DISCLAIMER: The Gatekeeper, and characters surrounding this series, are works of fiction. They bear no relation to actual persons and are not to be associated with the author’s sexuality or gender identity.

TRIGGER WARNING: Throughout this series, there will be instances of homophobia, transphobia (including use of dead names + incorrect pronouns), sexism, verbal/physical abuse, domestic abuse, suicidal ideations, self-injury, and dysphoria. If any of these topics have proven to be harmful to you as a reader at any time, please continue with caution. The author’s intention is NOT to upset readers but to shed light on unfortunate circumstances that may still occur today for our LGBTQIA youth.

Remember that you are not alone. If you are a young person in crisis, feeling suicidal, or in need of a safe and judgment-free place to talk, call the Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386. The Trevor Project has trained counselors that are able to support you 24/7. Also available to assist you through online chat and text.

Standing proudly atop the jagged cliff edge, Warrior Orion gazes upon the tormenting labyrinth deep within the Valley of Shadows. Staff at hand, he takes in the mountain air knowing his journey will be risky and arduous. Committed to retrieving the rose-tinted ruby he once strung around his neck by a thin reddish silver chain fashioned with the blood of his tortured mother, Orion will let nothing stand in his way. Deceiving in its layout, legend tells that the labyrinth holds many of trials for any adventurer to brave. Each corner holds the extremes of any climate; from the scorching, driest deserts to the most frozen, dead winter tundra. Warlocks, Cutthroats, Paladins, and Necromancers shroud themselves throughout the thickening labyrinth walls awaiting to challenge any intruders. However, perhaps the most wicked being lurking amongst the harrowing groves may not seem so harmful a first glance, but don’t be fooled. The Gatekeeper takes no prisoners. This murderous flesh splicer arms himself with a rusted sickle stationed in a sheath hewed by the scalps of his victim’s firstborn children.

Approaching the entrance, Orion smugly eyes the towering walls of the labyrinth.

“Well…,” The Gatekeeper begins.

“Who are you, demon?” Orion demands, holding his axe at the ready.

“Demon, well that’s a first,” he scoffs.

“I am The Gatekeeper,” he humbly replies.

Observing the rose-tinted ruby tucked within his pelt lined with infantile skulls, Orion raises his axe asserting his stance.

“Ahhh…if the ruby is what you seek, best not be tongue and cheek. Time does not exist within these walls. Nor age, nor pity…nor mercy. Through frigid winds, scorching sands, and humid jungles, those before you have underestimated the challenges these climates present. So…I implore you, I entreat you, I dare you; enter through the labyrinth gate, but save your breath, and accept your fate. For there is no light…only death awaits,” The Gatekeeper threatens as the corroded gate creaks opening behind him.

“Your threats are empty, demon,” Orion confidently sneers.

“You would be so surprised, warrior. Some who claim their path is light, spout darkness in pursuit of deceit,” The Gatekeeper warns.

TAP. TAP. TAP.

“Closer now warrior,” The Gatekeeper strikes the steel bars with his sickle teasing Orion.

KNOCK. KNOCK. KNOCK.

Orion forcefully shouts towards the sky beginning to charge the entrance as The Gatekeeper begins to fade away.

BAM. BAM. BAM.

“Sweetheart? Ori, honey? It’s mom, are you almost ready?” Orion’s mother knocks outside his bedroom door shouting over the power metal blaring inside.

“Ugh!” Orion groans slamming his composition book shut opening his bedroom door holding his flannel closed, sporting basketball shorts and long socks.

“Mom, I thought we talked about the whole ‘sweetheart’ thing?” he replies.

“I know. I know. And I’m sorry but your father is already waiting in the car. Humor me for a minute, will ya?” she continues.

“Ok, but I’m not wearing this,” Orion grabs a black sheath dress presenting it unamused.

“Look, you know I’m on your side here,” she begins, pretending she didn’t see the ace bandage tightly wrapped around Orion’s chest.

“…and if your father wasn’t running the ceremony, of course, I’d want you to wear whatever you’d like, but I just, I can’t…help me, help you,” she bargains.

“Alright, alright. I understand,” Orion agrees aware of the potential chaos rebelling can concoct when it comes to his father.

“Give me three minutes,” he sarcastically smiles.

“Okay sweetheart,” his mother accidentally replies immediately beginning to apologize.

“Mom! Ugh!” Orion shuts the door.

“I’m sorry. I’ll be in the car, love you, Ori,” she shouts through the door.

In front of the mirror, Orion takes off his flannel revealing his homemade binder. Attempting a deep breath in, he flexes his biceps releasing the air with a confident smirk.

Glancing at the sheath dress, his cheerful grin wilts. Disappointed, he turns the mirror around, regrettably slipping into the dress.

BEEEEEEP.

Orion’s father impatiently lays on the horn in their driveway.

Reaching for a couple of pens, one black, and one red, Orion grabs his composition book swiftly making his way down the stairs.

“Sorry dad, had to finish up a few things,” Orion apologizes buckling his seatbelt.

“I understand that this may be a difficult time for you, but I have a duty to serve. Not only my family but also my community. Do you understand that?” he irritably spouts from the driver’s seat.

“Yes, sir,” Orion reluctantly replies eyeing his mother in the passenger’s seat with her head down.

Entering the labyrinth, Warrior Orion confidently marches into the unknown. He turns back as the gate closes slowly behind him. Three corridors present themselves, each as seemingly distant and eerie lined with dead trees, hazy air, and moist crumbled stone walls. No end in sight. However, the entrance of each path is marked by freshly slaughtered creatures hung by stakes punctured through their backs angled up to pass through their chest. Their blood puddles underneath their defiled carcasses releasing a wretched stench. An anaconda, a sheep, and a young boy present themselves like trophies murdered by The Gatekeeper himself. Taking one step closer, flames burst from under each of them. The boy awakes in a panic writhing in pain attempting to pull himself from the wall. Orion hesitates, unsure if he’s able to assist the boy.

AHHHHH.

Placing both hands on the wall behind him, the boy screams in excruciating pain pushing his body up the stake. Just outside his reach, the boy fails to free himself accepting his fate as his body descends back down towards the cold stone wall. The flames grow higher closing off each entrance, Orion must decide as the boy’s skin begins to bubble.

Approaching the boy, the flames seize, and the other two paths grow over with barbed vines.

“Who did this to you?” Orion questions as the boy struggles to breathe between the pain.

In hopes of comfort, the boy looks to Warrior Orion in his final moments.

“Darkness falls to those who give in to the labyrinth, light is rewarded to those who triumph. Go, warrior, show no mercy,” the boy softly replies as his body collapses over the stake lifeless.

“Are you ready?” Orion’s mother says standing at the open car door.

With a simple nod, Orion exits the vehicle onto the cemetery grounds. Chin down, he follows his mother towards the ceremony, his father already beginning to speak at the podium. The temperate September air playfully sweeps the remaining leaves aged and fallen in beautiful yellows, oranges, and reds. Snowy mountain tops line the distant horizon proceeding the rolling hills of wheat fields already harvested and awaiting the return of spring. Orion rubs his bare arms as goosebumps form.

Orion stands uncomfortably amongst the few in the crowd finding it difficult to focus. Sora wasn’t the closest friend, but he was amongst a handful of outcasts in Orion’s school. After he came out, his friends started drifting apart and even their parents asked them to stay away. His mother sits emotionless, disappointed even. Rural America, somehow moving forward, yet stuck in its traditional roots. Small minds gathered with a collective ignorance stewed within religious hierarchy’s, comfort in the familiar, and fear of change. Your roots either take to the soil in which you’ve been planted, or you make way and uproot to something bigger and better.

