august 27th, 1967
'fire has but one purpose.' you close your eyes. 'to burn.'
you sit on the edge of my bed.
an unlit cigarette is perched between your lips.
in your hands, you hold a pack of matches.
i watch with swollen eyes. 'i suppose.'
you open the matchbox and pull a single match.
your hands are steady as you strike it.
flame explodes to life, dancing atop its thin roost.
you light the cigarette. take a drag. exhale.
the smoke is thick. the tension is thicker.
'i'm not supposed to smoke in my room,' i complain. 'you'll get me in trouble.'
you shrug. open the matchbox. flick a match over to me.
'might as well make it count.'
i catch it, but i don't move.
the dim ceiling lights catch the blue of your eyes. you nod.
i stare back at you. 'you didn't give me a cigarette.'
'who cares?' you blow a ring of smoke into the air with expert precision.
you toss the matchbox over. it lands on the desk next to me. 'light it.'
my hands tremble.
i strike the match once, twice, three times before it finally catches fire.
i stare into its warmth, mesmerized.
within my fingers, i hold salvation. i hold destruction.
i look back up at you. the flame flickers deep within your eyes.
you meet my gaze.
'what?' my throat is dry.
the fire sucks the moisture straight from my body.
soon, i'll be no more than a dessicated husk.
you rise from the bed.
tuck the cigarette between your fingers.
place a hand on my shoulder.
'it's time to let go.'
the flame has burned its way down the match.
it's unbearably hot on my fingertips.
i swallow. look back at you. look back at the match.
i know what i've chosen.
i let go.
the match falls to the carpet.
a small flame flickers atop the shag, but i don't stomp it out.
you don't either.
it grows. and it grows. and it grows.
september 5th, 1967
i can't find you.
there's too many tubes in ungodly places.
more people than i've ever seen.
but not one of them is you.
they've got me strapped to this bed.
i keep telling them to stop, but they don't listen.
it hurts. god, it hurts.
where are you?
september 13th, 1967
a man with a shiny badge comes into the room.
he says his name is marvin.
i don't like him.
he looks like a sheep.
sheep make me think of your fluffy hair.
and thinking about you hurts.
marvin wants to know why i did it.
i tell him the truth.
i tell him you told me to.
he asks who you are.
i tell him.
there's a woman in the corner.
she's familiar, but i can't place her face.
she holds a tissue to her eyes.
she shakes her head at the mention of your name.
mumbles something i can't hear.
marvin glances over at her with a curt nod.
'we'll be back,' he tells me. 'stay here.'
as if i could go anywhere.
the straps have just grown thicker.
'dangerous', they say. 'for your own good.'
september 28th, 1967
i don't know how long i've been here. you don't either.
you lean over the edge of my bed.
stroke the matted hair from my forehead.
your touch is fainter than usual.
the room is dark. curtains pulled shut.
the browning potted plant in the corner is my only company.
my voice is hoarse. 'i missed you.'
you don't say a word.
'i'm sorry.' i swallow.
where's the goddamned water when i need it?
'please don't leave me here.'
the door cracks open. light shimmers through the opening.
my eyes struggle to adjust.
someone enters the room.
i look to you, but you're gone.
october 10th, 1967
they shove pills down my throat by the handful.
they're chalky. make my dry throat drier. taste horrible.
they say it'll help.
'help what?' i ask.
i don't need help.
i just need you.
they say that you're the problem.
they tried telling me that you're not real.
october 30th, 1967
you visit me again, right as the clock blinks midnight.
you kiss me upon my forehead.
if i focus, i can nearly feel it.
in your hand, you hold a white rose.
place it across my chest.
i want to reach for it.
but my hands are bound.
the rose is gone.
in its place is a thick woolen blanket.
i look back up at you.
tears well in my eyes.
your face is lopsided.
your stance is slumped.
you're not yourself.
i can barely force a whisper from my throat.
'what have they done to you?'
you can only shake your head.
november 16th, 1967
the woman is, too.
she always seems to be lingering around.
some days she talks to me.
i don't want to talk to anyone but you.
marvin sits at the foot of my bed.
he has a notepad in his hand.
he asks if you've come to visit.
i say yes.
he sighs. 'how often?' he asks.
i answer honestly. 'twice.'
there's another woman in the room.
i didn't notice her before.
she wears all white.
marvin glances to her.
she nods slightly.
