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    Volume 12, Issue 3, August 31, 2017
    Message from the Editors
 Karda Burns by Roderick Phillips
 Ada, or, The Limits of Logic by Robert Dawson
 All Our Goodbyes, All Our Hellos by David Cleden
 A Familiar and Her Wizard by Jeff Stehman
 Paper Walls by Matt Hollingsworth
 Editor's Corner: Featured Author Laurence MacNaughton
 Editor's Corner: excerpt from A Jack By Any Other Name by Lesley L. Smith


         

Paper Walls

Matt Hollingsworth


       The woman in the room behind me always has the loudest thoughts. At night, when the rest of the hospital is quiet except for the muffled hum of dreams, she is awake, her mind alight with searing fear and the cold of isolation.
       She hears voices. They whisper to her, like fingers along her scalp, poking through her brain. And on the nights when she won't be quiet, I'll join her mental choir, my voice drowning out the others in her head. I'll tell her that she's a freak. That she's crazy and that she'll never, ever get better. After that, the screaming will stop, replaced by the quiet sound of sobs.
       I'm not a good person.

~

       I am a schizophrenic telepath. The only one in the world. Oh, there are plenty of schizophrenics. Quite a few telepaths, too. But I'm the only one fortunate enough to be both. What's it like being a schizophrenic telepath? Well, I'm glad you asked. Being a schizophrenic telepath means that you get to sit in the hospital and know that you're the freak in a roomful of freaks. Not that I give much of a shit about what they think of me. There's no one I'm trying to impress anymore.
       Being a telepath is like living in an apartment with paper walls: you always know exactly what the neighbors are up to. All those dirty little secrets. Being a schizophrenic telepath is like living in a house with paper walls and your neighbor has his TV on really loud so when the screaming starts, you can never be sure if someone's getting murdered, or they're just binging NCIS.
       The day opens with breakfast. Me and the other freaks down our meals that, by a weird coincidence, are prepared by the same company as makes the meals at my high school. I guess I can't ever escape from soggy french fries and chicken that tastes like glue.
       After our meal, we all head to the common room to socialize, and immediately my nose is assaulted by the sterile stench of cleaning fluid. They have a TV that always seems to be showing late-night soap operas, no matter what time it is. They go well with our collection of board games that are lucky to have half their pieces.
       There's a kid about my age across the room who spends most of his time fantasizing about this girl he has a crush on back outside as well as a couple other chicks (including me which is always a delight to have to watch). And when I say fantasizing, I mean things get graphic. Or maybe they don't. I can never be too sure of what my telepathy is telling me these days. Watching him bend his caricature of me over his bed, however, makes me long for the days when I could listen in selectively, as opposed to hearing whatever stray thoughts happen to wander in.
       You see, most schizophrenics have auditory hallucinations. In rarer cases, they see things that aren't there. My hallucinations, however, are telepathic in nature. When I hear somebody thinking, I can never be quiet sure if I'm hearing them correctly.
       Sitting in the common area isn't my favorite part of the day but it's light-years better than what comes next. I'm sitting around for about an hour, bored and horny as hell since I've not fucked anyone in the four months I've been in the hospital, when the nurse appears and calls me in for therapy.
       The nurse escorts me to Dr. Jackson's office where the man is waiting in one of two identical puke-green chairs. The good doctor looks like an actor straight off Grey's Anatomy, somehow managing to pull off that wise middle-aged, yet still youthfully handsome vibe. I take a seat across from him.
       "What's up, Doc?" I ask even though I've said it a thousand times and it wasn't funny the first. He looks up and flashes a well-rehearsed smile.
       "So how're you feeling today, Emma?" He makes a show of flipping through the papers on his lap. Like an actor looking through his lines.
       "Little tired. Nightmares, you know."
       "You've been having nightmares?"
       "No."
       Dr. Jackson frowns, scribbling down a note. I feel like I'm back in school and the teacher is grading my test in front of me.
       "I'd like to talk to you about the painting you drew the other day in Arts and Crafts," he says.
       "You mean the severed limbs? I thought it represented the divided nature of human existence."
       "The nurses thought the work was inappropriate."
       "No shit." I'd thought I was done with Arts and Crafts when I left elementary school, yet there I was: sixteen, a brush in hand and a couple of over-educated chaperones ready to analyze whatever I made.
       "Why do you think you drew that?"
       "Because I'm crazy."
       "You're not crazy. It's not healthy for you to think of yourself like that."
       "You know what else isn't healthy: the fact that you haven't fucked your wife in six months." That gets his attention.
       "It's not polite to read my mind," he says.
       I giggle, teasing through his memories, "Oh you poor man, did she really say that to you? I mean, there's cold and then there's. . ." The force of his mind hits me like a freight train and I have to grab on to the side of my chair to keep from face-planting.
       Dr. Jackson grips his chair, leaning forward, face contorted with rage. "You know, my job would be a lot easier if I used my powers. I could see inside your head anytime I wanted. But I don't. I stay out of your mind because I respect you. I respect you even if you don't respect me back, and I'm okay with that because that's my job. But don't you dare touch my memories."
       For a moment, I'm startled by the unexpected outburst, but then I feel myself growing cold again.
       "Fuck you." I get up and slam the door behind me. The nurse is waiting outside.
       "How did it go?" she asks.
       "Fine," I say, "Just fine."