“As Gods children, we are made in the image and likeness of Him. This responsibility deserves a certain amount of dignity and respect. One of the first commandments we learn in scripture relates to the understanding that you should not take the life of a human being. We do not have the authority to give ourselves life, nor do we have the authority to take that life from ourselves. God shapes lives through suffering. Our lives are not in our hands,” Orion’s father shares.

“Lord we ask that you take this boy, that you remind him of your eternal sacrifice. Romans 6:23 states ‘For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord’ Amen,” he concludes.

“Amen,” the few reply as Orion stands upset but silent.

Onward on his path, the fog thickens as Orion ventures deeper into the labyrinth. A great distance in without a turn, sign, or even sound, he begins to question his choice in direction. Lowering his weapon, the warrior’s axe strikes the ground somewhat crumbling the asphalt underneath his feet. Curious, he taps the ground once more; the earth begins to tremble underneath as Warrior Orion stumbles a bit. With one last determined swing, Warrior Orion crashes through the floor falling violently to the caverns below. Immediately standing to his feet, Warrior Orion grabs his Axe circling the hollows in a panicked defense. The dim light from above fades as the ground reforms above him. The gentle dripping from the narrow pipelines echo through the seven corridors. Warrior Orion’s boots slosh about in water filled with rotted remains, stumped limbs, and bloodied shreds of garments. A gentle wake pushes against his ankles coming from one of the passageways littered with empty bottles and molded scraps of sustenance. Warrior Orion grasps both hands readily around the handle of his axe preparing to contest whatever comes his way.

“Looks like it might rain soon,” Orion’s father states looking to the sky as he drives attempting to unwrap his fast-food hamburger.

Orion sits quietly in the back seat staring out the window.

“You know, I was surprised that Sora’s father wasn’t there,” he continues in aim to spark conversation.

“Did you talk to his mother, Oriana?” he adds in between bites.

Orion ignores his father.

“Sweetheart, hello?” he persists.

“Please don’t call me sweetheart,” Orion answers.

“Why not? You’ll always be my sweetheart, our sweetheart. Right, honey,” he pleasantly smiles looking to his wife.

Orion’s mother uneasily smiles towards her husband as he grabs her hand with his greasy palm. Looking back towards Orion she mutely empathizes with her son. Orion clenches his fists, then takes the pen from behind his ear opening his composition book.

The wake strengthens as the creature draws nearer. Its back surfaces only a moment presenting crimson spotted sores wading through the refuse then disappears into to the shallow muddled water. Warrior Orion combs the murky puddle around him with his axe. There’s nothing. He looks once more, squinting down the shadowed tunnels as more water begins rushing in from every direction.

Lifting his axe, the water level rises rapidly past his waist, then his shoulders. Suddenly, the Cesspit Gar sinks its teeth into Warrior Orion’s leg. Collapsing, he takes a panicked breath in as the gar pulls him under dragging him to the bottom. Jousting his axe into the gar’s mouth, he attempts to break free, but its grip is unwavering. Releasing his axe, Warrior Orion clutches each end of the gar’s long snout, and with a forceful heave, he unhinges the impressive clutch the hideous creature has upon him.

Snapping wildly back at him, Warrior Orion grabs ahold of the primitive beast keeping his head away from its many rows of barbed teeth. Wrestling against him, the gar manages to plunge them both to the nethermost region crashing Warrior Orion to the seafloor.

SNIP. SNIP. SNIP.

The gar frantically bites around Warrior Orion’s death grip on its neck. The creature’s sores begin to secrete an acidic ooze burning through Warrior Orion’s hands.

SNIP. SNIP. SNIP.

Persistently nipping, the gar knows its ooze continues to eat away at Warrior Orion’s flesh. Desperately scanning the depths, debris and human remains scatter the grimy, muck covered sands below. Amongst the rubble, the blade of Warrior Orion’s axe teases him.

SNIP. SNIP. SNIP.

With a hole blistering through the inside of his palm, he knows he hasn’t much time. Releasing his grip on the creatures third strike, its nose buries deep into the sand as Warrior Orion rolls to the side hastily reaching for his axe.

“You alright Ori?” Orion’s mother asks as they pull into the driveway.

“Yeah. I’m fine,” Orion answers a bit disorientated, arm already extended to the door handle.

“Right, hope you brought your umbrella ladies. It’s really coming down out there,” Orion’s father expresses taking the last sip from his soda cup. The kind of sip where you know there’s nothing left, but you keep sucking the straw because the annoying noise it makes.

Orion caps his pen, clutching his composition book close to his chest making his way inside.

“Wow, do I got mustard on my mustache?” Orion’s dad asks jokingly.

Orion’s mother shakes her head, then exits the vehicle swiftly running to the door.

“Oh, come on,” his dad starts again shaking out his umbrella by the front door stepping inside.

“She knows I would’ve shared the umbrella, right?” he states.

“Are you that dense?” Orion’s mother replies.

“Excuse me?” he retorts.

“You embarrassed that boy and his family,” she starts.

“What are you-,” she barrels over him.

“That poor boy took his own life and you said those awful things. Awful, awful things. How could you do that?” she adds passionately.

Orion moves to the top of the stairs listening in.

“I was doing my job,” he sternly answers.

“No. That’s not your job. Your job is…” she’s at a loss for words.

“To inform the people of His word?”

“The kids dead,” she jumps back in.

“He’s dead Martin, and you just fucking spit all over his grave-,“

BAM.

She falls to the floor as he hits her in a spout of anger.

“How dare you speak to me that way?” he continues, looming over her as she crawls back into a corner.

Loosening his belt, Martin continues to pursue her.

WHACK.

She shrieks in pain as he hits her with a sinister grin stapled across his face. Orion jumps, cringing to each crack of his belt.

WHACK.

Her cries are almost silenced by her agony as she lies helpless on the living room floor. He winds up for another swing.

The gar pulls its head from the crusted seafloor, approaching in a rage.

WHACK.

Warrior Orion slams the blunt end of his axe into the gar’s bloodthirsty eyes, then pushes from the bottom eager to resurface. With an exasperating gasp for air, Warrior Orion swims down another path through uncharted waters and unknown remains.

To be continued…

© John Marrows All Rights Reserved

Consider helping me deliver more content: https://www.patreon.com/imarrowsj

Within this blog post, I’ll be discussing the creation of the short story series All My Friends Are Freaks. The significance of each of the main characters; Ethan, Twitch, and Annie will be outlined alongside a drafted map of the behavioral health center with actual photos from inside the facility! Additionally, I’ll be responding to your questions from the All My Friends Are Freaks Q&A.

SPOILER ALERT: The information within this post may reveal important plot points within the series. If you haven’t read them yet, I’ll link all three parts below. As always, they’re FREE to read!

PART ONE: All My Friends Are Freaks

PART TWO: All My Friends Are Freaks: Part Two

PART THREE: All My Friends Are Freaks: Part Three

Let me share some initial thoughts before I get rambling about the infamous children’s unit veterans; Ethan, Twitch, and Annie. All My Friends Are Freaks has been a culmination of personal perseverance, reliving unfortunate traumas, and balancing the right mix of reality with fiction. I felt like I was there, every step the veterans take on and off the unit. Putting myself back in those hospital socks wasn’t something I was comfortable doing at times, but boy howdy did I enjoy fighting for these characters and I’m hoping you did as well. Again, just wanted to say thank you to those who sent in questions either in person, Instagram, Twitter, or wherever. Thank you to all my readers!

