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Stories

By Christa Carmen

Come With Me If You Want To Live

When a psychiatric unit is bombed, one charismatic patient takes charge.

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Action/Adventure, Crime/Detective, Realism

Story Details

  • Title : Come With Me If You Want To Live
  • Author : Christa Carmen
  • Word-Count : 5035
  • Genre : Adventure, Crime, Realism

About The Author

Author

Christa Carmen lives in Westerly, Rhode Island with her fiancé and a beagle who rivals her in stubbornness. Her short stories have appeared in Jitter Press, Corner Bar Magazine, Literally Stories, Fiction on the Web, and the J.J. Outré Review, and additional work has been accepted for publication by the DreamFusion Press anthology, The Book of the Macabre. She has an undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania in English and psychology, and a master's degree in counseling psychology. Christa works for BioClinica in clinical trial support, and at a local hospital as a mental health clinician.

The brick building, which may have been a fortress before the days of pressure cooker bombs and assault rifle attacks, was no match for the explosion that rocked the city block from Montauk Avenue to Ocean Beach Park, two and a half miles away. The patients of Pond House Psychiatric Unit were in an art therapy group facilitated by Taryn Turnquest when the blast occurred, which dislodged a ceiling ventilation unit that struck one of the bipolar patients over the head, killing her on impact. Taryn ran to the woman, whose name was Peggy Carey, to assess her injuries, but with Peggy very obviously dead and seven other patients to corral, Taryn left her to bleed on the paint-stained and hospital-sock-scuffed floor.

Pond House had withstood the blast better than any other unit in the two-hundred and fifty-six bed hospital. The patients in the group room (minus the luckless Peggy), Taryn, another mental health counselor named Victoria, and two nurses were left alive and for the most part, uninjured; Wendy Epstein, the older and more experienced of the two RNs, had a broken ankle, sustained when the desk at the nurses’ station had toppled forward as easily as if it had been built for a doll. Patients with rooms at the far end of the unit, who were either too low-functioning to attend or had deemed the art therapy group childish, were plunged three stories to their deaths when the east wing of the unit disintegrated in a cloud of dust and debris. The remaining staff, including the psychiatrist, Dr. Mondolski, two more nurses, and a hapless custodian, were either on the east wing engaged in varying tasks from medication dispensation to patient checks to mopping when the floor disappeared beneath them, or were victims of a freak accident like the falling ventilation unit on the still-standing west wing.




The patients under Taryn’s supervision, who had been placidly cutting up green paper in the shape of leaves with safety scissors not two minutes earlier, were as a group, approaching unchecked, mass hysteria. As the fluorescent lights flickered and flirted with the idea of going out, and Taryn wracked her brain for something to do to regain control over the room, Patrick Dufficy, the only surviving African American man with a schizophrenia diagnosis on the unit (the other, Scott Arnold, had perished in the blast), climbed onto the table and held up his hands for silence.

The pressured speech and din of the patients subsided as he spoke: “We have all seen the men come over our television sets, bringing fear into our living rooms, and threatening to rain further terror down upon our heads. We’ve now been viciously attacked on American soil. These men believe we will act no more intelligently than frightened beasts, that our fear will paralyze us…but dumb animals we are not. We do not have time to waste, they will be here shortly to assess the carnage and finish us off…come with me if you want to live!”

Before Taryn could react to this speech, the other patients flocked around Patrick and helped him off the table. Mayra Spencer, diagnosed with both psychotic and major depressive disorders, cooed something in Patrick’s ear, and he stroked her pale, scarred arm distractedly.

Taryn pushed past several hospital-gowned bodies and grabbed the collar of Patrick’s own johnny with more force than she’d intended.

“Why did you say that to everyone? How do you know what’s going on? Do you think this is an ISIS attack?”

Patrick looked at her levelly, but said nothing. Taking a step back, he motioned for the other patients to follow him out of the group room.

“Wait!” Taryn called out. A few of the patients turned, torn between following one of their peers who seemed to have a plan, and their last known figure of authority before the blast. Samantha Bowes, an eighteen-year old girl with bandaged wrists, her light brown hair shaved on one side, a popular style with girls whose ‘hot’ factor often failed to outweigh their ‘crazy’ one and strippers (classifications perhaps superfluous), reached out and put her arm on Patrick’s shoulder. He stopped and turned halfway, looking past Samantha to Taryn. The expression on his face was unreadable, and dilated pupils seeped into dark chocolate irises like an oversaturated paint-by-number.

