Fire in a Hospital

My mom was the first to smell the smoke. I lay across a white bed under a white blanket watching the white ceiling, side-affected: too tired to be awake but too shaky to fall asleep. She was unpacking my suitcase into the white dresser when she paused, lifted her elegant nose to sniff, and asked if I smelled something burning. Being on as many antipsychotics and anuticonvulsants and antidepressants as I was, it was near impossible to analyze anything, but still, after several seconds, I answered yes. My mom pulled her olive green cardigan around her slender torso, as if the sweater would protect her from the flames.

A fire alarm sounded. I stood up and looked out the open door. The hall filled with a half-dozen patients in slow-motion panic, decelerated by drugs. Another dozen, so therapeutically wasted that even the emergency could not crack their masks of chemically imposed indifference, followed the first batch. Occasionally a nurse or social worker would pass with the strained dignity such professionals usually assume in confrontations with difficult patients. Each of these figures crossed through the frame of my room's open door.

After a half-minute clip of these scenes, a nearly bald, redheaded nurse named Lou noticed my mother and me. With a reassuring calm, he said the patients were gathering in the main lounge and gave me directions, then added, "Say goodbye to your mother. I have to escort her out of the hospital." We hugged for an anxious second, then she disappeared beyond the doorframe. With considerable effort, I willed myself into motion, but by the time I reached the hallway, my mother was gone.

My fear at her sudden absence erased the nurse's directions from my memory, leaving me lost outside of my room. I followed a stocky woman's waddling path to the meeting place, not considering how my medication affected my own motion. The smell of smoke subsided as I passed from the adolescent ward toward the adult's lounge. I was the last of the forty-odd patients to arrive in a room far past its capacity. A few early arrivals lay across the room's cheap plastic furniture in different degrees of disarray. Some patients dressed carelessly, mismatching flannel shirts and pajama bottoms; others wore collared shirts and slacks, as if ordinary attire could compensate for their disordered mind states.

The dozen staff members present stood around the crowd's perimeter, eyes restlessly watchful for unrest amongst the rabble. I was somewhere between these workers and the patients, motionless--except for my palms' palsy. After a time span of a length I didn't care to determine the alarm stopped, and I heard for the first time the interweaving conversations, complaints, and accusations.

A little while later, Lou entered and began a brief, covert discussion with two or three of the other staff members. Afterward, he informed the adult inmates that they were free to go, but said all the adolescents were to remain in the room until further notice. The crowd milled out along with every staff member except the nurse who had escorted my mother. When the last adult had shuffled off, only four patients remained: myself, a young man and a young woman who looked about my age, and a boy who looked far younger. After a short silence, Lou informed us that he had something to take care of, but that he would be just outside the door waiting if any of us needed anything. Immediately after he left conversation began.

When fellow patients in a mental hospital meet, the small talk of introductions is interwoven with extremely personal, often embarrassing specifics. So it was when I began speaking with the others in the room. The striking young woman was in fact a girl of fourteen, three years my junior. Her name was Christa, she told me while wrapping and unwrapping a lock of her long black hair around her ring finger. When I asked her where she was from, she replied, "Brighton. My father's a preacher there."

On an adjacent sofa sat a sixteen-year-old delinquent named Chris. Hiding his bleach blond hair, he wore a backwards North Carolina hat that matched his pale blue Puma warm-up suit. Chris was quick to inform me that his hospitalization was part of a plea bargain for an attempted murder case. Christa said nothing to confirm or undermine his statement. I believed him, only later considering that he might be inside for compulsive lying.

The boy, a twelve-year-old named Mitchell, paced in the space in front of me, sitting alternately in two opposing, plastic chairs, only to rise and cross to the mirroring seat. His gait was the shuffle of someone on an extremely high dose of antipsychotic medication. Mitchell had rank odor of a child who had yet to figure out that his armpits stank, and the furious look of a toddler confined to his room after breaking a rule. His strawberry blond eyebrows were entrenched over his angry gray eyes.

