The dining hall was a large room with five long tables that sat ten people each. A cafeteria-style buffet was set up where nurses filled the patients’ plates. This was the only room with large windows. The entire south wall was primarily several large picture windows overlooking the beach. I thanked the nurse as she handed me the bright red tray filled with macaroni and cheese, which appeared very edible, grilled chicken strips, a Caesar salad, green beans, a large wheat roll, and a small slice of some sort of custard I already knew I wouldn’t be trying. The tables closest to the windows seemed to be the popular ones as they were already filling up and a few patients were bickering over specific locations. I decided to sit at one of the tables away from the windows. I didn’t want to have to deal with sitting in someone's coveted seat. I took a plastic cup full of iced tea and turned toward the back row of tables.
“You prolly wanna go get yerself some of that sugah. That tea ain’t got no sweet in it and it is just nasty without it.” A girl with stringy, brown hair and big, brown, round eyes stood frowning at the cup in my hand. Her front teeth seemed to stick out a little and her nose was covered in freckles. She reminded me of someone you might find on a farm somewhere.
“Oh, um, thanks but I don’t drink sugar in my iced tea,” I explained and she snarled her nose.
“Ya must be a Floridian then. Ain’t figerd out why you people carry on as if ya from up north. Ya’ll are more suthurn than we are in Mississippi and we know iced tea needs sugah.”
I struggled to understand her accent but I smiled and turned back toward the table I’d been heading for when I noticed it now had two other occupants: the girl with the brown, bushy hair who had slammed the door and locked herself inside after seeing me earlier, and Gee. I faltered and wondered if maybe I should go sit at another table when Gee shot me a challenging grin. I figured I’d better stick to my plan. Gee expected me to go somewhere else and I didn’t want her thinking she scared me. I was a little surprised she was sitting with the jumpy girl. Gee didn’t seem like the kind of person a fearful, nervous person would be drawn to.
“Ya aint thinkin uh sittin over with those two, are ya?” the farm girl asked me.
I shrugged. “I don’t see why not.”
She chuckled. “Cause Gee is a nut case, that’s why.
Straight looney toons, I tell ya.” I bit back a smile at the fact this place was for the mentally disturbed. Wasn’t everyone a little looney toons?
“Um, thanks, but I’ve met Gee and she seems fine.” The girl beside me stared at me as if studying me carefully.
“You ain’t a Schizo, too, are ya? ‘Cause I need to know. I ain’t comfertable round no Schizo’s.” I glanced back at Gee and wondered if that was what she was. Did she have Schizophrenia?
I shook my head. “No, I’m PTSD.”
She beamed. “Oh, good I can deal with that. Ya’ll are easy to handle. Me, I’m Bipolar. Mama had me brought in cause I tried to knock myself off a while back.” I stiffened, looking at this friendly person with the innocent farm girl appearance, wondering how someone like her could attempt to end her life. “Why?” I heard myself ask.
She shrugged. “Sometimes I get so sad that it jest sounds good.” She said this with all seriousness and I shivered. I never realized there were kids my age who appeared normal but dealt with so much internally. I sat my tray down across from the bushy brunette. “Nice to talk to ya,” the farm girl said, smiling.
“Not going to sit near me, Henrietta? Why, Henrietta, I do believe my feelings are hurt. I may feel the need to cry right here in front of the whole damn cafeteria,” Gee said, smiling at the retreating form of the farm girl.
“Leave her alone,” the bushy brunette hissed before sticking a spoon full of macaroni and cheese into her mouth.
Gee grinned back at the bushy brunette. “It’s so much fun to tease Henrietta. Sometimes I can even get her to say ‘I’ve had ‘nough uh yer smack talkin’. Now leave me uhlone Gee fer I tell on ya’.” Gee imitated Henrietta’s speech perfectly.
The bushy brunette grinned and swallowed her mouthful of food.
“So you aren’t crazy? I’m Jess, sorry about earlier today but I’m not into meeting the new crazies who come. I’m crazy enough and I don’t need any more crazy around me. I spend too much time with Gee as it is.” Gee grinned and stuck out her tongue, which also had a bar in it but this one was silver.
I stared, surprised by the appearance of her tongue and she cackled with laughter.
“Relax. Pagan. I don’t bite, at least, I don’t bite other people.” She laughed at her comment as did her partner. “I told Jess not to get all worked up over you. I’d seen you and there wasn’t anything wrong with you. But you’re interesting.
We can’t seem to figure out what it is they seem to think you have.”
I moved the food around on my plate but nothing appealed to me.
“PTSD,” I supplied, glancing up at her.
“Ah, so they think you have had trauma and it screwed with you. What’s really wrong, since we know you’re not a crazy? What did you do to get sent here?” Jess asked before jamming another spoon full of macaroni and cheese into her mouth. I glanced back toward the nurses who had now started patrolling the aisles.
“That isn’t something I really want to discuss.” I picked up my roll, hoping if I started filling my mouth they would stop expecting me to talk.
Gee nodded and then nudged Jess in the side. “Look over at Roberta. She’s about to take out Kim for touching her plate. Ah, damn, there is Nurse Karen. She’s taking Roberta to get a new plate and wash her hands.” Gee grinned over at me. “Roberta is the best kind of mental case to mess with.”