'getting better,' she says. 'up the dosage.'
not the pills again.
they're doing nothing.
i feel fine.
i want to leave.
i want to go home.
i want you.
december 28th, 1967
the tubes have gone away, but the pills haven't.
they sit in bottles of all shapes and sizes on my bedside table.
i ask what they're for.
the woman in white tells me that you're not real again.
that you don't exist.
but if you don't exist, then why are you watching me right now?
you stand behind the woman, arms crossed.
i can see through you.
you flicker against the sterile backdrop of machinery.
like a flame.
you walk around the woman.
stand at my bedside.
she ignores you. just keeps talking, but i'm not listening.
because it's you.
you're pale. why are you so pale?
your face is expressionless.
a laugh bursts from my throat. where did it come from?
where did you come from?
you clutch the railing of the bed with white-knuckled fingers.
trace a heart onto the side of my cheek, over the bandages.
i feel nothing.
you flicker again.
the woman keeps talking.
a tear rolls down my cheek.
and then you're on fire / and the world is on fire / and i'm on fire / and i can't breathe / and i'm screaming for you / until my throat / is hoarse / but you don't respond
and i'm thrashing / against the straps / holding me down / but they don't give an inch / and i'm surely / burning at the stake / and the flames are / licking my body / and the flesh / is melting / from your face
and someone's screaming / and i can't tell / if it's me / or someone else / but it's all the same / because we're all burning
and strong hands / hold me down / and someone's crying / but i don't care / because can't they see / you're dying / someone help / goddamnit / get some fucking help
and something sharp / pricks into the side / of my neck / but i can barely feel it / and a metallic taste / takes over my mouth / is it blood / is it drugs / it's all the same
and i keep screaming / until the fire's gone
and i keep screaming / until you're gone
and i keep screaming / until i'm gone
december 28th, 1997
it's been thirty years.
the drugs help.
or so they claim.
i still can't believe you weren't real.
because i know you were.
and sometimes i stop taking the pills.
and i think i can hear your voice in the back of my mind.
i think i can see you on the edge of my bed.
i think i can see that cigarette between your lips,
the match within your fingers.
and i can feel the flames on my body.
these scars don't go away.
because fire has one purpose.
Joseph curled up on the damp sidewalk, shielding his head with his arms to avoid the bombs raining down on him. “It hurts my head! The noise is going to crack my head in two pieces. My arm is gone! I can’t find my buddy! Oh there he is, what is left of him, shattered into pieces! It is my fault! I should have saved him.”
“You didn’t help your friend,” the voice said. “You can’t be forgiven. I am watching you. Listen to what I say. Everyone is against you and you will be punished. Drown your pain. Have a drink and take drugs until you have no feelings at all. It will feel a lot better - I promise.”
“Am I still there?” the homeless man pleads. “Am I still in Iraq? Is this all in my mind? I want to be left alone to wallow in my sorrow. I have no money and have no one to help me.” He was having a temporary lucid moment but soon would be back in the land of paranoia and schizophrenia.
Joseph was thirty years old and had spent the better part of the last six years on the mean streets of New York. He agonized, not realizing that he was suffering from mental illness. Sleeping on little pieces of cardboard and urinating on the sidewalks was a hellish practicality. He was terrified to seek out a homeless shelter seeking the freedom of no walls. He was also terrified of the people that frequented these places. With the flip of his imagination, they could become marauding soldiers out to kill him.
Joseph picked one of the festering scabs on his leg and imagined he saw little maggots sawing on his body. His hair was filthy and crawling with lice. The movement of these creatures drove him to distraction as he remembered the moldy, vermin laden food which he was forced to eat when his supplies ran out. He was positive that they still were eating through his insides.
The psychiatric facility that he had checked into once medicated him so thoroughly that he was in a drug induced haze. He felt he had lost himself for four days before he left the shelter, full of mistrust and fear that he was becoming nothing at all.
