The Beautiful People
Jessi sat opposite me at the table, counting the cigarettes we had left for the week and trying to play cards at the same time. Sam, to my left, dropped his head occasionally to look at his cards, or perhaps to check that they’re still there. I rolled up my sleeves; the heat in there was getting at me. Nobody even noticed the perpendicular pink lines running up my wrists anymore, evidence of a childhood now either lost or forgotten through years of medication and therapy.
On a clear day you could see as far as the mountains from the small window in our rec. room. Our fifth floor bird’s-eye view of the town gave us a taste of the imaginary freedom we all hoped we would eventually have with the help of the colorful pills and clear injections they loved so much to give us. I would stand for hours, sometimes until my feet hurt, just watching.
Watching Mrs. Johnson bring her elderly neighbors bread in the mornings, Mrs. Morton bring her neighbor’s husband home at noon after tiring him out the night before, Ms. Clayton bringing her children to school along the cracked pavement the government never bothered to fix as Mr. Jones kisses his wife and new baby goodbye and heads off to work in his beat-up station-wagon. I knew them all, had given them all names and I knew their routines off by heart.
Past them, over the hill, next to the spirit gardens were the big houses, complete with their own pools, terraces, balconies and occasionally a tennis court or two thrown in for good measure. Away from the white picket fenced suburban lifestyle the others were accustomed to, the beautiful people lived out their lives of silver BMWs, Gucci shoes and important-meetings-not-to-be-missed, while we looked on, envious. We believed to get out there you had to be a beautiful person.
Inside was a different story. Our mustard colored walls, gray table and chairs and brown linoleum floor hardly mirrored the harmony and beauty of the outside world. Boredom and suicide were the most common causes of death. Hell, you’d kill yourself just to have something to do around there. We couldn’t watch the black and white TV because the schizo’s were always watching ‘Oprah’ and once we’d grown reluctantly tired of our four hour eye-spy game we’d have to sit and be bored or dream and wonder. Sometimes, when we felt up for it, we searched for the fifty-second card because Chloe, wherever she was, had the nine of diamonds with her.
Nurse Nina always told us, “Curiosity killed the cat.”
Jessi always replied, “Curiosity never killed anything but a few hours.”
She later broke her leg exploring the rooftops and never disputed the curious cats again.
Sammy was from the floor underneath us. He was eighteen at the time just like me. We’d always joke if we rearranged the letters in his name I could call him ‘My Sam’. The thing I remember most about him is the way his hair flopped over his eyes in a curtain style when he looked down to pick up his cards. I loved him for that but like all the greats in there, he had a flaw: Danny. You could never have Sam without having Danny. Not a lot of people liked Danny. He was one of those people who just turns on you at the drop of a hat, no reason necessary.
On medication we could go for hours, sometimes days, without seeing him and then he’d suddenly pop back up again and havoc would break loose. He would often cause Sam to get the ‘shocks’, which would just make him cry unstoppably all day. The kind of wailing you hear from a cat when it’s been hit by a car and is slowly dying. Those days were pretty boring. He wouldn’t come to visit, just sit in his warm, unventilated single room with his demon.
Jessi eventually picked up her cards and started to play the game. She put a card down and picked one up. She put another card down and picked one up. She paused, put one more card down, slammed her hand on the table and screamed, “SNAP!!!”
I looked up at her.
“We’re playing rummy.”
Sam shot up from his chair, knocking it with a clatter to the floor. Jessi glanced up at him, unimpressed.
“We’re playing snap!!!” bellowed Sam, angrily, “Snap!!!”
He grabbed the end of the table and flipped it over. The cigarettes rolled along the ground while the cards slid across the linoleum onto the tiles. I could see the orderlies out of the corner of my eye running cautiously towards us. Sam took a step closer to me. His eyes wide and possessed.
“Snap! We were playing snap!!!” he said, slapping me across the face.