“Where do you think you’re going to go, Patrick? You can’t leave the unit. We have to wait for the police to come,” Taryn tried to employ the soothing tone she reserved for counseling sessions. Patrick’s eyes flickered back to the door.

“We have to go now,” Patrick said. “If we don’t move out from this end of the unit, we will suffer the same fate as our sleeping brethren on the east wing.”

“What do you mean? Patrick?” Taryn shouted his name, but Patrick had already stepped into the hallway and was moving toward the only remaining exit from Pond House. The emergency exit on the east wing had been reduced to a crumbled heap of stairs at the bottom of a yawning pit. Taryn watched Patrick and his followers reach the locked exit door, and wondered what he would do next.

Other units in the hospital were accessed by electronically-operated doors, but Pond House was one of the original wings of the hospital, untouched by renovations, additions, or technological advances. The key to open the double doors hung on the key ring at Taryn’s waist.

Taryn looked behind her, through a thick haze of swirling plaster and smoke, to the nurses’ station. She could just make out Victoria and Sara leaning over Wendy in an apparent attempt to splint the older woman’s ankle. She watched Sara, the other nurse and the unit’s newest employee, run for the supply closet. Taryn wanted desperately to bolt down the hall to join them, to convince the patients to follow her, that there was strength in numbers. She spun back to Patrick, who was waiting with a knowing smile on his face. That smile seemed to suggest his conviction that Taryn’s acceptance of their departure was only a matter of time.

“Come on,” Taryn said. “Enough of this. We’re going back to the nurses’ station to wait for the police. There’s supplies there, and medication if it comes to that, and we aren’t going anywhere until I’m assured of the safety of our escape route.”

“Death awaits us in that direction,” Patrick said, the tone of his voice unchanged from how Taryn had experienced it earlier that day, but all the shakiness and the slurring quality of it, which Taryn had attributed to his medications, gone. Several patients looked from Patrick to her at this declaration like a herd of deer confronted with the instrument of their destruction for the first time, their eyes wide with terror and confusion. Harrison Ridley, a fifty-two year old homeless man who’d come out on the other side of the DTs just the evening before, shook a hairy-knuckled fist at her and narrowed newly-lucid eyes.

“You let us out of here!” he shouted, and the other patients nodded in agreement with Harrison’s demand. “Don’t keep us penned in here to die!”

Taryn’s lips, still shiny and pink from the gloss she’d applied before the art therapy group had started, which seemed both moments and a lifetime ago, opened and closed like those of a speared fish. How could she make them understand? She couldn’t just unlock the door and let them strike out on their own. She was still responsible for them. There could be suicide bombers ready to die for their seventy-two virgins in the stairwell on the other side of the exit door. They had to turn back! They had to—

As Patrick stood, statue-like, as the other patients gaped at Taryn in pleading disgust, and as Taryn’s thoughts jumped from excuse to excuse, a rumbling began from the other end of the hall. Taryn’s petal pink lips opened as she listened to the noise, and she stared at her feet, which had begun pulsating along with the vibrations of the floor. She whipped her head around in time to see the desk that had crushed Nurse Wendy’s foot pitch forward into a hole that now took up most of what had been the patient lounge, and heard screams as Wendy herself, ankle half bandaged and elevated on a rolling chair, fell with the desk right into it.

Taryn watched, and it seemed like the exclamations from the patients behind her were sounds from another shift, from some other weekend she had commuted to the hospital for her twice-a-month, per diem commitment. She couldn’t reconcile the voices of the patients, as she stood at the end of a wing she’d worked on for years, with the scene she was witnessing at the other end of the hall. Like some ravenous beast from Hell sucking its food through a straw, everything in the nurses’ station was siphoned into the pit, including Victoria, the mental health counselor who had trained Taryn when she’d first been hired on the unit. Victoria must have been struck on the head or thrown to the ground before being dragged into the abyss, for she did not struggle. And with mounting horror, Taryn watched the laundry cart, and other items she recognized from the supply closet, begin to fall over the edge, and waited for the moment she would see Sara’s jet black hair and turquoise scrubs tumble head over feet before vanishing.