When it was cold, Joseph rode the subways or slept over warm grates. Sometimes he found shelter in the train and bus stations until he was rousted from his sleeping place. He was shivering and lonely and all alone. When his disability check stretched far enough, he drugged and drank himself silly, causing his cognitive abilities to become impaired. Under the influence, he became vulnerable on the streets to predators who stole what little possessions he had. He was not aware that he had post traumatic stress syndrome and also a brain injury, contributing to serious mental illness and substance abuse problems.
Desolation rolled in on threatening waves, adding to the drug use which threatened to obliterate him. He felt abjectly hopeless and alone. Oblivious to anyone else in his periphery, Joseph lined up his bags of clothing and items he had picked up on the street and laid his head on the dirty objects. “I’m not homeless. I’m waiting for my friend to wake up. He’s not really dead. He’s somewhere else and I will find him.”
It’s sad to say, but Joseph was one of the forgotten ones. His untreated condition was debilitating without the right medication and counseling. He was angry but didn’t realize the cause for his fury. He rationalized that his identification had been stolen by federal agents and that they were watching his every move. Tragically, he was beginning to feel a sense of satisfaction as he moved daily around the city, trying to avoid the stares of strangers.
Joseph had been so mentally beaten down that he could trust no one. Any encounters he had had with his family or former friends had been critical, judgmental and humiliating. He began to avoid intimate relationships and couldn’t establish a rapport with anyone in order to obtain the psychological help he needed. The trauma he had encountered had encouraged his homelessness which removed his ability to cope.
In spite of his hardships, Joseph remained remarkably resilient and even creative as he developed survival skills so he could function in a reduced capacity in his little world. Although he was ignored, he continued to attempt to express himself and shared his unorthodox views aggressively and assertively to all passersby who did their best to avoid him.
“If I don’t look at him, he doesn’t exist,” people told themselves. “He’s crazy and dirty and doesn’t belong in my universe.”
Since Joseph realized that they all thought he was insane, he acted even more irrational for dramatic effect. He would make snatching motions at their clothing, frightening them even more. Once in a while, a stranger would throw a few coins over his shoulder, without glancing in his direction.
Joseph’s psychological wounds were so deep that tears would roll down his cheeks in dirty little lines. He knew his actions were perceived to be strange and he heard voices that were not obvious to others. He felt someone was trying to harm him so kept his countenance angry and cross in order to frighten his ghosts away. His hands shook as he wiped the drool from his mouth. He felt rejected and mocked by others.
After all the flags, bands and parades, where is the Veterans Administration?
Will no one help this throwaway soldier? Is Joseph destined to remain a forgotten statistic?
The Cassette Player
It’s extremely loud in here. Do you hear that clatter, too?
I don’t think anybody really does, and I feel like I am the only one who hears things.
People around me are crazy. They appear normal. The noise doesn’t bother them.
Why do they seem calm and collected though?
I am annoyed, nervous, and panicking. I want to be indifferent just like them and dance to the noisy tune. But my ears are bleeding and my brain is about to flare up into fireworks.
The echo is exasperating me inside out.
Nobody hears me begging for the screeching music cutoff.
For once, I wish someone would listen to me and take me seriously and know that I am not crazy. I just don’t like the chiming voice of that singer. The chorus is out of balance.
Back in my days, music had style, meaning, and harmony. It wasn’t just the drums, piano, accordion, the saxophone, or the brasses, but you could hear the melodies between the lines.
What happened to this generation?
How is everything that has sound is music?
If you asked me, this is a disturbance in brain cells. The sound is irritating me immensely.
I cannot take it anymore. I just can’t. The noise is getting louder. I am screaming for it to stop.
“Mr. Fletcher, are you okay?” Says a tall lady I’d never seen before. “You look disturbed.”
If she knew how the vibration is impairing my ears, she wouldn’t be asking me such a stupid question.
”What is disturbing you, Mr. Fletcher?”
She continues to infuriate me more than the damn song.
Whenever she says something, even her voice begins to irk my senses.
I ignore her idiocy.
I figured, she’s one of those hippies, who walk around and parade to any drum bangs. Otherwise, she would run to the other room, yank the cassette player, and shut up the humming woman for good.
Unless, of course, I’m solely the only one hearing and whimpering to the loud voice altogether.
Am I really crazy?
That can’t be right, because, crazy people do not hear songs, but dance to the rhythm of soothing sounds in their heads.
