Within These Walls
October 12, 2018
Enter the mind of Rhett Winters, a security guard at a psychiatric hospital. When a patient is mysteriously injured, Rhett takes it upon himself to investigate, despite having to fight an internal battle of his own. As the mystery thickens, he only knows one thing for certain: things are not as they appear.
Check in Friday of each week to follow this three-part fiction story.
Claire Meyer, artist
He sat in silence, hearing all the voices in the world except his own. Rhett glanced out the window, barely able to make out the stars in the dark night sky. It was cloudy tonight, like so many others. He wondered if it was going to rain.
He fidgeted, adjusting his relaxed position in the chair. He should be walking the hallways and doing room checks, but exhaustion would not allow it. Sleep tugged at his limbs, threatening to pull him under. The last couple of days had taken their toll on him, long hours with little to no action. The job could wait for a minute longer. It wasn’t like he had anywhere to be, not really. Rhett had taken the job at the psychiatric hospital a few months back, to pay the bills. Being a security guard in the third most dangerous institution in the country had its ups and downs, particularly the late nights. But Rhett got along with the patients, and most of his coworkers, and that was good enough.
He sighed halfheartedly. He leaned back in the chair, threw his arms above his head and yawned.
What time was it anyway?
With a grunt, he pushed himself into a standing position, his legs crying out in protest. The hallways were empty as he wandered them, searching for the clock he checked so often. He shivered, and tugged on his coat. The chill in the air was a constant menace, as if a child left the back door open and decided not to tell anyone. The breeze snuck in and sank its teeth into every corner and crevice, making it impossible to have even a sliver of warmth in the lonely hours. It was inescapable. Another wonderful perk of working there.
Rhett ambled down a particularly dark hallway; the lights had gone out and maintenance hadn’t bothered to fix it. There, in that shadow-ridden alley, was where he heard it.
He knew where the sound was coming from. Cell 45. The words were printed in bold letters beside the door menacingly.
“Tick, tock, you’re looking for a clock.”
Rhett crept towards the door, choosing curiosity over duty, as always. The man was sitting cross-legged on the floor, with a smile that stretched too widely across his face. “Jonathan?” The man clicks his tongue, cutting Rhett off and impatiently shaking his head.
“Address me by my full name, Rhett, please.”
He stands, folding his hands behind his back. There was an odd professionalism to the man, it was almost disconcerting. Of course, that was his cardboard sign. Everyone had one, or so his mother said. It was rainy that day, too, when Rhett saw the bedraggled old man with that cardboard sign on the side of the road. He had written something in messy script displaying his sob story, and that was when his mother told him. People always presented their best selves, as what they aspired to be, and sometimes ended up believing it themselves. It was their mask.
He pushed away the far-away memory and asked, stretching out his syllables,
“Doctor Jonathan Weir, what are you doing at this hour?”
“Composing, dear friend, of the literary variety.”
A beat, then he grins wildly. “I was basing my poem on you actually. Always searching for that accursed clock.” Rhett looked the man up and down. He was lanky, and his clothes hung off of his thin frame, like towels on a clothesline. He reminded Rhett of a professor he had once, always condescending and much more intelligent than himself. Rhett hated him. But Jonathan Weir was different in the sense that he had a sincerity about him.
“Why write about me?”
The ex-doctor gave him a half smile.
“You’re the only one who cares enough to hear what I have to say. Besides my little fan club, but they hardly count.”
Rhett nodded. He had seen them at lunch, patients gathering around Weir as if he were a god and took every word he said as the truth. It was a touchy subject, as people with followers always used it to their advantage, however, Weir’s cause seemed a just one. He was an entertainer at heart, nothing more nothing less. He told wild stories and that was all.
“Want to read me what you’ve written?” The man shrugs.
“There’s not much to it. Simply, there are two kinds of people. People want to know what time it is and those who control the clocks.”
“And which am I?”
“Rhett. Think. I know you can if you really try. You’re a smart kid.”
Just like his haughty professor. Rhett shakes his head hopelessly, suddenly feeling tired again.