The sting of his palm touching my face made me yelp so loud it caused Sam to cry ‘Danny, it was Danny’ over and over again as the two orderlies jumped him, digging a needle into his arm and dragging him away. I stood still, surveying the mess on the floor. Jessi, emotionless, looked at me.
“I don’t think we have enough cigarettes to last the week.” she said.
A few days later, I waited for Sam to come down as usual, beside the sliding doors that led onto our floor, but that’s all I found myself doing, waiting.
The oh-so-familiar sound of the doors opening made me look up. Crazy Chester had come down to see Juliet. I looked back down at the ground, disappointed. He stopped to talk to me. I must have looked lonely sitting with my cigarette in my hand on the chessboard floor that could probably have given you a kidney infection if you sat too long.
“Why so glum?” he said, trying to look at my face, which was hidden behind my hair.
“Sam’s not here yet,” I explained, staring at the ground like I’d never seen black and white tiles before.
Chester said he hadn’t seen him all day and he didn’t know where he could be but he’d check and get back to me. Crazy Chester never came back and I sat, once again, alone, waiting.
After the sun rose three times I got permission to go down to the fourth floor. Clocks are non-existent in our world. The ticking of time moving so slowly can drive you even more crazy.
I walked down his hall, past the rooms full of men with issues, past the nurses’ station, their rec. room, mustard, gray, brown, black TV, different view, and on down to Sam’s room. I called his name like a little girl looking for her lost puppy. Optimism is apparently more common in the young.
I turned the corner to his room and found nothing. An empty bed stripped to the mattress and a wardrobe with five empty wooden hangers in it. No clothes on the floor. No picture of his mother, father and little sister in it’s silver frame sitting at his bedside. No CDs decorating the floor. No Sam.
Maybe they moved him. I asked his Head Nurse, a stocky woman with a mustache (think female Hitler and you’re along the right lines), but she said it would be in my ‘best interest’ to return to my own floor. She was a sketchy woman who made me think maybe she was popping some of the ward’s pills. I’d seen her in my doctor’s office a few times and, in the years that followed the entire world would know her name. An escort was called to bring me back to my floor like I was on restriction and left me in the hands of Nurse Nina. I immediately ran to talk to Jessi.
By Christmas I was getting really agitated. They had changed my medication, Sam was still missing and my parents had decided to go to Cleveland for the holidays.
‘Cleveland!’, I thought, when Nurse Nina passed on the news. Mother would never talk to me directly. What the hell was in Cleveland I don’t know but off they went and I stayed and watched the celebrations from the small window.
I was watching Ms. Clayton and her eldest children drag a Christmas tree up the unshovelled, snow covered pavement when Crazy Chester came back to me.
“I found where Sam is,” he stated. I turned quickly to face him.
“Where? Where is he?”
Crazy Chester turned me back around and pointed out the window past the mesh wiring that kept the world safe from our antics.
“Word in the ward is they came for him. In the dead of night they walked. He’s out there. Right there,” he said, pointing to three squares, which were filled by the spirit gardens.
“Why?” I asked, extremely let down.
“Danny. They say it was Danny,” he replied, trailing off at the sight of his fair Juliet.
I stared at the spirit gardens. They didn’t seem too far away looking out the window so I went to Nurse Nina to ask could we maybe go on an escorted excursion. When she said no I screamed and she threw me in solitary for nine hours.
When I emerged I had a plan…I was breaking out. I ran my idea past Jessi who loved it and said she would help all she could. If ever there was one for delinquency, she was it. We went to see Judy, the practicing kleptomaniac, to see if she had anything we could use. As she rustled through an amazing amount of stuff, I looked around. Her room was like being back in the evidence lock-up at the police station where my father worked.
I was in the middle of wondering if she ever did inventory when she emerged from her wardrobe with two silver spoons which she handed to us and smiled, convinced she had found what we were looking for. I raised my eyebrows sceptically and looked at Jessi, then at the spoon, which I could see my reflection upside down in, and then at Judy.
