place isn’t so bad once you know how to get what you want.
Another nurse makes his way in handing out the remainder of meds.
“I hate taking meds before breakfast, always makes my stomach hurt,” I mumble to Annie as the nurse hands me a tiny cup of capsules and tablets.
“Dude just go throw them up before breakfast,” she whispers back.
With a disgusted look on my face, I swallow my prescribed nonsense. Annie tries to hold back her laughter. Her attention shifts out of the day room as she bursts into laughter. A naked man wanders aimlessly around the children’s unit. Another group of MHW’s flock in, but the man decides to bolt down the hallway. Our laughter is silenced as the man is tackled out of existence. Huddled against the shatterproof observation windows we see his body lay lifeless on the thinly carpeted unit floor. The head RN arrives on the unit, we all run to our seats picking up our morning surveys.
Casually holding a syringe, the head RN steps in as we diligently work on our self-evaluations. Perusing the room, she silently threatens us eyeballing each of our papers. Passing by Annie and me we both shiver as her presence draws chills to each and every patient. Handing our evaluations in as we exit, our chins fall to our chests as we stare at the floor. If the wielding of a syringe isn’t intimidating enough, her gaze ignites a painful glow from the core of your soul. So, I’ve heard. Lining up quietly for breakfast, Annie turns from the front of the queue imitating her vomiting technique. I look back with hesitation but can also feel the pills bouncing about my innards like jumping beans. Sticking my finger down my throat, I puke pills onto some other kid’s back. Just another average morning.
After cleaning myself up, we finally make our way to the cafeteria. Walking the halls off the unit is always an unknown adventure. Sharing mealtimes with the adolescent unit, we usually pass the adult unit traveling back from breakfast. If there’s a code during any meal, we might even pass by the middle unit patients. Told to avoid eye contact, other patients, and even some MHW’s, are petrified by some of the middle unit patients.
“So…any word on your discharge date?” Annie asks as we wait in the breakfast line.
“Nope. And after this morning’s shenanigans, I’m lucky to even leave the unit for breakfast,” I reply.
“Oh, c’mon. Kids vomit on themselves all the time. Have you heard the potential side effects of the shit they shove down our throats? Annie continues.
“I try to avoid learning about them at this point. Just makes me scared about what could happen next,” I admit.
“Fair enough. Ignorance is bliss, right?” Annie casually quotes taking her tray to a table.
Looking down, I realize my tray is empty. In a quick panic, I grab some toast and cereal from the line knowing they’ll be watching my food intake. I can hear the head RN in my head as my tray shakes nervously on my way to the table.
“If you’re not eating, then you’re not cooperating,” I hear her voice repeating quickly in my mind.
Over and over. Louder and faster. Each time more intimidating and forceful than the last. It’s like she’s digging into my brain with her dark red polished nails scraping away at any sanity that may remain. Leaving traces of poison that may singe over longer periods of time, or just when you think you’ll be happy once again she’ll be there burrowing deeper and deeper until eventually your head is filled with nothing but negative verbal torture of tongue lashings and passive aggressive stares or comments. In attempts to distract my anxiety, I stop to butter my toast with the back of my spoon. As her voice continues to antagonize me, I begin to lose focus on the seemingly simple task at hand. My spoon digs into my toast breaking through as tears roll down my face. Grinding my teeth, my brain cycles through people potentially staring at me, doctors judging me, MHW’s taking notes on me. I’m center stage to the freak show and I can’t seem to break this irrational spotlight of abnormal and incompetent. My toast has crumbled onto my tray as I unconsciously continue to butter what’s now just the palm of my hand.
“Ethan, it’s alright dude,” Annie whispers helping me bring my tray to the table.
“You gotta keep it together, the MHW’s eat that shit up,” Annie continues.
“I know,” I reply sharply.
Annie dives right back into her breakfast as I look around the cafeteria. Spotting two MHW’s by the entrance they look back at me suspicious. Promptly averting my gaze, I look down at my cereal as my tummy continues to tumble. I’m not hungry, but I know I have to eat.