ETHAN

In the original first draft of All My Friends Are Freaks I wanted Ethan to seem like life on the children’s unit was just another day. Moving forward I found him to best to represent the struggle many of us have to fight to belong, even when our peers respect us for who we are. Our anxiety spikes when we’re put under the spotlight, unable to perform mundane tasks, such as Ethan buttering toast like in part one. Ethan is the friend who constantly tries to show you that he cares to the point where it annoys you. He’s the friend that needs a reminder that he’s doing great things and you appreciate his presence. The friend who almost always says he’s “fine” even with a black eye and a bruised abdomen.

TWITCH

Mason Gatto AKA Twitch is a twelve-year-old foster child living with photosensitive epilepsy. Twitch’s experiences and motivations closely relate to my own. This character was intended to mirror my own struggles and triumphs within the behavioral health care system. Part two took a ton of self-exploration and putting myself back into moments where I was most uncomfortable, very vulnerable, and extremely malleable. I’m sure many artists and writers go through this process and if you have, I value and appreciate your courage to do so. There’s not much more I’d like to say about Twitch, but if you have any further questions feel free to reach out here or on Twitter and Instagram: @iMarrowsJ.

ANNIE

The character basis for Annie, as mentioned in my twitter feed a while back, is closely resembled by a close friend I had in one of these facilities growing up. She’s headstrong to a point of stubbornness and will do anything for her friends. In reality, she was, much like many others who frequented these facilities, a self-injurer that was prone to cutting. After a particularly stressful evening at home, she coped by cutting and unfortunately sliced through a major artery in her wrist eventually passing from blood loss. If you’re unfamiliar with self-injury, specifically cutting, those who use this unhealthy coping mechanism are almost never trying to end their lives, the bleeding releases endorphins which helps the body deal with pain and stress. I do NOT condone this method of coping and recommend if you are cutting to seek assistance from a trusted friend and/or adult. Regrettably, around this age, I was unable to truly grasp the meaning of our friendship as we both were attempting to navigate our own challenges. Later in my teenage years, a few of the other “veterans” and I grasped the harsh reality of her untimely death and were able to grieve appropriately.

If you or someone you know is suffering and believe to be using self-harm as a coping mechanism Text CONNECT to 741741 to speak anonymously with a crisis counselor.

If you are feeling suicidal, please know that you are not alone. You can call the Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.

Behavioral Health Center

Although an actual facility, I believe keeping its name and location redacted is definitely called for. The images listed below are stills illustrating the portions of the children’s unit. More specifically, the day room, nurses’ station, and a few extra things I’ll be sure to point out.

The Unit

Nurses Station AMFAF FILTERED

Pointing out a few things mentioned in the series. The nurse’s station where Twitch and Annie swiped pens from with the surveillance feed where Annie and Ethan watched Twitch noggin clock that MHW in the nose in the quiet room.

Surveillance Feed AMFAF FILTERED

The infamous magnetic locked double doors on the far left.

Double Doors AMFAF FILTERED

And of course…the observation windows into the day room with the bolt locked door that leads outside.

Outside Door AMFAF FILTERED

Unit AMFAF FILTERED

From the entrance of the double doors, a front view of the nurse’s station.

Patient Charts AMFAF FILTERED

Pointing out the patients’ charts tucked behind the nurse’s station where Annie and Twitch read through Ethan’s chart in part three.

Reader Q&A

Why is it called ‘All My Friends Are Freaks’?

All My Friends Are Freaks is ultimately for those who not only don’t fit the ‘typical’ label of society but also tend to be cast out because of their differences. Whether that be from their abusive past, their mental illness, or just their will to persevere…to survive. I’ve found that within the walls of behavioral health centers, especially if there’s a children’s unit, you’ll find hurt, shamed, abused, broken people; but you’ll also find a unique collection of people who actually understand the pain you’re going through. They get it. If you’ve ever said “you wouldn’t understand” to anyone, truly believing that you’re alone in your struggle, All My Friends Are Freaks is for you. It’s for us.

Why short stories?

Working mostly in the seasonal employment industry, I understand that time is valuable. Especially your downtime. I wanted to give my audience the ability to have a “full” read experience within twenty minutes to a half-hour. Specifically, with the All My Friends Are Freaks series, breaking it into three parts made drafting the change of POV’s smoother than attempting to squeeze them all into one piece.

Will all your works be short stories?

No. In fact, I’ve been drafting my first horror novel for about a year now. (More on that later.) Also, I have plans to pitch plays I’ve written to alternative theater companies around the US.

Why does Twitch only cover one eye in part three?

Twitch has photosensitive epilepsy and there is a reflex for some that when introduced to a potential trigger (flashing lights, fireworks, lightning, etc.) they will cover their right eye averting their gaze. For most individuals that are photosensitive, they tend to avoid situations where these triggers are present altogether. However, each individual could have different triggers with varying intensity of seizures.

Wait…is Twitch dead?

You tell me.

Would you consider writing an extra part from an external perspective like an MHW or Dr. Shaundry?

Yes and no. If this ever reaches a larger audience that calls for this, I’d love to come back and write a “special edition” sort of post.

Would you like to see your series adapted to film or television?

Hell yeah! Honestly, I’d sell this to a media outlet in a heartbeat under the stipulation that I’d be working closely with the writers. Keeping the characters accurate and true would be a priority as they’re important to me…and also me. Ha-ha.

How much of this is a blend of your own experiences with fiction?

Fantastic question! I’d say most of the “experiences” up to Samuel attacking Ethan at the end of part two sum up the non-fiction aspect. Although, not as “storybook”, the small things are what really made part one and two connect with my life. I remember being that kid in and out of hospitals and the MHW’s remembering my face, what my triggers were, plus the things I could get away with and how to help those new admittances cope with being in unfamiliar, and often uncomfortable, territory.

And yes…the Salisbury Steak is really that nasty. Ha-ha.

Once again, I’m hoping you enjoyed reading this series as much as I enjoyed writing it. Thank you to all my readers!

© John Marrows All Rights Reserved

 

NOTE: This is part THREE of the All My Friends Are Freaks short story series! If you haven’t already and would like to check out part one and two I will link them here:

PART ONE: All My Friends Are Freaks

PART TWO: All My Friends Are Freaks: Part Two

Stealthily exiting the unit, Twitch and I can see the rain flood the hospital parking lot.

“Fuck,” Twitch jumps as lightning strikes nearby followed by another boisterous clap of thunder.

“You alright?” I stop.

“I’m fine. Can we please just get away from the windows?” Twitch replies holding his hand over his right eye.

Grabbing Twitch’s arm, I pull him forward. Picking up our pace, we reach a questionable junction. The double doors in front of us lead to intake and the main lobby, whereas the hallway to our left routes towards the day program classrooms, gymnasium, and cafeteria.

“Annie, why are we stopping?” Twitch fervently questions holding his head to the ground.

Before I can answer, I notice the silhouettes of two MHW’s behind the double doors. Blindly dragging Twitch behind me, we dash down the hallway.

BAM! The double doors blow open followed by the hefty footsteps of the MHW’s about to turn the corner.

“Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit,” I continuously ramble to myself scrambling to open any door within reach.

Finally finding one that’s unlocked, I whip the door open throwing Twitch in front of me gently closing it behind us.

“You don’t have to keep tossing-,” Twitch starts before I forcefully place my hand over his mouth.

Keeping a finger over my lips I raise my hand from Twitch’s mouth. I cringe silently, cutting the lights as I attempt to lock the door behind me without making a sound. The steel from the deadbolt scrapes harshly against the inside casing of the strike plate as the MHW’s make their way down the hallway.

“No patients in here,” one calls out opening the door adjacent from us as Twitch and I hold our breath.