“She is OCD,” Jess finished for her, grinning. Apparently poor Roberta’s problem was a point of entertainment. Gee flicked her tongue ring on her teeth.
“Funny shit,” she said, grinning.
“Ten minutes tomorrow, Gee,” Nurse Karen’s voice came from behind me.
Jess rolled her eyes. “Why do you do that when you know she can hear you?”
Gee shrugged. “’Cause I can. Or ‘cause I don’t like going to my room alone. You know the voices in my head get a little too loud when I’m alone.” Gee flashed a grin at me and took a bite of her custard pie.
* * * *
I was relieved to get into the bed. After dinner we had been sent to meeting rooms for ‘Discussion Time’, which meant they encouraged everyone to talk. I didn’t want to talk. I had nothing to say. It had grown so tiresome that I’d found myself watching out for wandering souls. After no sign of one for hours, I realized I hadn’t seen one since I stepped foot into the house. Apparently souls were scared of this place. I couldn’t blame them. I could hear the waves crashing outside and I hoped that was the only sound I heard tonight.
As if on cue, I heard a muffled scream. I cringed and buried myself under the covers. It wasn’t that they scared me, but I hurt for them. They truly dealt with things I didn’t understand. Another scream echoed down the hall. Someone had opened their door and set their terror loose. I glanced back at my door to make sure I’d locked it. A nurse was talking to the screamer and several doors opened and closed.
“I’m never going to be able to sleep,” I mumbled into the darkness. I got out of bed and walked over to the window to watch the moonlit waves crashing against the shoreline. The waves reminded me of the last night I’d spent with Dank.
He’d saved me from the waves intent on taking my life. I’d been ready for it to happen until his arm had wrapped around me. Pain pierced my heart and I had to sit back down on the bed and hold my stomach tightly in order to hold myself together. Another scream came from a few rooms away. A hot tear trickled down my face. I was alone for the first time in my life. I laid down with my knees pulled up to my chest and my arms wrapped tightly around them. My eyelids grew heavy and the muffled screams began to be drowned away.
As I drifted into my dreams the music began to play. I fought to wake back up. The familiar music was my lullaby.
The weariness from the day and my sense of loneliness seemed to disappear as the music played. The warmth of Dank’s voice filled my mind and I slept.
* * * *
“Already got a visitor and he’s yummy, yummy, lick your lips yummy,” Gee said, strutting into the library I was almost positive she never spent any time in. I glanced up from the worn leather copy of Pride and Prejudice I’d found among the shelves of books lining the walls. “I have a visitor?” It had to be Leif. “Thank you.” I stood up and followed Gee back down to the Great Room where all visitations had to take place. Leif’s frown evaporated when he saw me coming toward him. A smile eased the worried line in his forehead.
“Pagan,” he said walking up and pulling me into a fierce hug. I held onto him tightly, trying hard not to cry.
“I’m so glad you came,” I whispered, hoping the emotion in my voice wasn’t obvious.
“I miss you, Pagan, so bad,” he said into my hair and we stood there holding onto each other until someone cleared their throat and I reluctantly pulled back. Nurse Karen was frowning and she shook her head.
“Oh, come on Twitter whore this is more entertaining than the shit we have to watch on television.” Gee called from her chair.
“Twenty minutes, Gee,” Nurse Karen replied with boredom.
“I already lost all my fucking time today, Nurse Karen.” She glared and pointed a finger toward Gee. “Twenty minutes tomorrow and you will lose all privileges for a week if you say one more bad word.”
Gee rolled her eyes and patted the seat beside her. “Come bring Mr. Yummy over here so I can look at him,” she said with a purr to her voice.
“Gee, go help Nurse Ashley with the lunch preparations.” Gee glared at Karen and stood up with a sulk. “I was gonna play nice, you know, Karen. You’re just no fun, no fun at all.” Gee licked her lips as she passed by Leif and winked at me. I squeezed Leif’s hand and led him over to the farthest end of the Great Room where no television or board games were set up. It was always empty.
Leif studied me with concern. “Are all the people here like her?” He appeared traumatized. I chuckled and started to shake my head and thought better of it.
“No, but then she isn’t the worst one here.” Leif still appeared horrified. I smiled.
“They’re very entertaining once you realize they’re harmless. I feel so bad for them, Leif.” I shook my head.
“Anyway, tell me about school and Miranda and you. How is everyone?”
Leif’s face eased into a relieved smile. “You seem better already.” He touched the side of my head gently. “God, I’ve missed you.”
“I miss you too. Thanks for coming today. I needed to talk to someone from the outside world. Tell me, how is everyone?”
He gave me a sad smile. “We’re worried about you. We miss you and we talk about you all the time. Absolutely nothing else is going on.” I wanted to tell him I thought about them all the time, too, but the truth was I thought about Dank. I’d heard him last night. He’d been there, in my dreams.
“Did you bring my schoolwork?” I asked, glancing at the bag in his hands.