“And what exactly are we suppose to do with these?” Jessi asked, waving her spoon around like a flag on Mardi Gras.
“You’re gonna dig a tunnel.” Judy said.
“We’re five floors up.” I said, trying not to sound like that was the most obvious thing in the world.
“A very large tunnel.” Judy continued.
Our main plan was thought up by Jessi. She noted that on New Year’s Eve every year the nurses always had a very loud countdown while we were allowed, for the only time during the year, to wander the halls until the bells rang out for one a.m..
The snow was gone by this stage and the cracks in the pavement were filled with water from all the rain we had been having. Jessi said the perfect time to go would be during the nurse’s countdown.
For days beforehand we sat by the sliding doors and waited and watched to see if we could get the code to open the doors after hours. Eventually we managed to get it. Nurse Sophie was young and stupid enough to key in the code while we were staring at her. No one ever knew it was her that gave us the code although come the following summer it wouldn’t matter anyway. Nurse Sophie would soon have to leave the hospital having accidentally given an overdose to Judy and killing her.
I stared out the window until the beautiful people’s houses lit up in a blaze of colored twinkling lights and then I studied the path to the spirit gardens. Jessi wrote the code on my arm because knowing me I’d forget it and mess the whole plan up, Judy gave me a spoon for luck and they both bid me goodbye.
Ten…nine…eight…key in the code, swoosh! My heart raced…I ran down the hall, down all the steps. I had to be fast, my checks time was 12:15 and they’d notice I was gone. Jessi would stall but not for long. I dropped to my knees, crawled along the ground floor like a spider, and out the front door. I was free, for now.
The cold outside hit me like a ton of bricks falling from the sky. I didn’t bring a coat because there wasn’t time. I just had my white top and faded blue jeans on. I started to run.
It was so dark and cold. The grounds seemed different, bigger and I was running all over the place. Zigzag, up, down, I stumbled a bit. I started to cry. I could feel my hot tears streaming down my face but I never stopped running as I climbed the hill. I slipped on my way up though and I got mud all over my right knee. I picked myself back up quickly by gripping the wet grass and reached the top.
My view! I could see it! I could see the colored twinkling lights! The spirit gardens were near them. All I had to do was head towards them and I’d be okay. Lights started behind me. Little lights, like fairies in the children’s books they kept in the ward library for us to read, as if giving us a book with an adult theme would be our undoing. I imagined they were coming to help me, to guide me on my journey. I turned around and stared back down the hill, back towards the hospital. Perhaps they knew where I was going and what I was looking for, I thought.
“Kirsty! Kirsty!” I heard the fairies shout.
They knew me! They knew my name! They were going to help me. I started to wander toward them. As I got closer things seemed less fuzzy. The fairies were big with flashlights.
“Kirsty!” I heard them say.
“Nurse Nina?” I said, squinting my eyes to get a better view. “You’re not fairies!”
I screamed and turned to run towards the colored lights again.
Over the hill I glanced back. My fairies’ flashlights were jiggling up and down fast as they ran after me. It had started to rain by now. First they were just little droplets that shone silver when they caught the light but now they were cold, hard beads batting again my warm skin. I was getting tired so when my colored lights were closer than my fairies’ lights I slowed down and then I stopped to look around.
On one side I could hear the beautiful people cheering and drinking their problems away, toasting the New Year and all it entails. Over the noise I could hear the bells ringing and I thought of Jessi and the others heading off to bed wondering where I was and if I was okay. On the other side I could see the gates of the spirit gardens. They were high and had spikes at the top. It was like I could get so far and then something would get in the way and I would have to give up. My doctor had always told me you could never fail until you gave up so, with the image of that small, balding man with the tiny eyes saying that in his perfect-for-a-drag-queen voice in mind, I walked over to the gates and stuck my head in between the bars to look around.
Through the darkness I could see the sleeping flowers and the cold headstones that had no idea they were entering a new year. I thought my head was stuck when I was trying to pull it out. My heart raced again and, hearing my name breaking the spirits’ silence, I felt like I swallowed a butterfly.