Twitch holds onto me tight as we hear the MHW’s keychain dangle right outside the door. Giving the handle a try, the MHW then rotates through a couple of keys. My jaw moves nervously as the teeth of his keys grind coarsely against the locking mechanism.

WHOMP! An echoing thump comes from above as if a tree has fallen on to the roof. I look to Twitch.

“What was that?” the MHW asks pulling away from the door.

“You. Stay right there!” the other shouts back down the hall.

WHAM! Twitch and I jolt up as an MHW’s body strikes the door. Moving towards the back of the room, I begin to feel around for anything in the form of a weapon to defend us. Grasping nothing but bendy straws, broken crayons, and paper cups I now realize why they had left the arts and crafts room unlocked.

“Here,” Twitch whispers handing me one of the pens we swiped from the nurse’s station.

I can feel my heart attempt to race out of my chest while Twitch and I eye the door. There’s a silence.

“Twitch,” I quietly murmur at Twitch as he starts tiptoeing towards the door.

He stops. Turning slowly to me, we both sport a puzzled expression while an indistinguishable snarl creeps through the cracks in the door.

“What the fuck is that?” I mouth inching closer to Twitch.

A gentle, repetitive knock hits the door accompanied by the sound of someone gasping for air. Sprinting for the door, I immediately reach for the bolt lock.

“What are you doing?” Twitch fretfully demands, pulling my hand away from the door.

“They might have Ethan,” I assertively reply.

“Just be ready,” I caution gripping the end of a ballpoint pen as if it’s a dagger.

Twitch nods as I unbolt the door.

“On three,” Twitch states.

“One, two, THREE!” we shout yanking the door open swinging our pens blindly in front of us.

Anchoring my pen, I gradually open my eyes as blood begins to run down my arm.

“Holy shit,” Twitch utters in awe, dropping the pen to his side.

Both MHW’s hang before us by bedsheets like some sort of fucked-up flesh pinatas.

Releasing my grip, I wipe the blood off on his pant leg.

“Let’s go!” I holler at Twitch progressing towards the cafeteria.

“Wait,” he anxiously calls back gesturing under their suspended corpses.

“Look,” he nervously shakes pointing to a chocolate milk carton.

Reaching for the carton, I examine it closely with Twitch.

“You don’t think,” Twitch starts.

“Samuel,” I finish.

A childish chuckle carries through the hallway from the children’s unit shifting our attention. Standing at the ready, Twitch and I cautiously follow the laughter backtracking towards the unit.

“Ethan!” I call out.

“Samuel?” Twitch apprehensively adds.

The laughter subsides and lights begin to flicker as the generator motor finally kicks in. Twitch drops his focus to the floor, shielding his vision.

“Guess the power’s back on. Bully for us,” he jokingly responds.

“Yeah, bully for us. Except all the double doors are locked again which means we’re stuck here,” I add helping Twitch up.

“Unless…” Twitch begins.

“…we borrow some keys-,“ Twitch turns back to the hanging MHW’s in shock to find one is missing.

“Where’d he go?” I ask.

“I don’t fucking know!” Twitch replies.

“Did you hear anything?” I persist.

“No! I was busy trying to not to fuckin’ zombie out,” Twitch answers.

“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck,” I yammer on frantically searching the area.

“Even if he fell, we’d have to hear that. We would hear it. His body would hit the floor,” I chat to myself trying to make some sense of the situation.

“Blood,” an elderly voice eccentrically responds turning the corner from the cafeteria.

Immobilized by the menacing tone, Twitch and I stare petrified down the hallway.

A stripped, shriveled, skeletonesque man saunters sinisterly in our direction holding out a spoon.

“I told your friend,” he starts giggling to himself.

“Blood is the key to freedom. Yes. Yes, it is! We just need to bleed, and we’ll be free. Free. FREE!”

The man cackles wildly, then jabs the blunt-edged spoon into his eye socket twisting and digging deeper eventually pulling forth his own eyeball followed by a bit of what could be brain matter attached to his optic nerve. Profusely leaking from his freshly shoveled orifice, he limply collapses forward to the floor; his eye rolls from the palm of his hand across the carpeted hallway meeting the ends of my hospital socks. As if quicksand suddenly formed underneath him, the mans bare and bloodied corpse sinks into the floor.

“Twitch…did you see that?” I stammer running towards the renewed carpet floor.

“Where’d he go? Where the fuck did he go!?” I scream in frustration as panicked tears start rolling down my face.

“Twitch! Twitch? Twitch, where are you?” I call out down both ends of the empty hallway.

“ANNIE!” Twitch cries back.

“Twitch! Twitch, I’m coming!” I shout out grabbing his pen and the keys from the belt loop of the remaining MHW.

Sprinting back towards the children’s unit, I turn the corner to see the parking lot continue to flood and winds tear branches into the roads. The lightning has seemed to subside, but the thunder lingers in the form of a constant rumble. Reaching the double doors at the entrance of the unit I swipe the electronic key fob disengaging the magnetic locking strip. Lightly pushing the doors open, I warily slide my body through. The unit is still. Abandoned it seems. Hurriedly making rounds of the children’s unit I’m surprised to find no one in the day room and all of the patient rooms open and empty.

“Code blue children’s unit. Code blue children’s unit,” an unknown voice states over the hospital intercom.

BAM! The unit doors fly open. Hoisting myself over the service desk of the nurse’s station, I hide as the intimidating steps quickly pass towards the quiet room. Staying low, I crawl towards the edge of the station checking to see if the coast is clear. No sign of any MHW’s, I pop my head up staring closely at the surveillance feed from the quiet room. A few nurses and MHW’s stand calmly in unison around the patient restrained to the table. Unable to make out who the patient is through a greyish blur on the monitor, I wipe the screen with my hand. The blur persists and begins to spread around the quiet room like smoke. Arms by their sides, heads bowed towards the patient, the fumes trail up their chests into their nostrils.

“TWITCH!” I exclaim as the smoke clears his body.

“AHHHH!” an earsplitting shriek carries through the unit over the hospital intercom.

Placing my hands over my ears, I wince and cower under the desk until the shrilling screech eventually halts. Once again, my eye line meets the edge of the nurse’s station taking a quick look around. Skimming back over the surveillance camera, Twitch struggles alone against the restraints. Hastily making my way towards the quiet room, the handle singes my skin. Glimpsing through the square observation window I can see Twitch continue to writhe as the floor around him becomes engulfed in flames. Grabbing a washcloth from a patient’s room, I wrap it tightly around my hand approaching the quiet room door. Samuel stands guard defending the chaos he has produced.

“It’s over Annie,” he calmly starts.

“Move Samuel,” I state, readying my stance.

“Soon, all will be clear,” he continues.

“Just bleed. Just bleed and you too will be free,” he finishes chuckling madly to himself.

“You first,” I spring forward pulling Twitch’s pen from behind me.

Stabbing mercilessly, I continuously dig the pen into his lower abdomen until my arm grows weak. Releasing my grip, his body falls lifeless over mine. Shoving his corpse to the floor, I shudder at what I’ve done.

“Ethan,” I murmur through my immediate grief.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry Ethan,” I whimper kneeling to his side.

“Annie,” he faintly returns.

“Bleed. Bleed and you’ll be free,” he demonically snickers unveiling his rotted teeth and uninviting eyes.

I begin crawling backward as he continues to snigger gradually descending into the floor. The flames inside the quiet room cease.

“Twitch,” I jump to my feet pulling the door open running to his side.

Releasing each restraint one by one, Twitch lays unresponsive on the bed.

“Twitch. Twitch, c’mon get up,” I shout unlatching the final restraint.

“You’ve never walked away from anything in your life. Get up!” my tears pile onto his chest.