Mitchell resisted any inquiries for more information than his name and age, ignoring questions and continuing a conversation with no one in particular about the best way to commit suicide through starvation. Eventually, Chris interjected, "If you don't shut up about that fucked-up shit, I'll kill you myself." Christa attempted to chastise him for his impatience but Mitchell interrupted.

"Wouldn't that be nice," he said with such delight that he seemed to frighten even Chris. He shook off the fear with a shuddering groan, then ignored the boy once more.

The supposed criminal asked me if I smoked, and I nodded. He asked me if I had any cigarettes, and I hesitated. "You do," he said. I told him that in my sock was a single Marlboro I'd bummed from a man at a gas station where my mother had stopped on the way to the hospital. "My god, if you could get me one of those, I got a lighter through."

"Lighter? You got fire," said Mitchell, suddenly interested in interacting.

"Not for you, psycho. I only smoke with mine," Chris snapped.

Were I more intuitive and less sedated, I might have tried to figure out how the fire had originated while in a room with all the suspects. Yet, as I was, the only insight I had was into the back of my eyelids; all I wanted to do was nap. When I found momentary relief from my shakes during Chris and Mitchell's second argument, I seized the chance and slipped into sleep.

#

I awoke to a room empty except for Christa's face above me. "Come on. Don't wanna sleep through dinner." She took my hand to help me up. On the way to the cafeteria, I asked her what had happened between the other two boys. "Mitchell did it. Lit his room on fire, lit the sheets. He's alone now, in the Quiet Room." I nodded as if she'd said something as common and uncontrollable as the weather forecast, and went with her to dinner.

The food at Whispering Pines Mental Hospital is exceptionally good, because its specialty is the treatment of eating disorders. This reason for quality is, like many things, rather depressing if considered at length, but pleasant to enjoy if forgotten. I no longer remember what the main dish was that evening, but I remember clips of the conversation that occurred over dinner

I sat with Chris and Christa around a table near the center of the cafeteria. While Chris and I discussed our tastes in pop culture, at least half my attention centered on her silent, dazed expression. Sometimes Chris and I seemed to interest her briefly, but for the most part she stared straight into an empty point in space directly between us. Her wide-set, oversized eyes examined an invisible object of such bitterness that it glazed her gaze with sadness. Yet, when I thought her mood was as dark as her irises, she would smile, as if reacting to a joke only she heard, and for a second I could see the pale green fluorescent lights above reflected in her eyes.

After one such smile, I asked her two standard questions of asylum small talk: what her diagnosis was and what she was taking for it. She told me she was depressed, but couldn't remember which antidepressant she was on. "None of them really work, and I won't let them shock me, so they keep switching drugs and I keep waiting to get better and get out of here. What about you?"

"My mom got worried about me. I just got so sad I couldn't leave my house. I didn't see the point. I started sleeping eighteen hours a day – that's not like me – usually I'm all energy. I used to be fine with just three or four hours a night, and I need my time – I'm president of the student council and editor of the school paper and a half-dozen other clubs. But I got rejected from Princeton, Harvard, and Stanford" I complained, "and now I have to go to Brown or the University of Michigan. The doctors say I'm bipolar or cyclothymic or something like that – usually up but sometimes I get really, really down. Like now."

Christa nodded, but Chris sneered, "Your biggest hang-up is that you might have to go to U of M? I'd kill for that kind of problem." After a short silence too wearied to be awkward, and she excused herself to get a dessert. On her way past my chair, she leaned close to me and whispered, "I know you. I am you. You will be okay," then patted me on the shoulder before leaving the table.

As soon as she was out of earshot, Chris commented rather coarsely on her attractiveness, possibly inventing the word "bangable" in the process. He then added that it was really too bad she was so young as to be "unbangable." I nodded after each remark, and considered how her pleasant presence contrasted with that of the two boys I met that day. Christa looked to be the sort of girl who could convince another that it was she who was sane and the world that was mad, while Chris and Mitchell came across as concentrations of the madness and maladies beyond the walls.