Let it just be a dream, a whisper of a terrible dream.
Can it be true that I am really insane?
”Mr. Fletcher, it’s medication time, ” says the same lady. This time, she is holding a tray full of cups that have rainbow pills.
Medication for who? Does this mean I’m living with wackos? am I a sick man?
No, I cannot be a madman! I am just an ordinary individual, but the people around me are the craziest.
I remember when the basement was my rainy day playground and the outside was outside. The sun and the street was not missed when I was downstairs in the must sorting buttons; all the wandering buttons saved through multiple generations with good intention for no sensible purpose at all. To my recollection, no one in my family thought to replace a button with a button from our treasure trove collection, but if they found a stray, they knew where to put it; with the others, thrown into a useless mix, another and another. The dust on top of the tins they were held in was the proof. As I lifted each lid, I would watch the dust float under the fluorescent light wondering where it would land next, unperplexed by my lack of regard for the sanctity of dead cells as they settled into a new order of accumulation, until the next rainy day.
The buttons were sorted by category, small, medium, large, white, green, black, gold, silver, round, square and unique, for hours until the sun streaming in the hopper window told me to stop, or my mother said, “Time for dinner.” On those days meatballs, and mixed vegetables would be treated the same, lined up in size and shade order before they were eaten. My brother paid attention, losing his dimples and would say to me out loud, “You’re weird.”
It is the same basement and not the same basement. When I come down here now I don’t think about the buttons even when I can see them strewn here and there unsorted in complete disarray. I don’t think of them when I step on them in the dark, cracking some of them in two, often slipping on them or kicking some of them under the rug clear across the room. They are the same buttons and not the same buttons.
I come down here now for the sensible purpose that did not rule me back when I was sorting. I come down here now to get away from them; all of them; the man with a gun, the monster with one eye, the bony lady offering me poison tarts, and the voices, especially when I hear them whispering and I can feel their breath on my neck but I cannot understand what they are trying to tell me.
“What do you want?” I say. “Go away!” I tell them that at the top of the basement stairs when I shut the door on them, unashamedly leaving my family at their mercy.
For a minute it is quiet down here and just when I begin to relax I hear my mother say, “Time for dinner.”
It is then that I reach for a button.
The mental ward was interesting.
If you've never been committed, it's an eye-opening experience.
The rooms have no doors - this includes the personal bathrooms adjacent to where you sleep - so that at all times orderlies can watch you to ensure you're not self-harming.
There are no sharp objects - even in the art therapy room, where you must wait until the lovely post-graduate hands you the kiddy scissors to cut up your magazines into some self-healing collage.
However, there are free cookies. A whole plate of them. Never empty, always sitting by the front desk. Because even insanity needs cookie breaks.
The range of folk in the ward can vary, depending on timing and who's in for what. Generally none are considered dangerous to others, otherwise we wouldn't all be together. Yet when you're recovering from mental illness it's easy to let paranoia creep in and get a bit judgey.
Me, I fit in just fine. Not sure if that's a comment on my mental stability, or just my own personal charm. I got along with the poor mom who'd take any prescription just to see her kids again outside of 30 minute supervised visits. I got along with the suicidal "incel" kid with the slashes on his wrists and the anime T-shirts. I got along with the old man who had a little bit more than dementia it seemed. None of these folks bothered me; I found them rather interesting company.
The only thorn in our little therapy group was the girl who just kept shouting at people.
Not honestly sure what her deal was - it may not be so much to merit this Challenge topic - yet the paranoia had definitely taken her. She accused the nurses of poisoning her food. She accused the other male patients of watching or following her (to be fair, one guy had a habit of "forgetting" to wear pants when wandering the halls at night, but he hadn't actually done anything and the orderlies always rounded him up quickly). She hated whatever show played on the TV, or whatever mundane topic our social worker had chosen for the day's group session. She had several opinions about everything, and generally kept herself isolated by loudly pushing people away with her words.
I hate people yelling at me; it usually triggers a visceral response to coil inwards while my stomach ties itself up in knots. Many people have a similar response and I watched as this girl beat them all down each day, wearing out even the most patient of nurses. As I listened to what she actually said, I realized how ridiculous her beliefs truly were. She had created a Wonderland in her head, trapped like an angry queen amongst cards.