Finally with my head free, I shook the gates in a frenzy, all the while screaming Sam’s name as if he was going to come and open them with a key. The lock on the gate broke, though, and I was catapulted into the gardens, falling flat on my face onto the muddy ground. Spitting out wet, horrible grass all I could think of was finding Sam. He was sitting somewhere, waiting on me to find him and walk back to the hospital with the fairies. We’d play our card games and things would return to normal.
Fear was creeping up on me slowly as I felt alone and couldn’t find Sam. I could see the fairies’ lights dancing among the trees and realized that they were in the garden with me. I was looking around for any indication that Crazy Chester was right when I suddenly felt the ground disappear from under me. As I fell I thought of Alice in Wonderland and how she fell into a different world. Not necessarily a better world but a different one, where she followed the white rabbit, had a bit of fun, made new friends and then went home. She was trying to find the way and maybe this new world would help me find my way.
I hit the ground with a thump. It didn’t hurt because the ground was quite soft. It was darker and enclosed. Claustrophobia was starting to set in before I saw the opening at the top. It was a rectangular hole and the sides were all muddy and wet. Water had gathered at the bottom like a paddling pool I had when I was little. Now I had an extra problem, I was even more alone, didn’t have Sam and was trapped in some sort of odd placed hole in-the-ground. Looking back on it now, it makes so much sense but at the time I just couldn’t fathom who would dig a hole there.
After several attempts and a severely bruised foot, I climbed out and crawled onto the grass. I was sitting on the ground, nursing my sore foot, when I looked to my left and saw a row of headstones. I crawled over to the first one and brushed the leaves off it so I could see what it said: ‘Chloe James’. I suddenly wanted to go back down the hole. I was wondering if maybe she had our nine of diamonds down there with her when I heard Nurse Nina and jumped to my feet.
I tried to run but my foot was sore. Nurse Nina started to run straight after me, following my path exactly. If Chloe was in the ground maybe Sam was in the ground too. Maybe that’s where he was. Maybe that’s where I’d find him. I started looking at each headstone as I passed them. All the names. Some I knew from the wards, some I’d never heard of, some were young, old, maybe tall, thin, fat, small. Some could have been geniuses, some idiots I’m sure. Men, women, children of all ages. Then suddenly I stopped.
“Sam!” I gasped.
I dropped to my knees and stared at his name engraved forever in stone. ‘Samuel Daniel Jones. 1973-1991′ I read. I started clawing at the ground, maybe trying to dig him up to free him from his wooden cage. I thought about running.
“Kirsty…” said Nurse Nina, in a soft voice.
She went to put her hand on my shoulder but I pulled away. My other ‘fairies’ started to surround me. I felt a familiar sting in the top of my arm and a sudden calmness started to wash over me.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” I asked, staring at the stone slab.
“We didn’t think it was healthy for you to know about him. You two were so close.” Nurse Nina explained.
“And what about Chloe? Same reason for her? And Harry? Trina? Felicity?” I said.
They were all names I had seen and knew in passing during my time at the hospital.
“I wasn’t close to some of them. Why didn’t you tell us about them?”
Nurse Nina and her fairies went quiet.
I stood back up and walked over to touch the headstone. That’s the last thing I
remember before I woke up in solitary where I sat, lonely, waiting to see if my parents would bring me back a souvenir from Cleveland or a Christmas gift. A snow-globe, a keyring, a visit, anything. They never did.
That night in the rain I unearthed a truth no one would believe for almost two decades. It was the early 90’s and I was just the crazy girl who escaped, all drugged up, and ran through a graveyard. When the world finally found out, the headline read:
‘Doctor suspected of killing up to thirty patients with experimental treatments’
I was one of the lucky ones.
I wasn’t one of the thirty.
Although, Chloe was, Sam was…
…and, back in 1993, Jessi was too.