Patrick’s voice pulled her from her trance. His words were barely louder than a whisper, and Taryn realized the rumbling was coming to a stop.

“You see now, what I see,” he said. “You see now, that the only way to go… is forward.”

Taryn lurched forward and the patients stepped aside for her, some out of fear, some with relief in their eyes. She fumbled for the key to the exit, and Patrick held his hands up again to quiet the chattering of the patients as Taryn pushed open the door. As the last of the seven patients crossed the threshold into the small alcove, the lights went out.

The anteroom to the unit was not spacious enough to accommodate eight people, and Taryn felt the sharp metal edge of the weapons drop box dig painfully into her shoulder as she was jostled further from the double doors. Under normal circumstances, the risk of a dangerous patient overpowering a police or security officer and gaining control of their weapon outweighed the potential benefit of an officer bringing a gun onto the unit. Taryn imagined that when armed forces finally arrived at Pond House, they wouldn’t be placing their weapons in any lockbox. She fought the forward momentum of bodies into the center of the small space, and stood face-to-face with Patrick in the murky pool of fading daylight.

Before Taryn could speak, Patrick jumped onto the narrow coffee table wedged between two chairs, the three pieces of furniture functioning as the waiting room for patients’ loved ones when visiting hours were too packed for a single nurse to oversee. Taryn watched as Patrick reached up and slid a tile to one side, then felt around for something stashed in the drop ceiling. Removing a flashlight and a thick ring with a single key on it, Patrick replaced the ceiling tile and was lowered to the floor by Mayra and another female patient whose name Taryn had forgotten.

“Patrick…” Taryn started.

“Shhhh,” Patrick replied, and switched the flashlight on to illuminate the elevator indicator panel. The elevator had begun to ascend from the first floor. Pond House was on the fourth.

Harrison wheeled around and pushed the door to the stairwell open, unwilling to wait for the person or persons the opening of the elevator doors would reveal.

“No,” Patrick said to Harrison. “We must face the immediate threat we are presented with. Only then we will be free to pursue another location.” Harrison let the door fall shut.

Patients parted as Patrick walked to the lockbox. Taryn looked on in confusion. The elevator dinged as it reached the second floor.

The key Patrick had plucked from atop the ceiling tile slid easily into the lock of the weapons drop box. The little-digested contents of Taryn’s stomach seemed to have returned to her oesophagus, and she struggled to swallow. There couldn’t be anything in the lockbox. But then again, how did one explain the flashlight and the key hidden in the ceiling?

Patrick unearthed the Glock 22 .40 caliber pistol as the elevator hit the third floor. He turned to face the reflective doors and adopted a shooter’s stance. Taryn began a barrage of panicked questions.

“How did you know where to find the key, Patrick? And who left the gun there? How do you know that it’s not the cops coming up in the elevator to save us?”

“It’s not the police,” Patrick said, with calm certainty.

The elevator chimed a fourth time. The doors began to open.

Patrick shot two of the men before the elevator doors could open all the way. The man who stood in the front center of the elevator cab squeezed off a shot that hit the still-moving doors, the bullet ricocheting back and hitting the third assailant in the throat. All three men were on the floor by the time the doors made it completely opened. No one made a sound, save the man hit in the throat, who gasped wetly as he choked on his own blood. The elevator waited for a fourth floor occupant to step inside. When no one did, the doors slid shut again. The elevator began to descend.

“There,” Patrick said. “Now we may proceed on our journey.” He ignored the showering of praise and back pats from the other patients, and pushed open the door to the stairwell. Taryn grabbed his elbow as it peeked out from the tented sleeve of his hospital gown.

“I am not going any further from this unit until you give me some answers!” Taryn exploded, her shock and fear muting the volume of her voice.

Patrick stopped just long enough to reply: “They were not successful in medicating me out of my visions. All that will be is known to me. And in wanting to aid others, all that will be shall be known to you. Now come.” He started down the concrete staircase.