Goddamnit Twitch! Please! Please, get up. Please,” I lay over him continuing to sob.

In this moment. I feel it’s only us. In this room. In this moment. In this life. Together. Collectively as close and as far apart as we can be. I can hear his heart hang on by a thread and his lungs attempt to fill with air. The rise and fall in his chest keeps me hopeful as I continue to lay there beside him.

Groggily awakening, Twitch turns his body towards me rubbing his eyes with one hand. My remaining tears fall off my cheeks around my grateful smile.

“I know, Twitch. I know, but you gotta get up. Let’s go, I’ll help you up,” I encourage helping him up.

Carefully roaming the children’s unit, I gather some items from the nurse’s station while Twitch uses the bathroom. Noticing our charts behind me, I decide to peruse through while we have a moment to rest. Our charts hold all the information about us during our stay here, or in Ethan, Twitch and I’s case, stays. From admittance evaluation to medications, to outbursts and sedations, what time we fall asleep, how much we ate for breakfast, heck there’s even a number of bathroom visits on here. Little overkill if you ask me. The most important thing listed, however, is the patient’s potential discharge date. That’s all people care about when they’re leaving. For us, the veterans, that’s not something we tend to look forward too. This is our home, for now. And we all seem to be alright with that.

Pulling Ethan’s chart from the shelf, I can’t help but feel upset. Out of the three of us, Ethan was the least happy to be here. He didn’t feel he belonged anywhere. You know how when you’re upset and you tell people “you wouldn’t understand,” well the only person I genuinely believed was Ethan. His feelings seemed so complex and genuine in the most extreme ways.

“Patient has shown willingness to participate in their treatment plan and has voluntarily complied with prescribed medications. Recommended for discharge within the next week,” I read to myself.

“Where to now?” Twitch asks.

“Nowhere,” I blow Twitch off, hiding some tears with a sniffle.

“Well…we can’t just stay here, can we? Whose chart is that?” he returns.

“No one’s, alright!?” I snidely snap back tossing Ethan’s chart aside.

“You saw him too, didn’t you?” Twitch sympathetically expresses to my back.

“I thought I was just seeing things. Or…I don’t know, that I might have died,” he tries to explain getting a bit emotional.

“He was trying to help me in the quiet room. But he just…it wasn’t him. I think. I think I just really wanted it to be,” he finishes.

“It wasn’t,” I snap again.

“Ethan’s gone. So, let’s just focus on getting outta here alive,” I end continuing towards the unit doors.

“Since when are we trying to get out?” Twitch calls back.

“Where would we go?” he follows.

“What are you even talking about?” I step back.

“Even if the weather was on our side, which it’s not, where would we go if we get out?” he persists.

“I haven’t gotten that far ye-,” I try to reply.

“Home, right? You would go home, and I would just wander the road until the police pick me up,”

“Twitch, that’s not what we’re going to do-,”

“I’m tired, Annie. Tired of just hopping home to home only to get placed back here to rot. I’m tired of everyone telling me that I’m not good enough, that I’m going to be something awful, just another product of abuse and neglect, a loser, a statistic,” Twitch begins to vent.

“What if they’re right? Then what am I fighting for? Why am I trying so hard to fit into a world that clearly doesn’t want me?” he asks turning away from me.

“Twitch, you don’t fight for them…you fight for you. You fight just like every other statistic so that when you come out alright on the other side you can look back and say ‘Fuck You! I did make it. I’m still here and everything you told me I’d be was a lie’,”

“Annie. There are times I look at the patients on the middle unit and I see me. It feels…right? Like that’s where I’m supposed to end up,”

“Twitch, I might not have the answers you’re looking for, but neither do the people working here. People spend their whole lives searching for reason and purpose forgetting just to live and be the person they are. Statistic or not, your struggle is what makes you who you are,” I continue grabbing Ethan’s chart once more.

“And if you won’t fight for you, fight for Ethan. He loved us, dude. He cared more about how we were doing more than himself any time of the day. So, when you’re ready, let’s plan our next move,” I finish handing Ethan’s chart over to Twitch.

Twitch takes a minute to browse through Ethan’s chart while I proceed to search the unit for any extra items. Digging through every cabinet and drawer, besides a few more pens, almost nothing seems viable. Pulling out the pockets of the nurse’s extra scrubs hanging by their station, I hear a jingling come from behind. Tossing the scrubs aside, the most prized item I could ask for presents itself; teasing me with its golden teeth hanging by a thin, blue threaded lanyard, a master key, a skeleton key. Only a handful of head RN’s and psychologists access to some parts of the hospital.

Gripping the lanyard grinning ear to ear, I turn to Twitch presenting the key like a newly awarded gold medal at the Olympics. My smile swiftly fades as I witness a knotted sheet fly over Twitch’s head wrapping securely around his neck. As if he were cattle being wrangled to the ground, his body jerks back as he’s violently dragged across the unit floor.

“Twitch!” I hurdle over the counter watching Twitch reach for the sheet, he clutches the ends attempting to loosen the deadly hold it has on his airway.

The unit doors whip open unveiling the impossibly endless string of bedsheets continuing down the hallway between units.

Running past Twitch, I place the master key into the manual port.

“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon…,” the doors begin to slowly shut as I brace myself to catch Twitch.

OOMPH! Twitch crashes into me as the doors shut behind us. Fumbling with the sheet around his neck, he struggles as I hastily untie the knots.

Gasping for air, Twitch sits up coughing and gagging.

“Holy shit,” I take a breath in exhaling as I lay my head against the double doors grateful that Twitch is alright.

We take a moment to rest on the firm carpeted unit floor.

“We have to get outta here,” Twitch states.

Chuckling aloud, I jokingly shake my head standing to my feet offering my hand out to him with a smile.

Turning the master key, we both wearily eye the hallway as the doors open once more. Twitch grabs a few of the sheets tying a noose of his own fastening one end to his waist and carrying the other like a lasso. Retrieving the master key, we make way down the hallway where one MHW still hangs.

“What’s the plan?” Twitch asks as we turn the corner towards the cafeteria.

“We’re going to pick up our prescription,” I cheekily voice gesturing towards the pharmacy door with the master key.

Crouching outside the pharmacy window, I reach up inserting the key. I beam with glee turning the key as I hear the steel bolt exit the locking mechanism. I turn to Twitch with a boastful smirk. The door faintly creaks as I gently push it open just enough for Twitch and I to squeeze through.

“What exactly are we looking for again?” Twitch apprehensively jumps in keeping watch of the door.

“Anything really,” I answer opening every drawer and cabinet.

“Yeah, but…do we even know what we’re fighting?” Twitch adds.

“Nope,” I effortlessly reply.

“Jackpot!” I shout carefully unveiling a handful of syringes to Twitch.

“What are we supposed to do with those?” he returns.

“Improvise,” I say taping a few together into one badass shiv.

Opening the pharmacy door, we both continue down the hallway passing by the cafeteria. The harsh lighting from the parking lot on the other side illuminates through onto the empty tables and chairs.

“Thought I’d be more excited to see the cafeteria,” Twitch states staring at the menu board outside the entrance.

“Holy shit! Congrats on leaving the unit Twitch. What’s it been, a week?” I nudge Twitch playfully.

“Try two. Dr. Shaundry’s had a firm grip on my nuts for a while now,” he chuckles to himself.

“You hungry?” he adds.

“More tired, but I could go in for some fuel,” I answer.

“If there’s only Salisbury steak, I’d rather stick these needles in my own neck,” I add pointing at the poorly written menu board.