Most people avoided her as much as possible, outside of obligatory therapy time. A few laughed at some of her absurd accusations. Others just shook their heads and rolled their eyes, content to ignore the loud one.
At dinnertime everyone ate together, choosing one of two options at breakfast for their later evening meal. For her of course both options always sucked. She complained regularly.
"I just eat whatever they give me so I can get the cookies later on." I commented finally, my voice pitched loud enough to match hers but with no where near the intensity.
She stared at me, her eyes extremely focused.
"You know they'll give you a glass of milk to go with the cookies too if you ask." I had gone down the rabbit hole - screw it. Here goes my head.
"This food sucks though."
"Yeah, well, it's still hospital food, right? I mean it's not like America has a great cafeteria system, I had to eat worse slop in school."
Fervent nodding meant I had avoided a death sentence. "Yeah - yeah you're right. Cafeteria's suck. But like they'd ever let us COOK in here." I got more nods, but my head and neck connection stayed intact.
She eventually settled into eating, shooting a couple other comments / questions / strange non-facts of life? at me over dinner, and I just listened patiently and nodded back. My attention seemed to have quieted her long enough the nurse on duty slipped me an extra cookie after dinner.
Because again, never forget - even insanity needs cookie breaks.
And we're all mad here.
The light to the corridor was lit briefly by a single lamp at the end. They never turn it off anymore. Not since he woke up one night, scared in his sleep, and fell down the stairs. The boy walked quietly, emptiness was all that his eyes showed. But inside his head, was chaos. He couldn't shut them out, all the voices shouting at him. Do it now, you almost did it before. He kept a straight face, he didn’t feel anything, he only listened to his head. If someone had seen him, they'd think he's sleep walking. But he was awake. And he knew where he was going. They'd told him everything. The whole scene had been planned in his head for days. His steps were steady, never slowing down, and never gaining speed. His eyes were fixed on his target. And his hand was holding his weapon.
He reached the door at the end of the corridor. Without thinking twice, he turned the doorknob down. His parents were both heavy sleepers, he knew they wouldn’t wake up when he entered their room. It was all in his plan. Their plan. All calculated. All justified. Too bright for his age, his teachers would tell his parents. But no one knew just how bright.
He stopped right next to the bed. Let his eyes take in the sight of his mother one last time. He loved her. He almost worshiped her. And he thought she was the purest human on earth. That’s why he made up his plan. The world doesn't deserve her. A voice whispered. Your dad doesn't love her. Said another. His hand was in the air, the knife hung up and ready to fall down at her skin. Do it, don't be afraid. His eyes were still empty, and his nerves stronger than ever.
The voices got louder. Asking him to just put the knife in her chest. Demanding him to end it. He reached out silently. He touched her face. She was an angel. He was only helping her return to where she belongs. To heaven. No one will understand. Not even her. His hand wanted to pull back suddenly. He wanted to fight the voices. He tried. He tried to shut them out. He tried to walk away. He was going to miss her. But they were stronger than him. A tear escaped his eye. It rolled slowly down his cheek. People in his head were whispering louder. Some were yelling. Do it. Do it. Do it. He listened. Because he had no other choice.
It was too much. It was all too much for a little boy. He let them in. He listened. He believed them. The knife was in her chest. It made a squishy sound while penetrating her skin. The sound satisfied the voices. He stood there, eyes on his masterpiece. Or theirs. Red viscous liquid oozing out from a small wound. It splayed out on her exposed skin. He needed to leave. His father would wake up. He wants to kill you. They said. He's always wanted to kill you. He would never understand. He needed to get out of there. But his plan was too perfect to play out accordingly.
Shouting. Gasping. Crying. His father, awake, and staring at what his son had done. He's the enemy. They screamed. Don't believe him. Pain, it was on his father's face. And terror. He didn't believe him, he listened to the voices. He trusted the voices.
The knife dropped from his hand. The pain he felt was too much. He shouldn't have listened. He should have fought them. No one would understand.
She sits in the room, painting a picture. The walls are padded. 'Marshmallowy' on a good day, and 'dirty tissuey' on a bad one.
The canvas matches the walls, except for the little girl sitting on a rickety bench in the lower left corner. It's her, except her parallel likeness is entangled in youth.