Her confusion and fear so palpable, Taryn had trouble seeing the steps in front of her through her tears. She had seen Patrick’s chart that very morning, and knew he was on the antipsychotic medications Clozapine and Risperidone, considered an atypical combination in treating schizophrenia, but one that Dr. Mondolski thought was working for the patient. The delusions and hallucinations should have been much better managed than they were, but more disturbing than their presence was the issue of their apparent accuracy. It was as if the thirty-nine year old black man, who had a lengthy hospitalization history, but had not been admitted to Pond House before this December, had dreamt up the solutions to their dilemma, only to have them come true. They’d needed light, he’d found them light, they’d needed a weapon, he’d found them a weapon. None of it made any sense, and Taryn was starting to feel as if she were a patient herself, trapped by her madness in a nightmare she could not escape.

In reflecting on Patrick’s treatment plan, Taryn recalled another medication Dr. Mondolski had prescribed to the patient a few days prior. Patrick had abandoned the disorganized speech and social isolation that he’d presented with since his admission, and attended an aftercare planning group shortly before the patients’ dinnertime on a Wednesday evening. In discussing the follow-up treatment he would pursue, Patrick grew increasingly agitated when the counselor facilitating the group challenged Patrick on his statement that he had not required inpatient hospitalization to treat his schizophrenia diagnosis, and that he’d been detained against his will. Degenerating into a violent outburst in the face of this confrontation, Patrick ended up being restrained and sedated, and Dr. Mondolski added the benzodiazepine Alprazolam (known by laymen as Xanax) to Patrick’s already potentially sedating list of medications. Patrick’s present behavior was a far cry from the drowsiness, decreased alertness and concentration, and lack of co-ordination commonly reported as side-effects of those drugs.

Unable to rectify her cognitive dissonance, Taryn tried to focus on the faded pattern of Samantha’s hospital garb as she followed the girl down the last flight of stairs, coming to a stop on the first floor of the wing, but on what Taryn knew was not the ground floor of the hospital. The addition of several wings completed well after the initial construction of the hospital had led to some House of Leaves-esque floor plans, where units could only be accessed by certain sets of elevators, but not others, and where one could walk into what he or she thought was their desired wing of the building from outdoors, only to discover they were half a mile from where they needed to be. The floor they’d descended to, four floors below Pond House, was four endless hallways and another set of elevators away from the main lobby, and two equally endless hallways and another set of elevators away from the emergency room exit. Their current location was just five feet from the psych unit wing exit, however this exit had been barricaded with a wall of explosives, the detonation of which would get them to either of the other exits innumerably faster than if they walked, but undoubtedly not in one piece.

“We have to make it to the main lobby,” Patrick said. The other patients nodded, not even a shadow of a doubt in their minds as to the legitimacy of Patrick’s instruction. “They have men stationed at every other exit. They know the first responders will have secured the main entrance first. That’s where we’re headed.” Anxiety reaching a fever pitch in her head, Taryn surrendered to her desire to be guided, and relinquished any further illusion of authority. She did not know how or why, but Patrick, either despite his schizophrenic hallucinations or because of them, was leading them to safety.

For several minutes, the seven liberated Pond House patients and Taryn walked in silence down the shadowy hallway, the beam of Patrick’s flashlight bobbing staccato patterns on the linoleum floor ahead of them. Patients who had not been deemed a flight risk upon admission were allowed the privilege of wearing their own clothes; manic-depressive Timothy Girard’s windbreaker (drawstring removed to eliminate the prospect of suicide) swished repetitively, and Harrison’s thick-soled slippers pattered opposite Taryn’s own wooden-heeled boots. Quietly, almost inaudibly, Samantha sung the Rolling Stones’ ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want,’ an odd choice, Taryn thought, considering the song had been released twenty-eight years before the girl had been born.




They walked on, and though the hospital had become a smoke-free campus, and patients on the psych unit had not been offered the option of going outdoors for a smoke break even before the change in legislation, Taryn felt then, for a few moments walking down the long hallway, that their odyssey could have been nothing more than a supervised trip outside for a nicotine fix. That fantasy was destroyed at the sound of heavy boots running down the connecting hallway ahead, and men yelling to one another in angry torrents. Taryn wasn’t sure if it was distance or language that obscured her comprehension.