Twitch and I laugh entering the cafeteria hoping to scavenge something substantial. Working our way towards the line, I glance into the parking lot where rainfall has submerged the few remaining cars tires and telephone poles have fallen. A searchlight shines from above through the shatterproof panel passing right by my face.

“Twitch! It’s a helicopter,”

“Help! We’re in here! Help us!” I shout waving my arms, then banging on the window.

BAM! I jump back as a manic patient’s hand smacks back on the other side of the glass.

I can’t hear him, but I can tell he’s pleased even though the torrential downpour drenches his gown accompanied by the forceful winds. He runs off opportunely towards the entrance road.

Before I stand, I can hear a slight trickle hit the floor behind me.

Twitch stares blankly towards the parking lot as water drips from his cup onto the floor.

Running to his side, I fumble for a moment, then begin to count.

“…1, 2, 3…”

BOOM! A gunshot echoes in the distance outside.

Continuing my count to myself I run to the cafeteria entrance locking us in with the master key checking over my shoulder at Twitch.

BAM! The double doors leading from the center of the hospital whip open.

“Middle unit,” I whisper to myself terrified.

Knowing the lock won’t be enough I frantically pull a few tables hoping to barricade the entrance.

“…36, 37, 38…”

I continue to count throwing chairs on top of the tables as patients line up in the hallway viciously slamming on the glass.

My attention instantly switches towards the kitchen as I can hear the clanging of some pots and pans.

“…49, 50, 51…”

I clench my dagger of syringes circling Twitch readying myself to defend.

TINGTINGTING

A middle unit patient approaches mockingly hitting a pot with a wooden spoon.

“…66, 67, 68…”

“Fuck off psycho!” I scream.

Gloatingly snickering his glance cheekily shifts to the left.

“…71, 72, 73…”

As I turn another patient grasps my throat lifting me off my feet.

“…77, 78, 79…”

The patients in the hallway erupt barreling anything they can find against the window in attempts to breakthrough.

With one swift motion, I swing my dagger directly into his jugular, twisting and digging until he releases his grip from my neck.

“…85, 86, 87…”

CRASH! Before the other patient can approach, the window breaks as a dozen more patients stampede in slicing themselves all over the wire within the safety glass.

I sprint towards Twitch tackling him to the ground continuing to count.

“…91, 92, 93…”

Holding him tight, I feel this is our end. Even though with seconds to spare, each moment lasts longer than the last. My tears pile beside us in a puddle. A puddle that reflects not only our fight but our resilience and courage to belong in a world that so clearly tries to define our worth.

ZIPZIP…ZIP…

Bullets pass over our heads as the bodies of patients begin to collapse beside ours.

A few police officers’ flashlights direct their attention over us. I weep gratefully in their direction continuing to count.

“…105, 106, 107…”

Refusing to let go of Twitch, I feel blood pour out of his back from a new wound.

I stop counting and place my ear against his chest. His heartbeat gradually fades as other officers make their way in.

© John Marrows All Rights Reserved

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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 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…

© John Marrows All Rights Reserved

Consider helping me deliver more content: https://www.patreon.com/imarrowsj

The sun shines brightly through the blinds of my empty apartment as the alarm on my phone continues to ring. Just a mattress, blankets, and a few pillows placed in the center of my living room beside my half-unpacked suitcase. Embracing the nomad lifestyle for as long as I can. Today? It’s Sunday. As most of this quaint college town either make their way to church or sleeps off a hangover after attending that rager on Greek Row, my friends and I have our own sense of community. In the form of empty bottles as targets and shell casings falling to the icy mountain back roads. The Sunday Crew. With a mixture of interests, we planned something different for all of us to enjoy. A paranormal investigation at an abandoned school. In the thinly populated town of Elk River stood an abandoned school rumored to once employ a teacher that communicated with the dead. Most of the town thought he was just going insane after his daughter passed…grief can really fuck with your head. Once the Potlatch Sawmill went under work became scarce diminishing the population significantly. Elk River Public School closed its doors in the early 1980s only to be a rotting trophy overlooking the town with trailer parks, a general store, and a lodge for tourists hoping to enjoy the snowmobile trails or hunting season.

After throwing coffee on, I text Copper to let him know I’ll be ready soon before hopping in the shower. Copper was the most honest person I’ve ever met. Regardless of your feelings, he’ll tell you exactly how it is. That’s what I like most about him. No bullshit. He says most people from Alaska are that way. Cold state, cold people. He taught Gawk and me how to shoot guns and enjoy the mountains for all they’re worth. Hawk, or as we call him, Gawk, works with us at our day job and became a part of the Sunday crew unconventionally. He’s kind of just that awkward guy who enjoys laughing at our jokes and chips in for weed. He’s wicked smart, the youngest on the crew, and just a fuckin’ goon overall.

Knowing Coppers got to pick up Gawk, I’m in no rush this morning. We’re supposed to rendezvous at Safeway with Sarah and McKenzie around 08:30AM but knowing them they’re probably running behind. Sarah’s filmmaking experience is nothing short of amateur. Given that most of us are skeptics of the whole paranormal thing, she’s just hoping to get some stunning shots of the building for a film class assignment. McKenzie is just here to have fun. Sorority girl, free spirit, and yeah…she loves her cats. McKenzie is the kind of girl that underestimates her own potential focusing on others success while ignoring her own. That’s why I think she enjoys hanging with The Sunday Crew. Everything we do is together. As much as we banter back and forth, we build each other up twice as much. Besides Gawk. He’s basically our banter post. He’s a good sport about it though. The best cone of shame model we’ve ever met. Ha-ha.

With my towel around my waist, I pour myself some coffee, add a little schnapps, and check my emails. One of the few negatives about being a nomad is we usually don’t buy furniture or televisions because before you know it, we’re off on the next adventure. I have a few dishes from the local thrift shop, a coffee maker, an inflatable mattress, and an internet connection to watch The Office over again on my laptop. After answering a few emails, I double check that my bag is packed with lunch and any other shit I may need. Throw on my clothes for the day, grab my jacket, and head out for a cigarette. Nasty habit, I know. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to quit. Every summer I head to work in Maine, and that’s the only place I don’t feel the need to pick up a cigarette. Besides being able to work and live in many different states, a major positive about being a nomad is experiencing the culture of each place and having the knowledge of where I’d like to finally settle one day. Maine, well…that’s at the top of my list.

Daydreaming, I accidentally drag into the filter of my cigarette burning my fingertips as Copper pulls up jokingly honking his horn at me. “Where’s the Gawk man at?” I jokingly retort noticing the empty passenger seat. “He’s in the back seat, you ready?” Copper says eager to get on the road. “Yeah, let me grab my bag I’ll be right down,” I respond heading back up the stairs to my apartment. Locking the door behind me I shuffle enthusiastically back down the stairs like a kid on Christmas morning. Giving Gawk a quick playful jab, we all laugh as we head off to meet with the girls at Safeway. “Once we leave town, it’s basically just a straightaway through some pocket-sized cities on ID-8 E and we’ll be there in about an hour,” I say out loud with the biggest grin on my face. This is the shit I live for. Exploring abandoned buildings and chasing the make-believe. All in the best company.

Pulling up to the Safeway, we’re already a few minutes behind schedule and still no sign of Sarah and McKenzie. We head inside to grab some snacks and energy drinks. I’d say we’re the loudest people anywhere we go. After a few gags pointed at Gawk in the store we all make our way back to Coppers car seeing McKenzie parked nearby. “Bitch you stopped for coffee and didn’t ask if we wanted anything?”  I joke holding my own concoction of coffee and peppermint schnapps in my hand. “Get in bitch, we’re leaving,” Sarah says. “We’ll just follow you goons since you have the directions,” I shout to Copper and Gawk as I step into McKenzie’s car.