Her brushstrokes are miscroscopic, precise. She bends over, nose nearly touching her emerging masterpiece.
The girl in the painting looks alive, as she should. A dash of cream colored paint becomes a sparkle in her eyes. A smear of red becomes a flush on her cheeks.
The canvas is a complicated puzzle, and each stroke is a step toward completion.
A mahogany shadow on the bench's underside, and she pauses. Her spine shoots straight up.
Her face is trembling, like her veins are full of simmering water, not blood. Her eyes are like hummingbirds, shifting, darting around. Her paintbrush clatters to her desk.
She retrieves it, threads it through her pointer and middle fingers.
It's a fencing match, with an invisible opponent. A feint. A reposte. A parry. Her brush is her sword, stabbing at the air. Tiny beads of brackish paint splatter all over the floor.
Her breathing is heavy. Each exhalation rustles, like a plastic grovery bag.
One final jab and the bristles are in the paint again, an oozy pool the color of ripe blackberries.
With each stroke there is a scream. She takes her fingernails and drags them through the paint, opening up gashes in the canvas. There is no control. She has to expel the monsters.
A sunburst of pitch black, and she stops.
She observes what's in front of her. Sees what her demons have done this time.
It's heavy and chaotic. A reflection of her mind. There is no start, no end. Just violent strokes of acrylic and tears.
Yet sitting in the corner, smile unwavering, the girl sits, untouched.
I am More
If you think I am sassy,
That’s not really true
If you think I am haughty,
I would say that it’s you.
You can poke me with thorns,
You can tie me with ropes,
You can taunt me with bullhorns,
But you can never destroy my hopes.
You can make my head crack,
And feed it to a dog
But I am not someone you can easily smack,
I am someone worse than any rogue.
You can hold my breath,
And taunt me with your lies
You can starve me to death,
And yet I will rise.
My words can sound like a tall tale,
And can make you feel I am such a bore
Maybe I am just a little girl with a ponytail,
But deep inside, I am more.
He whispers for me,
from the echoes, this voice that wishes to be free.
Such a sweet melody, a song I think I have heard before,
somewhere lost in the cotton memories of the forgotten child.
A warmth crawls up my skin, to an end where memory begins.
Into the spaces between the dreams, the system behind this scene of still faces; still places.
A face among the words only lovers share on faded mornings, with faint murmurs of the flesh, a face this shrouded eye longs to see.
What is this echo?
What is this dream?
Why does he call for me?
Is it just foreplay to say no?
Or is this the path from 6 to Seven…..
beep; white walls closing in from all sides
white clothes chained onto white beds
beep; white handle draining red from skin
sharp blade and rivers of deep crimson
shadows on the white walls i could see your haunted silhouette three years ago when i drowned in eyes made of heavenly poetry and darkness like raven feathers under moonlight and ink with flecks of gold and forgotten cities an hour before dawn that felt like another universe and a thousand sleepless nights later i dream of a death in your eyes
beep; slowly the world became dead silent
existing in the loudest echoing scream
beep; kaleidoscope of lights flashed around
conscious escaping this realm to cope
in breathless whispers all i’ve wanted in this short life was to worship your smile feeling late night drives in the sound of wind blowing against glass panes and endless sunsets of cold dreams painting the faded sky in a haze for you were an angel fallen in the rain and your smile was interwoven with empty glass bottles and enchanting secrets of the universe
beep; back to the immaculate white walls suffocating space
and i close my eyes wishing to disappear in these lights
beep; between the frozen air i wanted to feel something
fresh blood, more red, and more and more and more
shattered veins and i miss the sharpness of the metallic key engraved on my fingertips that tasted yours in a moment and i saw waves the color of moonlight through blue-stained glass crashing against rough granite cliffs creating carpets of white bubbles that bloomed without ever knowing your voice and the way it broke me but for you i would go insane
beep; it’s ok i understand
i’ll never be enough
bee– you’re just a girl
and so am i
i’ll be waiting even if forever would never be enough to paint constellations in the night sky and to dissolve my hollow being in rivers of tiffany blue as i memorize every part of your existence for even after my life became a blur all i knew was you so come find me at the end of the flatline and i promise i’ll be waiting for your response until the end of time