Patrick had not stopped or slowed at the disturbance, but broke into a jog, gesturing for the others to speed up as well.

“Up ahead,” he said. “Those double doors lead to the cafeteria. We can get through those doors before they arrive in the hallway perpendicular to us now. They are still one hallway back from where the cafeteria entrance is.”

Taryn wanted to protest, wanted to point out that it certainly didn’t sound like the men were still that far away, but what had protesting gotten her so far? Every time she had hesitated, unsure of the pragmatism in following a paranoid schizophrenic, she had made things worse. Wendy, Sara, and Victoria might be alive now if she’d trusted Patrick sooner. And the confrontation in the unit’s anteroom would have gone quite differently if she’d impeded Patrick in accessing the lockbox. She dropped her head down and sprinted for the cafeteria’s swinging doors, murmuring encouragement to the patients on either side of her as she ran.

Darlene Hanson, the fifty-five year old woman who’d been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s during her last Pond House admission and was back a month later after a subsequent suicide attempt, slipped through the door last, a millisecond before the first assailant rounded the corner of the just-departed hallway. As Patrick stopped the door from swinging with a steady, calculated effort, a few strands of Darlene’s long grey hair caught between the two doors, pulling free of her ponytail as momentum carried her forward.

Taryn caught Darlene by the shoulders and kept her from spilling onto the shiny surface of the kitchen floor while Patrick killed the flashlight and pressed a finger to his lips. Taryn noticed the fingernail needed to be cut, and remembered that Patrick had not been granted a doctor’s order to utilize a razor or other personal grooming equipment. Now, the butt of the Glock stuck out of the waistband of his hospital pants, his gown hitched up at the waist and revealing an inch of cotton undershirt, and a small triangle of soft flesh behind it.

Patrick crouched behind the door, the top of his head a few inches below the fanlight, listening. A minute passed, during which Taryn took in their surroundings. The doors had been to the back of the cafeteria, and they were in an industrial kitchen, situated between the entrance to a walk-in freezer and a stainless steel-countered grill station.

Taryn had just begun to relax when Patrick turned from the door and hissed, “Someone’s coming. Quickly, move back!” Taryn grabbed the two closest patients and dragged them with her to the other side of the grill station. She saw Harrison open the walk-in door to shield himself, and Mayra and Timothy ducked behind it as well. The girl whose name Taryn could never remember leapt to the ground and placed her arms over her head, most likely a move learned in a public school terrorism drill, though she would have been better served opening one of the sliding cabinets and crawling in.

Patrick moved to where he would be hidden by the door when the approaching assailant opened it. A second later, someone did.

He was alone, and he was dressed all in black. The man saw the young woman lying across the floor, and aimed his AK-47 at her head. The door had begun to swing back, and before he could pull the trigger, Patrick became visible behind it. Patrick aimed the gun at the man’s temple and the shot echoed painfully off every surface in the kitchen. The man stayed on his feet until the door swung back again. Even with a shorter trajectory, the door smacked the man in the back, knocking him forward and off his feet. When he hit the kitchen floor, blood and brain matter splattered forward onto the tile, just missing…

“Amanda!” Taryn shouted, finally identifying the young woman as Amanda Goodridge, the schizoaffective, cocaine dependent twenty-five year old who’d been moved from the ER to Pond House at midnight the night before, and kept complaining during group about being ‘too tired to be artistic.’ “Get up. It’s time to go.” This time, Taryn was the first to follow Patrick out of the wreckage. She planned to follow dutifully, to wherever he led them to next.

#

They were just one set of elevators away from the main lobby. Taryn peered up at the sparse generator lights illuminating their current hallway, thinking it had been better travelling in the near-dark, following the beam of Patrick’s flashlight, than viewing everything from under the unnatural, laboratory-like light of the flood lamps. They’d had another close call in the last hallway they’d traversed, where Patrick had sensed the impending march of their aggressors, and stowed them in a storage closet while he waited, hand hovering over the door handle, not anticipating the physical jiggling of metal against metal as much as he was mentally intuiting movements to come. The men had passed their hideaway in ignorance, and since then Patrick and his followers had moved freely through the hospital corridors.