~

       If only Dr. Jackson was the most unpleasant encounter of the day. Unfortunately, my father still has a visit scheduled for the afternoon. I'm groggy from my medication as he steps in. He looks pale as hell, and he's been losing weight so he's just about a skeleton in a suit as he slouches into the common area.
       I had refused to even talk to him for the first month after he had me locked up. I'd heard enough times that it was for my own good, that I'd thank him later. All the old clichés. Now he doesn't even try to justify himself. Just makes small talk as if we're another perfectly normal family. Not the black sheep that the rest of the herd is ashamed of. (That's not me being paranoid: I'm a mind reader.)
       And speaking of the rest of the family, he has some interesting company with him. Today, Uncle Andrew is accompanying him in his signature jeans and frayed jacket. Just great. As they approach me, I catch a blast of Uncle Andrew's aftershave. The mat on top of his head is probably more product than hair.
       "Hey, Emma," Dad says.
       "Hello," I respond, just cold enough that he knows that he's not been forgiven. Turning to my uncle, I say, "Haven't seen you in a while."
       "I've missed you too." Uncle Andrew gives a smile that actually looks genuine. I don't need to hear his thoughts to know that it isn't. When I was six, my parents and I visited his home up in North Carolina. On our way back, I'd had to ask them what the word freak meant.
       "So how've you been doing?" Dad asks. I shrug. He waits a moment to see if I'm going to elaborate then scampers on toward other topics of conversation. "The nurses say you've been writing a lot."
       "Gotta do something to pass the time around here."
       "They say it's pretty good."
       "If they say so."
       Dad bites his lip. "So your uncle has been staying with me the past couple days."
       Uncle Andrew nods. "You're father has been very kind to me."
       They expect me to respond but I just stay quiet. Dad's hands are clasped together, his eyes darting as he tries to think of more to say. He can keep me locked up in here if he wants, but there's no rule that says I have to be happy about it.
       After another half-hour, they get up to leave. My father wishes me a good rest of the day and I give a half-hearted goodbye. I watch him as he walks away, and for a moment, I'm almost tempted to call out to him. But I'm not ready to forgive yet.
       As they're leaving, Uncle Andrew turns around and says, "It was good seeing you." And I hear him think, glad she's locked up in here. Going to be a lot easier to get away with murder without a telepath around.
       And suddenly the world stops.

~

       I sit there for a long time, my mouth hanging open stupidly, my eyes frozen and dead. I can't think.
       Eventually I get a nurse to take me back to my room and I close the door behind me. I curl up against the wall, legs hugged to my chest. You're losing control again, I think. You're losing your grip.
       In this world, you can't trust anyone but yourself, but I don't even have that anymore.
       I hear the woman in the opposite room scream.
       "Shut up!" I tear my shoe from off my foot and hurl it at the back wall. "Shut the fuck up!"
       She shuts up. I cup my face in my hands and begin to cry.

~

       The afternoon passes in a blur of color. I eat mechanically at supper and am silent through the support groups afterwards, earning myself a curious glance from one of my instructors. There is a movie in the evening. It plays itself out frame by frame in my head, jumbled, never quite adding up to a coherent plot.
       All the time I feel myself rotting inside.
       I'm terrified it's going to return to how it was before the medicine. The paranoia. The hallucinatory voices that mixed together indistinguishably from the thoughts so I couldn't tell one from the other. Couldn't believe my own senses.
       I'd listened to my own friends and family think about hurting me, and I knew that the thoughts were in my head, that they weren't real, but the weeks passed and I just couldn't make them go away. And the hallucinated thoughts fed my paranoia which fed the hallucinations which. . .
       And down it went from there. I thought I'd gotten better, but it's all happening again now, because no matter how much treatment they give me I'm still broken. Defective. A freak.
       Or maybe it was real. I thought I could tell the difference now, but everything's becoming all jumbled again. It seemed so real. . .
       I have to know for sure.
       Right before I go to bed, I approach one of the nurses. I tell her I have something private to talk to her about, and when we step out into the abandoned hall, I tell her that she can either give me the keys to the hospital or I'll email her husband and tell him about her six-month affair.
       It's almost too easy.