“You’re just like me,” said Weir.
Weir gives him that smile, the one that implied he knew something Rhett didn’t. His eyes were dark, haunted almost. Crazed. With this in mind, Rhett shook off his suspicions and rolled his eyes.
“All right, sure. Time for lights out. Goodnight Doctor.”
A scream broke his anxious sleep. The second scream made him truly start awake. Sun peeked through the windows, melting away the frost from last night. He forced himself stiffly off his bed and rubbed his eyes. It was too early for this. He went to the mirror only to see an entirely different person glaring back at him. This man’s eyes were bright with sleep deprivation and empty. Dark circles accented the eyes, making them stand out against his pale face. He was a phantom. Tediously, he slicked his hair back, making sure the surface was smooth. A small perfection in his imperfect world. He stared at the man once more, and then the third scream split the air.
He hurtled toward the cafeteria. It was probably breakfast time, judging by the intense smell of eggs wafting in the air. Usually things were pretty quiet in the morning; patients were left to get up on their own and wake up in their own time. It was slow and monotonous, like sitting in the coffee shop on Sunday morning. Not today, apparently.
The uproar grew closer as he neared the cafeteria, and anxiety grew in his chest.
What was happening out there?
He checked his belt, in case he needed his gun. Extreme violence was a rarity, but he could never be too careful.
He arrived and stopped in his tracks. He began to wonder if this was another one of his nightmares. A patient lay on the floor, hands folded neatly on his stomach. He was breathing, barely, and his face was bleeding badly. Food littered the floor and the walls, smelling of sweat and bacon. Some guards were coaxing patients out from under tables, while others stood huddled together by the office. They glanced around with wide eyes, not comprehending the chaos around them.
The other guards began to scowl at Rhett as he walked over to them, throwing his hands in the air. They hated it when he took charge.
Finally, one acknowledged him, brushing aside his dark chestnut hair. Rhett immediately recognized him as Leon, his closest ally in the place. They bonded over a similar hatred of the place and figured in the long run, it was better to suffer with someone else. Leon gives him a sappy smile before announcing,
“He just went wild. We’ve got it under control now Rhett.”
“I want to know what happened. What set him off?”
Leon grabbed him by the shoulder, leading him away from the group.
“Look, all I know is one of the patients said something to him and he lost it. He lunged for him and he fought back. Smashed his head on the table and gave him a bad cut. The nurses are working on him now. Alright?”
Rhett glanced back at the patient on the floor, as nurses in white uniforms surrounded him.
“This kind of stuff happens Rhett. We just have to let it go.”
He shakes his head. It was true, patients fought on a daily basis, but never like this. Rhett looked at the unconscious body once more, then nodded.
“Okay. I won’t force you to check it out. But I’m at least going to ask around, see what I can figure out.”
“Justice? Curiosity? I don’t know, it just feels right.”
It was true, the job may have been loathsome, but it was important to have some morality when dealing with it. The lines between right and wrong were blurred, but still present. Or at least, he thought so. Leon ran his hand through his hair.
“Then go for it.”
Just don’t get into trouble.
Confused, Rhett glanced at Leon.
“Did you hear that?”
Leon shook his head,
Rhett shrugged. He must have been imagining things.
“It was a whisper,” he laughs, “Maybe you guys need to lock me up too if I’m starting to hear things.”
Leon smirked at him, dark humor playing across his features.
“I’ll think about it.”
Claire Meyer, artist
The stench was strongest in her room. It permeated the whole hospital, but his nose adjusted to it quickly. In her room though, it was pungent and overbearing. It smelled of sickness and sadness. The stale coppery scent of blood mingled with the smell of antiseptic and vomit. It was appalling, the definition of death.
He stared at the old woman intently. She had been dying for as long as he could remember. She could count the months she had left on a calendar, if she wanted. One day after the next ticked off. She reminded him of a flower, beautiful and stunning at its peak, but destined to wilt.