“Thank you,” I mutter.
“Don’t mention it, I know it’s not easy,” Annie answers looking up from her cereal.
“And don’t worry about them,” she resumes gesturing towards the door.
“They wouldn’t last five minutes in our head,” she concludes.
I struggle to take a bite of my cereal, choking on the processed grain bits milk shoots from my nose. Annie chuckles quietly as I look down at my newly stained gown. I can’t help but smile at myself. We both share a laugh at my expense.
Finishing up what’s left of breakfast, we drop our trays at the dish return and line up ready to head back to the unit.
“Single file. No talking. Directly to the day room once we get on the unit,” an MHW strictly states.
Leading the way, the MHW takes a different path in route to the unit. Annie turns to me shrugging her shoulders. Everything here has order and reason. Where we go. How we go. When we eat. When we sleep. When we take meds. Leaving the cafeteria, we always take a left past the outpatient program groups and classrooms, passing through locked double doors leading us by the head psychologists and social worker offices. From there we pass by the doors to the hospital intake and evaluation rooms following a smaller hallway that leads to another set of locked double doors onto the children’s unit. The hospital is set almost like a honeycomb, and as you travel closer to the center, the more dangerous it becomes. Making a right out of the cafeteria, there are only two options. An area with laundry and janitorial supplies, or the set of locked double doors leading directly to the center of the hospital, the middle unit. Most locked doors are accessible by both electronic cards and keys. Due to the violence and elevated risk of escape from the middle unit, everything must be locked manually by keys making it more difficult to travel off the unit. Most of the patients don’t ever leave the unit, outside of a body bag at least.
We all silently follow the MHW. Newbies are still bright-eyed and cheery as the veterans stare at the ground, only hearing stories of the atrocities that take place in the middle unit. The hallway between the cafeteria and the middle unit drains any hope one may have as they draw closer to the unit. The lights to flicker and dim the closer we get. The newbies ignorance becomes irrelevant as the overwhelming feeling of melancholy engulfs us all. Upon entering the unit, the stench of human feces and the cackling of psychopaths plague our senses. Unknown stains line the carpet floors with the occasional shreds of hair seemingly torn directly from one’s scalp. Overwhelmed, I keep my head down trying to keep up with the line. I hear a man arguing around the nurse’s station.
“Blood. Blood is the key to freedom. Yes. Yes. It is! Stop! Blood,” he stammers wickedly.
The line stops as I accidentally run into Annie in front of me. We’re both frozen. I lift my chin, slowly opening my eyes. Annie turns back to me terrified. We’re all afraid to speak, so we wait. The stammering man continues to argue but there seems to be no response.
“You know. It will be clear. You bleed. BLEED! Make them free. Your blood. Blood is the key,” he argues.
Turning my head in his direction, his eyes meet with mine as if he’s been talking to me the entire time. The sincerity of his stare is unnerving, but I can’t look away.
“Bleed piggy,” he whispers to me.
“Bleed!” he yells.
Promptly facing my attention forward, our line continues on.
After fumbling around with his keys distractedly flirting with the visiting medical interns, the MHW finally unlocks the door. Making our way off the unit, I turn back for one last look. The stammering man smirks menacingly back at me waving with the tips of each his fingers. SLAM! The double doors close before me as the MHW reaches to double check the locks.
“Keep up Ethan. Not a time for daydreaming,” he states pulling his keys from the door.
Making our way back onto the children’s unit, Twitch sits contently in the day room finishing up his breakfast. Being on certain precautions means he’s not allowed to leave the unit until the psychologist assigned to his case signs off on it. Being another veteran, Twitch doesn’t seem to miss the cafeteria or gym all that much. However, the meals they bring to the unit are usually yesterday’s scraps or some of the many leftovers from the kitchen staff’s creative interpretation of Salisbury Steak.
Waving us in, Annie and I take a seat in our usual spots next to Twitch.