She returned with a bowl of apple cobbler, and my conversation with Chris returned to its initial topic of low culture reference points. He was a fan of ultra-violent films and ultra-misogynistic hip-hop. He and I quoted the expletive-laden lines from movies and songs in a conversation composed entirely of references. Not once in the course of the meal did we discuss the fire or the boy who started it.

On my way out of the cafeteria, I passed the bald nurse who'd supervised the fire's investigation. Looking tired but still surprisingly upbeat, Lou stopped to inform me that, due to fire damage in the adolescent ward, I was to stay in the undamaged adult area of the hospital. He then showed me to my new room. As soon as I was alone, I collapsed onto the bed and fell into the dreamless slumber of the drugged.

 

#

I awoke when a fire alarm sounded. At first I thought it was someone's clock, that I'd slept through the night and into the next morning. But the window showed only the black and blue of night, and the clock on my right said it was quarter after nine. My next thought was that the alarm had to be prank. But when I opened the door of my room, the staff was again rounding up the stray patients and herding them into the lounge. I went with the traffic back to the meeting place.

The mass of patients shifted slightly without threatening escape, like a chain gang, only restrained by pharmaceutical shackles. Their rumblings were irritated and often vulgar. The first interruption had made an otherwise routine day interesting, and provided temporary relief from the afternoon group therapy sessions. The second alarm was no longer a novelty, and it interrupted free time.

Most were already in pajamas and slippers, ready for evening medication and bed. Christa had changed into a tank top and boxers, and while Chris still was in his pale blue suit, his feet were bare Although I wore a button-down, tucked in shirt, khakis, and brown leather shoes without laces, I had just awakened, and was sure my hair and collar were disheveled. With a glance at Chris and Christa, I could see that this gathering annoyed them almost as much as it disturbed the staff.

The caregivers' usual, therapeutic masks of detached sympathy had given way to a pallor of fear for their patients and themselves. After barely a minute in the lounge, Lou addressed the crowd with strained composure. "The fire is spreading. The smoke is in the vents. We are going out to the front lawn. Stay with the group." Every few seconds someone asked how the second fire started, but the blaze's origin remained undisclosed.

The group headed out the front of the hospital. I had not seen the main door open since it last locked behind me, beginning my confinement. Half the staff broke off and talked among themselves, perhaps to uncover the arsonist's identity. I heard one nurse say that the wrong person must have been confined, that the one who set the first fire was still free and had set the second. But I had something other than fire on my mind; I wanted to smoke.

I took out the musty Marlboro from my left tube sock, turned and asked a staff member walking by for a light. "Your lucky," she said, "I just confiscated this," she said before obliging. Chris and Christa crossed the lawn and watched me watch the fire and smoke. Chris asked me for a drag, so I passed him my cigarette. No sooner had the smoke returned to me than Christa wordlessly extended a hand, so I gave her a puff as well. We shared the rest of that cigarette while watching bars of black smoke break free and disperse, deepening the blues of the sky above. That cigarette was the best of my life.

 

#

Another patient later told me that Mitchell had started both fires. The story goes that he lit the first one, and, before he was caught, hid in his rectum the lighter he'd stolen from Chris. After his capture Mitchell was restrained in the padded, white cell called – often in a whispering tone – the Quiet Room. In this place he freed himself of his straight jacket and set the restraints on fire, eventually burning the plastic safety walls into a thick, black smoke that escaped through the ventilation shafts. Somehow, no one was injured and no serious damage was done; the hospital was only evacuated because of the exhaust spreading from the blaze. After the fire was extinguished and the air cleared, the business of rebuilding the broken resumed.

The next morning I learned that, in the middle of the night, the arsonist was taken to a maximum-security hospital where he will likely spend the rest of his life. I never did and probably never will get a chance to thank him for the smoke.

Dylan James Brock, May 2001

Dylan BrockComment