“Oh, yes, here you go. Can you actually do it here?” He glanced over at the two girls who’d recently walked in and started playing Monopoly. Apparently, they were having a disagreement and had proceeded to shove play money down each other’s shirts while yelling. Nurse Karen rushed over and started breaking the argument up. I heard her tell them how much alone time they’d lost.
“Why does she keep threatening everyone with time? Is that like how long you get time out or something?” I laughed and shook my head. “No, it’s actually the opposite. We only get one hour a day to stay in our rooms alone. It’s a punishment to get your time deducted. Time alone in your room to escape is coveted.” Leif let out a ragged sigh and shook his head. “You don’t belong here, Pagan,” he said, staring back at me with a frown.
I shrugged. “Just because I don’t throw fits, curse at nurses, and deal with voices in my head doesn’t mean I’m not dealing with my own stuff.” He didn’t nod in agreement.
His hand squeezed mine.
“I love you. I’m not going anywhere,” he said in a hoarse whisper. Tears sprang to my eyes and I gave him a watery smile.
“I know.” I wanted to say more but I knew I couldn’t.
“Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo,” Gee called from the hallway as she walked toward the stairs with her arms full of towels.
I laughed out loud. “She’s harmless,” I assured Leif, and then thought about it a moment. “Okay, maybe not harmless.
But she doesn’t mean any harm right now.” Leif’s look of horror returned.
“Do you lock your door at night?” he asked, glancing around as if afraid one of them would hear him and come after him.
I grinned and nodded. “But only because there’s a lot of screaming and running at night. Night terrors and the like.” He shook his head and gazed back down at me. “Please, hurry and get better and come home. This is not where you belong.”
* * * *
The muffled screams began right after lights out was announced. I covered my head and blocked out the sound. I had waited all day to return to this bed and fall into a deep sleep where I could hopefully hear his music. I thought of the times he had sung to me and the times he’d held me and kissed me. My eyes drifted closed and the music began. I fought, wanting to open my eyes and find him in my room. He was there. I could feel him. His guitar played my lullaby and I tried desperately to open my eyes. It was as if a dark blanket was over me, and I couldn’t remove. Instead of being panicked, it warmed me. The comfort of knowing Dank was with me would be enough for now. His voice joined the strumming of his guitar. He knew I was here and he’d come to me. I wasn’t alone. The muffled sounds of screams and slamming doors ceased and all I heard was the music that helped fill the hole inside of me. I wanted to turn around and face the source of the music and throw myself into his arms.
I drifted off to sleep, unable to fight the drowsiness any longer.
* * * *
“Aren’t you just little Miss Popularity?” Gee was sauntering down the hall toward my room when I stepped out into the hall after a thirty minute nap. If it wasn’t for my nights when the music came and Dank was with me, I would lose my mind from the monotony of this place. “I have a visitor?” I asked as Gee turned into her bedroom.
“Yep,” she said and slammed the door behind her. There was no way Gee had any alone time left today. I’d personally heard Nurse Karen take away two days’ worth since breakfast. Someone would be up searching for her in a few minutes.
I headed down the steps, anxious to see who’d come to see me. The moment my eyes found Miranda standing at the front door with her arms crossed over her chest defensively I broke into a run.
“Did Gee come tell you that you had a visitor?” Nurse Karen asked, frowning and glancing behind me. I nodded, not wanting to be the one to rat Gee out for going to her room. “Where is she?” Nurse Karen asked.
I raised my eyebrows and shrugged. “I thought she came back down here.” Nurse Karen stared down the hallway, frowning as if she thought she had missed Gee’s return. She nodded and went back to typing on the computer.
Miranda threw her arms around me as soon as I reached her. It felt so good to see her. “Please leave with me,” she whispered in my ear.
I chuckled. “I can’t.”
“I’ll help you break out. Girl, these people are crazy, you need to get out.” I bit back a laugh. “The Gee girl is a nut case and she did not come back down those stairs. I was watching her. If she didn’t come back down with you promptly I was coming up to avenge you.” I laughed out loud this time.
“Come on over here and we can talk.” I took her hand and led her back to where I had sat with Leif two days ago.
Miranda glanced back at the stairs. “She still hasn’t come back down. Maybe you need to tell the nurse,” Miranda hissed from behind me. I sat down in a chair and pointed at the one beside me.
“No, I’m not telling Karen anything. Gee isn’t bad. She really likes to leave an impression. It’s more about attention with her. And I don’t want to be the one to rat her out. She likes me and I’d like to keep it that way. I’ve seen what she does to the people she doesn’t like.” Miranda’s brown eyes grew big and round. I smiled reassuringly. “Things a school bully would do, not an axe murderer, calm down.” Miranda seemed to relax a little and crossed her legs in front of her then leaned forward to stare at me closely. “So, they are being okay to you here? The crazies like you and no one is mistreating you? Because if they are I’m going to take them down. There isn’t a mental around here gonna mess with my girl. I got your back.” Her fierce expression warmed me.
I smiled. “Everyone is great, but thanks for the support.” She peered over her shoulder at Nurse Karen, “I hope the other nurses pay more attention to the mental cases than that one does. Do you know she’s playing around on Twitter?”