I knew we would be heading into the deep woods of Idaho, but I didn’t think about how scenic the drive would be. Each town we passed grew smaller in population, but more visually striking and vaster in land. The back-mountain roads were laced with miles of snow-covered trees and seemingly endless hillsides. We pass a practically empty cemetery atop a lonely hill in the town just outside of our destination. A family is gathered around the only headstone in sight mourning the loss of a loved one. As we’re the only cars passing through, they glare at us crossly as if our presence was disturbing their private ceremony. Finally, we pass the town sign reading Elk River. Pulling in, our mouths were agape at the school hanging over the town at the top of the hill. Some windows smashed, doors beat in, and grounds ultimately trashed. What surprised me the most was the lack of ‘No Trespassing’ signs that are usually posted all around these places. But hey, I’m not complaining at an enter at your own risk situation. Before we could even chat for a second, Sarah had her camera out making her way around the building exterior. Without hesitation, I make my way towards the back entrance. “Wait,” McKenzie says. We all stop and gather around a pitiful plot marked by torn crime scene tape, a memorial for Catherine Walker written on a paper plate, and two wooden stakes in the form of a cross. “Wasn’t she found just last week?” McKenzie asks. “I know she’s been dead for a few decades, but damn…she’s already forgotten again.” Sarah adds. We all sit in an unexpected moment of silence as the frigid air moves up the back of our necks. In a way, I think we all were reminded at that moment to appreciate our lives just a bit more. “It’s cold, can we- “. Copper smacks Gawk. “Ow, Copper. What the fuck?” “Ruined a moment Gawk…now this little girl can’t rest in peace.” Copper teases walking back towards the back entrance. “Hey, I didn’t fucking kill her.” Gawk shouts following Copper. Sarah and McKenzie laugh at Gawk as they head to the front entrance. Oddly wallowing at this poor young girls’ demise, I stay there a moment sipping my holiday season beverage of depression and loneliness. “You alright?” Copper states in a consoling tone. “Yeah…yeah, I’m good. I thought you went inside.” I reply lighting a cigarette while wiping a tear or two on my jacket. “Gawk and I were waiting for you. Let’s go fuck with the dead!” He eggs on smiling as he runs back.

Entering through the back we believe we may be in either the storage or cafeteria. Two totally different rooms…I know. It’s difficult to tell with the amount of damage around us. Long, bench style lunch tables are folded against the walls. With a variety of different trash items, mold, and mysterious puddles of murky liquid scattered around the floors, we begin to search for higher ground. I don’t know where you grew up, but I think it would be quite odd to go to a school that serves grades K-12. One school. Every grade. Even in its hay day, that’s still a tiny town. Making our way to the front, Sarah and McKenzie avoid stepping on the shattered glass from the broken entrance doors. A vintage vacuum stands ironically next to the thousands of sharp pieces. With a classroom to each side, we begin to explore as a unit. The shrill carpets are torn from the floors, some windows covered, and the inside walls lined with classic green chalkboards. I begin searching the drawers of the only desk in the room. Gawk stands awkwardly close to the exit as Sarah and McKenzie’s eyes are drawn to the view of their cameras. Copper sifts through a few bookshelves finding nothing but dust, empty beer bottles, and makeshift ashtrays. Emptying the drawers, I only find the remnants of mice nests. Ready to move on I head to the adjacent classroom. The same setup, just a little less run down. I stare at the chalkboard where someone has written “Go to the BELL TOWER” in fresh white chalk across the center. “Hey guys, get in here!” I shout. “Was that there when we came in?” Gawk states a little uncomfortable. “Joseph, what the fuck man?” Copper questions. “Guys, it wasn’t me!” I express attempting to defend my point. “Alright, then let’s go to the bell tower.” Copper grumbles as he walks back towards the main entrance. “I feel like that was already on our fuckin’ agenda assholes,” I add walking with them. We begin to ascend the massive stairwell. “Gawk, where are you going?” Copper asks noticing he’s walking towards the back entrance. “I got to go to the bathroom. You got a flashlight?” Gawk inquires. We all laugh heading back down near the poorly marked restroom. “I’ll go with you, you know I always have to piss,” I add. I’ve explored endless abandoned buildings, but this bathroom didn’t smell half as bad as most. Usually, there’s some sunlight shining through, but on the first floor, I understand why there wouldn’t be a window. A few urinals, two stalls, an elongated mirror, and for some odd a reason a shower made up this restroom. Trying to stay as far back from the urinal as possible, I take aim and begin to pee. As soon as I noticed Gawk isn’t at another urinal, I hear his stream hit an empty porcelain bowl. “Are you using the stall?” I ask questioning his choices. “Yeah…I can’t pee with people watching.” He returns. “I mean…I would’ve just let you go first-” “BOO!” Copper screams in my ear as I fall to the floor. “Fuck man! What the hell?” “Found your chalk boogeyman.” He spouts proudly throwing a piece of white chalk at me. Sarah and McKenzie enter. “You guys done jerking each other off in here? There’s so much more to see in this place.” Sarah mocks. “Whoa.” She audibly admires the huge mirror behind her. “Let’s get a picture of us all,” McKenzie adds. “Gawk! Put your dick away and come take a picture with us!” Copper laughs to himself. “It’s not flushing.” Gawk replies as we all facepalm. “Just…just get out here.” I end. Staring at the mirror we admire this moment. The Sunday Crew. A combination of fun and fucked up make for one dysfunctional family photo.

After that impromptu photo shoot, we finally head to the second level. Cork bulletin boards and torn wallpaper hang loosely on the walls. There are a few more classrooms around, collectively we walk into a class to be greeted by a rodent friend scurrying across the floor. A loud thump echoes from the classroom downstairs. Much like our rodent friend, we scurry down the stairs once again, to find a ladder has been placed in the center of the room. “Hello?” I call out, in hopes I receive a reply.  There’s none. “Someone’s just trying to fuck with us, you guys- “. McKenzie freezes as she stares at the chalkboard that now has the phrase “Go to the BELL TOWER” written a hundred times over. “Obviously they want us to go to the bell tower,” Copper says smartly in attempts to hide his anxiety. Gawk runs swiftly to the back entrance towards the car. Chasing after him we realize the back doors are renewed and the tables are set for lunch.

A school bell is heard as about a hundred elementary age kids rush in finding a seat chatting loudly with each other. “Well…I guess we know this was the cafeteria.” I utter trying to lighten the mood. “You guys see this, right? There’s no way I’m this drunk.” “You’re always drunk.” Gawk mumbles. “Hey, fuck you man, you know I hate the holiday season!” I shout back. “Guys, can we argue about this another time? We’re in a literal nightmare at the moment.” McKenzie interrupts. “Holy shit, it’s him.” “It’s who Joseph?” “The teacher that talked to the dead. That’s Tom Walker.” Walking away from the crew in attempts to get a closer look, I’m immediately grabbed behind my ear by a strict older man who drags me to a seat. “Ow. Fuck, man. At least buy me dinner first.” I whine. “Quiet, lunch will be served shortly.” He states firmly. Releasing my ear, he walks on staring cruelly at my friends. They join me at the table in haste. “Okay…Joseph, don’t take this wrong way, but WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON?!” McKenzie cries in my ear. “Don’t you think if I knew…I’d tell you.” “WELL, YOU FUCKING BROUGHT US HERE!” She screams. “Calm down McKenzie, Jesus Christ. We’re all a bit lost right now.” Copper adds hoping to de-escalate the situation. “Just give me a second.” I sit in my own thoughts for a moment going through every paranormal book, film, text…anything to get some type of answer. “Alright look.” I begin to think out loud as everyone gathers around. “We’re here. And the school’s in session, but not really. We know the school was abandoned in the eighties, so we have to be somewhere in that time.” “So, we time traveled… “. Gawk interjects. “No. Shut up.” Taking a drink from my flask I attempt to dig deeper as my fingertips tap violently on the table in front of me. “Alright…so. We must be stuck in a memory or an event. There’s a theory that haunted houses give you a look at what happened and why it’s being haunted.” “What do you mean?” Sarah questions. “It’s called a time loop or slip or…fuck I don’t know. Anyway, it’s like watching a movie from the past…you see everything like it was. Before all the paranormal shit takes over.” I poorly explain. “The only thing to do now…is sit back and try to enjoy the show.” I finish. “Well, that’s just grand.” McKenzie stands. “‘Enjoy the show’. You say that like this is some…some immersive theatre display. News flash city boy! You’re not in Brooklyn anymore and I know-“