She was oddly quiet tonight. He watched her carefully as she paced back and forth. For some strange reason, she fascinated him. Rhett had always been entertained by people, their quirks and personalities especially when they were as extreme as her. That was part of why he took the job.
Rhett cleared his throat, causing her to jump. She stared at him for a moment, her face a mask of confusion. Then she smiled brightly.
“It’s about time you came to see me,” Her ancient eyes searched his. “You’re so young to be in here.”
She stopped for a minute, her eyes staring at something just over his shoulder with a glazed look. Then she snaps back into reality. Back and forth. Ebb and flow. Her cardboard sign was more difficult to keep up.
“What can I do for you, Rhett?”
Her scratchy skin met his as she grasped his hand, patting it gently. He felt intrusive, questioning the woman whose clock was ticking down quickly enough as it was.
“I just want to see if you know anything. It’s about what happened in the cafeteria this morning.”
He was taking a risk, asking her questions, but she seemed to know everything about everyone, when she really thought about it. She was a spider, the whole hospital was her web, and she knew it. He was pushing his luck, but it had to be done. The woman’s expression darkened, and she bit her lip.
“I wasn’t there for most of it. I just caught the tailend of it.”
“It’s none of your business.”
And it was over. She knew her minutes were numbered, and she chose how she would spend them. It was impossible to persuade her otherwise. He turned towards the door, frustrated. And that was when he heard it. A whisper at the back of the mind.
It was an argument.
“What did you say?”
The old woman glares at him.
“No, something about an argument. What did you say?”
She shakes her head furiously.
“Rhett. I didn’t say anything!”
He is losing it. He needs to leave.
Rhett whipped around, grabbing her tightly by the shoulder. He saw something in her eyes he had never seen before. Something dangerous and exotically out of place. Fear. Perhaps, she was reflecting what she saw in him. Heart beating rapidly, he shook her with a fierceness he did not know he possessed.
“What are you talking about?”
She simply shook her head and watched as he stumbled out of the room.
Rhett stared at the blank wall in front of him, trying to ignore the uneasy silence in the room. He wasn’t a smoker–he hated them actually–but Rhett was itching for a cigarette. Or rather, anything to distract him from the recent events. Maybe a beer. Not dark, he could never hold those, but something nice on the tongue and smooth going down. He sat there, in that isolated corridor in the darkness, trying to understand. He knew she had said something, but denied it. Why would she do that? It didn’t add up. The old woman must really be off her rocker these days. He shook his head, desperately trying to clear it.
It was late afternoon, and time seemed to pass slower than ever. He was at the hospital all the time, or so it felt, and all he could do was think. It was destructive, having so much running through his head. It was like he was waiting for something, though he wasn’t quite sure what.
Rhett snorted at himself. He was being ridiculous, skulking in the far reaches of the hospital playing make believe. He had a mission, and he was going to stick to it. With a newfound motivation, Rhett headed to the cafeteria to rejoin the guards and inform them of his discoveries. He spotted them in the office and jogged that way.
It’s cold in this place.
He stopped dead in his tracks. He heard it again. He looked around, searching for source to the sound but found nothing but the lonely hallways behind him. It was nothing. He was imagining things. Rhett took another step forward.
I’m so tired these days.
He watches, horrified, as a guard leans back in his chair and rubs his eyes. No. He leaned against the wall, shaking.
I have a few more hours, then I can go home.
These were not his thoughts.
Maybe I should check on the patients in-
They were alien and odd.
I think she must hate-
the room is-
The thoughts began to flood his mind and jumbled together. A cacophony. He was drowning in the noise. Head was pounding. Ears ringing. He couldn’t think in the mess, couldn’t find his own voice. He couldn’t think. There was so much noise. Noise. Noise! Somewhere in the abyss, he screamed. Then it ceased. Just like that.
He realized then he was on the floor, crumpled into a heap with his hands gripping his head. Tears welled in the corner of his eyes, and he lightly brushed them away. The guards stared at him from inside their small office of safety. A single thought was shared among them,
Is he insane?
Rhett gave a small, cautious wave and limped away.