~

       For all the times I've fantasized about breaking out, I never thought I'd actually do it, but tonight I have no choice. I may not always like Dad but I'd do anything before I let him get hurt. I wait until everyone is asleep before unlocking the door to my room. Afterwards, I close my eyes and let my mind go blank. Thoughts flood me. I can see the minds of the guards burning brightly like candles in the darkness.
       I open the door, terrified that it's going to squeak, but the hinges are silent. The door closes and I'm out in the hall. I'm so excited that I almost forget about the closest guard and have to quickly duck down a side passage to avoid being seen.
       Once he's gone, there's a clear path to the exit. I have to stay quiet, watching every step to avoid being heard. Finally the door is in sight. I take out the nurse's keys and slip outside into the night. And for the first time in four months, I'm free.
       Hello, Emma.
       The thought makes me jump. My telepathic senses are suddenly on alert, and in a half-second, I've found the source of the thought. Not fifteen feet away, through the brick wall, sits the office of Dr. Jackson.
       Please, I say to him, I know this looks bad.
       You're right about that.
       But I have a good reason. Please, I'm not running away, but I need to see my Dad.
       You couldn't wait until tomorrow?
       I. . .
How do I even explain? Turning the situation over in my mind I realize it sounds insane. Hell, it is insane. Please, please just trust me.
       He's silent, searching for the words before speaking. I don't know what's going on, but I know that you're scared. I can sense it. Whatever this is, I can help you. But you have to trust me.
       And for a moment, I actually consider it. But the image of my father lying in a pool of his own blood is enough to convince me otherwise. If I go back there, all Dr. Jackson is going to do is pump me full of sedatives and schedule some group therapy. He won't listen to me.
       Goodbye, Doc.
       "Hey, you!" I look up to see a man standing over me. Shit. I had been so distracted by the conversation that I had forgotten to keep track of the guards.
       "All right, young lady, why don't we step back inside?"
       "Yeah, good luck with that." I focus my mind on the guard.
       Wait, Emma!
       I lash out at the guard's mind but a force stops me. I fight but I can't wrench my mind free.
       "Let me go!"
       I'm sorry, but I'm not going to let you hurt him.
       The man steps forward, reaching out to grab me, but I turn to run. I cross fifty feet before his hand grasps my arm.
       "Get the fuck off!" I squirm and flail but he's too strong. "My dad is going to fucking die!" My muscles seize and contort, trying desperately to wrestle my way free. I bash my head back into his nose, and he screams but holds tight. Soon, another guard appears beside him and together they drag me back towards the hospital. Dr. Jackson is waiting inside.
       "Be gentle with her." He turns to me. "Out of all the people I expected to try something like this. . ."
       "It's not what it looks like. Please, I have to leave."
       The guard, his voice muffled by his broken nose, says, "Should we get the nurse? We can use chemical restraints."
       "No!" All I can envision is Uncle Andrew standing over Dad's body. I want to scream, but I know it's not going to work. I've failed again like I always fail. But I don't have time for self-pity.
       I look at Dr. Jackson. If I'm going to get out of here, I'm going to have to trust him. I stop struggling, taking a moment to catch my breath. "Please, wait. I'm calm. I'm calm. I'm not having an episode, but I really need your help."
       He looks at me, considering, and suddenly, my father's life hanging on his decision, I regret every harsh word I've ever said to him.
       "Please, look into my mind. You can see: I'm calm." I drop my mental barriers, opening my mind to Dr. Jackson. I see his expression melt.
       "Let go of her," he says.
       "But, sir, she attacked. . ."
       "Just do it. She's not going to hurt me." I feel like I'm going to collapse with relief as the guards loosen their grip on my arms. Dr. Jackson turns to me. "Why don't we talk in my office?"

~

       Once we're behind closed doors, away from the guards, I say, "Thank you, for doing that." Dr. Jackson nods.
       "Would you like some water?" he asks, already pouring a glass that he hands to me.
       "You saw it, right? The memory?"
       "I saw it."
       I shake my head. "I'm so scared. I don't know if it's all in my head or if... I just don't want to lose my dad."
       "I'm sure these last couple hours have been hell, but you don't have deal with this alone. I can drive to your father's house tonight. If your Uncle is planning something, I'll be able to tell."
       My eyes widen. "You'd do that?"
       "Of course. Helping you is my job. I. . ." I wrap my arms around him and for the second time today, I'm crying.

~

       I don't sleep for a moment that night and neither does the woman in the room behind mine. Her restless mind burns with nervousness. The next morning, the nurse wakes me.
       "Excuse me, Emma, but there's a police officer here to see you."
       I sit up in bed. "Is my father all right?"
       "She didn't say."
       The officer is waiting in the common room, which is empty besides the two of us.
       "Have a seat," she says, and I do as she instructs. Immediately, I'm buried in her thoughts, trying to find anything about Dad, but she beats me to it.
       "Now your father is all right. . ." My muscles relax. "But last night, one of the staff here uncovered a plot by your Uncle to poison him."
       For a moment, I'm silent.
       "Now, I'm sure this is a shock but. . ."
       "So I'm not crazy." I sit back, processing the information. I was right. I'm not crazy. "And he's all right?" The police officer nods. I lean back in my chair and feel like laughing.
       I was right.
       "Your Dad is at the police station. We'd like you to join him soon and answer a couple questions. With your doctor's permission, of course." I am silent. "Maybe you'd like some time to process this?"
       "I think that would be best."
       The officer pats me on the back and says, "You're a brave young lady. I can tell." She leaves and the nurse escorts me back to my room. I have a million questions but they can wait. Suddenly, all I want to do is sleep.
       The woman in the room behind me is crying. (But, of course, there is no room behind me.)
       I'm crazy, she says. I'm crazy.
       You're not crazy,
I tell her, collapsing into my bed. You're going to get better, and your Dad is going to be just fine.
       And for the first time, I believe it.
       




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