The elevators that would bring them to the main lobby and to rescue were the ‘red’ elevators, so named for a single strip of red duct tape stretched on the floor between the two cars. Taryn used to complain bitterly of the long walk from Pond House to the red elevators, and from the red elevators to the first shift parking lot, through the main lobby and across the street from the hospital, but she’d never been as happy to see the elevators’ dull surfaces and perpetually upside-down call button as she was now.

The patients and Taryn piled into the elevator car. Patrick took a long look in each direction before stepping in and pressing the first floor button. No one spoke on the ride down but as the door opened, Taryn grabbed Patrick’s forearm and looked him straight in the eye.

“Patrick…I don’t know what to say. I can’t tell you how grateful I am, how grateful we all are, for what you’ve done for us. You got us out of here, we’re alive because of you, and I’m so sorry I ever doubted you.” Patrick held her gaze without blinking, saying nothing. Taryn, as if unable to resist, continued.

“Although I suppose that if you could somehow see the future, and knew what we needed to do in order to escape, then you owed it to us to lead us to safety. And in my defense, you have to admit this whole thing was pretty crazy. I mean who would have thought…” she trailed off, oblivious to the storm cloud that had come over Patrick’s face at the word ‘crazy.’ Patrick hit the ‘open door’ button to keep the doors from closing before they could exit.

They filed out into a wide thruway leading to the lobby. Taryn ran her hand down the glass case containing trinkets to entice visitors to the hospital gift shop. As the dust smeared beneath her fingertips, and she gazed on porcelain figurines and hand-blown ornaments, Taryn smiled.

The group rounded the corner of the lobby. It was empty. No front desk administrator, no first responders, no rescue team or police officers. Taryn looked at Patrick frantically, but he was undisturbed. She continued walking behind him along with the other patients.

The shuddering noise of blade-displaced air reached Taryn’s ears. The helicopter couldn’t be far; it sounded like it was hovering low over the visitors’ parking lot adjacent to the building. Taryn had heard the Life Star plenty of times, and wondered if this was the same bird, or some sort of Special Forces chopper. She quickened her pace.

As their group reached the center of the lobby, the exit doors a mere thirty feet away, Patrick stopped. He turned and surveyed his followers one by one, his eyes coming to rest on Taryn. His expression was blank for another moment then the dark landscape of his face turned treacherous, and his lip curled into a baleful smile.

Taryn’s own grin faded, and she looked around for the source of Patrick’s ostensible pleasure. He was standing directly in front of her and the other six patients, blocking the exit. And he was no longer looking at them, Taryn realized, but at something behind them. She turned with all the trepidation of a person on the verge of a grievous revelation.

The first bullet ripped through Taryn’s flesh with more of a tearing sensation than pain. The next twenty-nine hit their mark before she understood there were more bullets following the first. Taryn was dead a few seconds before she hit the ground, and a few seconds after the other six individuals that had struck out from Pond House an hour before. Harrison, Mayra, Samantha, Darlene, Timothy and Amanda never completed the hundred-and-eighty-degree turn to see what had hit them.




Patrick still faced the wall of men with their assault rifles and their riot shields. He gave a perfunctory nod, after which they began to disperse, walking informally back toward the depths of the hospital’s maze-like hallways. In another moment it was as if there had never been anyone there at all. He cocked his head as the sound of a car screeching to a halt at the drop-off/pick-up point filled the lobby.

Whistling ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want,’ Patrick pulled off his hospital johnny and stepped out of his scrub pants, revealing nondescript street clothes. Something moved at the edge of his field of vision, and he almost pivoted, then decided he’d rather not see what, if anything, was there. Fancying himself a Jedi knight, he mimed using the Force to open the automatic doors, chuckling to himself at his whimsicality.

His ride sat idling in the cul-de-sac, the identity of the driver blocked by Patrick’s body when he climbed into the passenger seat. The windows were tinted such that upon closing the car door, Patrick too was obscured from sight. Just before the black SUV pulled out of the circle and out onto the street, the window rolled down long enough for Patrick’s face to become visible again. He tossed something out onto the sidewalk.

The wind blew the hospital bracelet over the concrete until it caught on a leafless shrub protruding from the frozen ground. It trembled on a skeletal branch for several moments, then freed itself to continue its journey untethered.

 

 

THE END

 

Christa Carmen asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

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