The next few days were a living nightmare. Rhett stayed alone for most of the time, trying to make sense of what had happened. He hid in the room with the whirring of the vending machine, exhausted. The office was empty, as it always was. The guards rarely stayed in the office, it was much too cold, and they were too busy to take any kind of break. But Rhett suddenly found comfort in the isolation.
The thoughts of the condemned came and went, slowly breaking down his composure. His brain had become a battleground, and he was losing hopelessly.
He repeated it over and over.
Shut up. Shut up, shut up.
Rhett wondered for a bit if he was going crazy. All the hours of spending time with the patients had rotted away his brain. He had seen it a thousand times, the descent into madness one shaking, deranged step at a time.
But no, this was something entirely different. Rhett could hear the voices as clearly as his own. No, this was a talent. Though, he had always imagined having an ability to be a gift, a super power. It seemed more like an unwelcome curse. He couldn’t quiet his own brain, much less everyone else’s.
Rhett, who was always entertained by people, wanted nothing to do having them in his head.
“Are you okay?”
Rhett looked up to see Leon standing over him. He realize, with a sudden jolt, that he hand been clenching his fists, so tightly that his fingernails had cut his palms. His friend narrowed his eyes,
“You look like crap.”
“Yeah, buddy. Are you okay?”
Leon saunters over to the glowing vending machine, pushing his face against the glass. Rhett hesitates for a second, biting his lip,
“I’m just wondering if all this is worth it. Working here. I feel like I’m drowning these days.”
“You’ve just gotta persevere, you’ll make it. Though, I wouldn’t underestimate the appeal of wickedness. Even the best people feel its pull.”
Rhett blinked then gave his friend a timid smile. He was right, of course. But that was the problem. The blackness was calling his name. And it was getting harder and harder to deny.
Claire Meyer, artist
The pain was agonizing. He couldn’t seem to rid the unwelcome feeling the voices imprinted in his mind. It was demented, having your own mind be violated by someone else. And impossible. He tried to wrap his head around it, but could not. Sleep did not come to him, instead, he stared hopelessly at the ceiling, in fear that the voices would return. And they would eventually. Rhett knew it would be impossible to pretend. It was not a fluke or a dream. He could hear people thinking. He could not hide. He could not keep it a secret.
“I can hear them.”
Leon looked at Rhett in alarm.
“What did you just say?”
They were sitting in the office, the clock on the wall ticking away softly behind them. He rapped his foot nervously on the floor as he spoke.
“Look, I know it sounds crazy, but hear me out.”
Rhett grabbed his friend’s arm desperately, searching for understanding in those sad brown cow eyes.
“I can’t control it. I have no clue when it’s going to happen or how it works. But sometimes, I can hear what people are thinking. It’s wild.”
He saw the look of concern on his friend’s face.
“Come on man, you’ve gotta trust me here.”
It was quiet for a long minute, just the two of them sitting in that white room with the air-conditioner blowing on them relentlessly. Finally, Leon tapped his fingers three times on the table.
“Please tell me you’re joking.”
“No, I’m being serious, okay?”
Leon shook his head, and sighs.
“Okay. Okay, Rhett.”
He walked slowly to the door behind him and knocks softly. Security guards rush in, many with familiar faces.
“I’m sorry, Rhett I really am. They told me to do a check-up on you, that you were acting up again. I guess they were right.”
The guards in the room put their hands on his back and shoulders dominantly. Panic began to well in his chest, like someone was in there pumping up a balloon that was too large.
“What are you talking about?”
“Rhett. Look around. That is impossible. You’re imagining things.”
And he looked. There, wrapped tightly around his wrist was a startling green bracelet. He stared at it, dumbfounded. Those were for the patients. The patients only. Then it dawned on him. He was a patient.
In that moment, he became something terrifying. He screamed obscenities at them, clawing at the air as the guards struggle to hold him. Rhett viciously jerked, trying to escape their iron grasp, but it was no use and he knew it. As the sedatives entered his bloodstream, he crumpled to the ground. He cried, voice hoarse,
“I hear them.”