“QUIET!” The cafeteria becomes silent as the old man’s icy voice sends shivers down our spines. McKenzie sits. “Lunch will be served shortly. Line up accordingly.” He announces. “Guys, I really don’t think I could eat anything right now.” Gawk whispers. “Shut up Gawk.” We all whisper back. Trying to fit in we all line up with the other kids for lunch. My eyes are glued to the teacher table where Tom Walker seems distraught. The other teachers seem to be conversing around him as he chain smokes mouthing the text of a book he’s reading on the table. “So…what grade are you in?” Copper asks the girl behind us. “She can’t fucking hear you moron.” I mock hitting him on the shoulder. “How was I supposed to know?” “We’re only supposed to see what they want us to see. You’re a ghost in their world.” I explain. “What kind of mindfuck is that?” Copper says to himself, still in slight disbelief. I look back to the teacher table and Tom Walker has left. Grabbing my tray quickly, I push my way through the line scoping the cafeteria for him. He’s gone. Immediately tossing my tray aside, I decide to explore on my own. Walking out of the cafeteria directly under the stairwell to the second level there’s a classroom list on a bulletin board. Skimming through with my index finger, I look for Mr. Walker. Elementary English…Second Floor…Classroom B. Knowing that the elementary class is currently eating lunch, I make my way up the stairs.

Reaching the second floor I’m pushed aside by an aggressive young woman angrily marching towards Classroom B. I follow. “Dad? Dad!? What the hell is this?” She yells into the classroom with a notebook at hand. Tom Walker comes into view. Still, cigarette hanging from his lower lip. He’s shaking…and seems sweaty. “It’s the book. The one.” He stops to look around as if it’s a secret. “He…HE gave me.” He continues to answer, pointing to the ground. “Who dad? Who gave this to you? It’s filled with gibberish; did you write it?” She asks concerned. There’s no answer, she begins to grow more concerned. “Dad, there’s blood and pictures of mom in here. She’s dead dad, you have come to grips with that. SHE’S DEAD! Georgia’s dead! Don’t you understand that!?” He pulls her inside the classroom with force covering her mouth as she tries to fight back. Trying not to bring attention to myself, I move closer to the door but stay out of sight. I feel that I should run in and help her, however, this already happen. Will my actions change the outcome? Will the time slip end? Am I thinking too much on this? Probably. Inching up to the classroom door frame, I hear Mr. Walker speaking softly, yet promptly. I can’t make out anything he’s saying so I decided to take a peek. Feeling like a drunk bootleg version of a classic mystery gang, I stretch my neck around the door frame immediately regretting that decision. My back hits the wall behind me as my eyes close and my heart rate spikes. Attempting to breathe through a panic attack, glimpses of his exposed body hanging over her lifeless corpse flash before me as I sink lower to the floor. With a miniature blade, he seems to be carving distinct markings into her body while continuing to whisper over her. “What the fuck is going on up here?” Copper says making his presence known. Tom Walker pauses his chanting and intently charges us both. “RUN!” I scream as we both sprint down the stairs running into Sarah and McKenzie. We all stop to collect our thoughts. As my breathing begins to normalize, I give a panicked recap. “The teacher. No pants. Running…so fast. All the rolls just-“. “GUYS!” Copper interrupts. “Guys, we’re back.” He says with a sigh of relief. “We’re back? We’re back!” McKenzie exclaims as they embrace one another. The time slip has ended. Still collecting my feelings on the ground, I notice Gawk is missing. “Where’s Gawk?” “He was just right behind us…I swear he was right here.” Sarah says as we all begin to panic searching around this abandoned school hastily for our friend. “Hello?” We hear from above. “Hello?” We all call back looking to the worn wood rotting from the ceiling above. “HELLO?” It calls once more. “It’s Gawk!” I yell sprinting up the stairs. “Gawk, where are you? Gawk!” We continue to cry out. “HELLO!?” He cries again. Clearer in location, our attention is now on a small closet door. We’re frightened as the sun has set and darkness resides over us. With only the light of our camera, I reach slowly for the door handle opening it swiftly. A frigid wind comes through the shattered window, inside stands a ladder and broken chalkboard that reads “Go Up!!”.

With slight hesitation, I begin to climb the ladder ascending towards our original goal…the bell tower. “Ummm…I’ll be down here,” McKenzie calls out. Continuing on, Copper follows closely behind. As we reach the top it’s almost just like an attic, but with a larger window. “There’s not even a fucking bell up here!” I shout down to them. “Who cares, is Gawk alright?” McKenzie yells back. “He’s not up here,” I reply. “There’s just a bunch dust, molded insulation, and a cigar box. I could go for a smoke right now.” Opening the cigar box, it’s filled with worn papers, broken pens, and a leather-bound notebook. The papers had an illegible scribe written in red ink covering every inch of open space. “This guy really missed his wife.” Copper states sifting through the notebook as I examine the papers a bit closer attempting to read the papers aloud, but I just make myself sound drunker than I already am. “HIC EN SPIRITUM SED NON INCORPORE EVOKARE LEMURES DE MORTUIS DECRETUM ESPUGNARE DE ANGELUS BALBERITH EN INFERNO INREMEAB-uh fuckin’ hell.” I put the papers aside rubbing out my eyes. “By all means, have another drink, Joseph.” I wave him off. “Look. There are just endless letters to her about how much he wishes he could be with her again and that they’ll be together soon. Here. December 17th, 1976 ‘Our daughter looks just like you, gorgeous in every way’. What a freak.” He elaborates. “Wait, is that Walker’s journal?” I question. “Uh, duh. He’s the only psycho here, besides your drunk ass.” He replies. “First, fuck you. Second, that doesn’t make any sense. His wife was dead well before then.” “Alright then Sherlock, guess the guy was just insane. He talks about taking his own life to be with her or killing his daughter, so they can be a family again. Then just repeats wa ta na siam wa ta na siam wa ta na siam, whatever that is. It just gets more fucked up as you keep reading.” “What if he wasn’t just trying to talk to the dead, he was trying to raise them? Through some sort of sacrifice or ritual or something.” I conclude. “Now you sound just as insane as he did,” Copper says with a slight hint of anxiety under his breath. “These markings are similar to necromancy, he was digging this into his daughters’ skin when I saw them.” “Hello?” A fading voice calls out to us. “Hello?” We both call back. “Who’s there? I have a gun!” Copper adds. “Gawk! Is that you man? We’re done playing games. Come out!” I yell.  Suddenly, our lights go out and I’m frozen in fear. Chills roll up my hands onto my wrists as I can feel every hair on my arms rise with goosebumps. A moist, rancid breath hovers my ear. Its tongue reaches out to tease me laughing as I quiver. “What’s wrong Tom? I thought you liked when I did that.”

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