“Dude, I can’t believe you smashed an MHW’s nose in,” Annie enthusiastically greets Twitch with a high five.
“I can’t either. I’m sure he’ll get me back eventually,” Twitch replies scratching the back of his head.
“We thought you’d be in the quiet room at least until dinner, what happened?” I jump in.
“Well, when the nurse came in with the needle, I remembered the bruise I had from the last time. Remember? I couldn’t sit down for days,” he gleefully retorts.
Annie and I laugh with him shaking our heads.
“Anyway, I started to calm down and asked if I could just take the medicine orally instead. To my surprise, she agreed. Weird, right?”
“Wait. Doesn’t that medicine just knock you out?” I reply.
“Well, usually yeah but I feel fine right now. The nurse even called me mature for backing off. Said they’ll even talk to Dr. Shaundry about possibly taking me off special precautions soon,” Twitch continues, crumbling up his carton of milk.
“Having someone watch you poop finally getting to you, huh?” Annie adds.
“What’s really getting old is showering with the door open,” Twitch laughs as Annie and I look at each other in disgust.
“They won’t even give me a toothbrush anymore after I accidentally locked myself in the bathroom. Been brushing my teeth with a damp washcloth covered in toothpaste,” he explains.
“Ew,” Annie and I cringe together.
“Sometimes…sometimes I feel like I’m supposed to be here,” Twitch admits.
“You guys ever feel that way?” he asks.
Annie and I look at each other, then back at Twitch, then away from us all. I think we all feel that way sometimes. Not many friends or interests on the outside, our parents don’t seem to know what to do with us. I don’t even know if Twitch really likes his parents all that much. Urine flows from Twitch’s seat soaking his gown, dripping onto the floor around as Annie and I continue to wallow in our own puddles of self-pity. Taking notice, we begin to count the seconds passing as Twitch stares off into space. Other kids begin to clear the room, but Annie and I stay by Twitch’s side continuing to count out loud. His seizures only last about a minute, maybe a minute and a half. He told us to count and not to stop until someone else comes in.
“…44, 45, 46…” I continue on in my head as the nurse rushes in.
“How long has he been out?” he insists glancing at the second hand on the clock.
“…54, 55, 56…” I count out loud.
“Alright. Head outside, we’ll take it from here,” he persists pushing Annie and I out the door as MHW’s make their way in.
“Code blue children’s unit. Code blue children’s unit,” another nurse states over the hospital intercom.
Annie and I wait outside of the day room with the rest of the patients peeking in through the observation windows. Resting my arms on the cold frame, I continue to count cradling my head in my hands.
“…89, 90, 91…”
“C’mon Twitch,” Annie whispers to herself.
We can see his face, but not his eyes. Presenting a blank expression staring aimlessly into nothing. He seems peaceful in an odd way. Not happy or sad…just existing.
“…112, 113, 114…”
Time feels to be moving slower as I count, but simultaneously faster as more and more nurses rush in by Twitch’s side. I’m scared. So many questions flood my mind as the clock keeps ticking.
“…135, 136, 137…”
Everyone’s just standing around him. Nothing’s happening. The same nurse continues to stare at his watch holding Twitch’s wrist. Interns make their way onto the unit, notepads at hand.
“…163, 164, 165…”
Scribbling observations as they watch my friend sit before them like a lab rat wading in a pool of his own urine. Concern grows as more time passes.
“…188, 189, 190…”
“C’mon Twitch!” Annie screams running in by his side.
“Twitch! Twitch wake up!” she continues to shout as a few MHW’s pick her off her feet.
“Twitch! Please wake up! Please! Twitch!” her shrieking turns into pleads as she struggles at the hands of the of the MHW’s.
“Ethan help him! Ethan!” Annie calls to me.
I can’t move. I can only count. Frozen I wallow watching one friend fade as the other one is hauled to a now hellish afternoon in the quiet room. My tears collect in the window frame as my body remains still.
“…233, 234, 235…”
To be continued…
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