He was hysterical, gripping his friend’s shirt with an unnatural strength. Through the haze of drugs threatening to pull him under, he could make out Leon’s sad expression.
“I can hear all of them.”
His voice sounded raw, as if he had been crying for days. Then he realized, he had. Along with all of the voices in his head. Leon said something unrecognizable, and a world of utter darkness seized him.
“What happened this time?”
The security guards stood together, oddly close in the empty hallway. Maybe it was because of the chill that set over the place at night, the chill that snuck in and froze over the hearts of the people forced to be there. Or perhaps, they were afraid. His partner shrugged limply.
“He was hearing voices again.”
Jack glanced inside the cell. There the patient was huddled desperately in the corner of the room. His hair, usually groomed to perfection, was wild and sticking out every which way. Sobs racked the lean figure. Jack looked away, shuffling uncomfortably.
Leon Callaway nods, exhaustion exuding from his presence.
“Yeah. It’s what got him here in the first place. The nurses gave him some meds.”
Callaway looked at the cell, then back at Jack.
“It seemed to help for a while. I really thought he’d turned a corner.”
There was an uneasy silence that sat between them, the two security guards, each invested in their own thoughts. It was quiet in the hall, as it usually was. The place was lonely, especially at night.
“It’s really too bad.”
Jack looked over at Callaway in confusion and his new partner gestures at the cell.
“He was going places. I think he was majoring in engineering in college when he started hearing the thoughts of his classmates, or so he said. His parents had him institutionalized here after he attacked a guy on the street, accusing him of horrible crimes.”
“Why do you think he went off the rails? What caused it?”
Callaway thought for a moment before meeting Jack’s eyes. In the haunting lights, he looked much older than he really was. His face seemed pale and ghostly.
“There was too much going on up there.”
Callaway tapped his temple softly,
“Too smart for his own good.”
Jack nodded, though not fully understanding.
“Why are you so close to him? I mean, I’ve seen you with him. It’s different than how you treat the other patients.”
“He thought he was a guard. He wanted to help us all the time. He actually did help, on quite a few occasions. He has a charisma about him that most of the patients adore.”
“It’s nonsense though. Being a guard, hearing people. All of it. He’s just crazy.”
Jack tried for a joke,
“I guess we should be glad we’re on this side of the glass.”
Rather than amusement, his comment was met with a disapproving stare.
“Rhett Winters may be out of his mind, but he’s a good guy.”
Callaway stopped for a minute, looking at the patient in cell 46. Then he shrugged.
“I’m gonna go check the other hallways. I’ll meet up with you after and we can grab a coke.”
Suddenly, Jack was alone in that nightmarish hallway, with nothing but the dancing shadows to keep him company. He looked around at the bleak hall and shivered. It was eerie, the idea of being around so many people but still being utterly alone. He glanced back at the cell. Rhett was still in the corner, muttering something. He spoke, but his voice was small, and it bounced off the walls with a ghoulish echo,
The figure immediately stopped shaking. A beat. Two. Then,
“What do you want, kid?”
Jack pauses for a moment, thinking about the vending machine two hallways down calling his name. He desperately wanted to turn tail and leave, as he always did. Instead, Jack planted his feet and pressed his hand against the glass.
“I want to help you.”
A noise came from him, a startling, crazed sound. Laughter. Rhett laughed at him in a taunting tone.
“Go for it, Jack.”
Poor guy, Jack thought to himself, he’s probably just lonely.
“I think you’re a good person, or so I’ve heard. I think you could easily recover from your incident. There’s- wait. How did you know my name?”
He shouldn’t have known it. No one called him by it at the hospital. He had no name tag. For the first time, Rhett met his eyes, and Jack wished he hadn’t. They were endless pools of petrifying blue.
“I think you know the answer to that.”
It was impossible. Absolutely impossible. Rhett sauntered up to the glass and pressed his hand in the same place Jack’s was.
“And no, I’m not lonely at all.”