"On the tenth, according to the form."
"'Checked out' might be the more accurate terminology. She made it clear to myself and the other members of the staff that she didn't want to be here." Dr. Abram spread his hands.
Drew's thoughts were in a jumble. His beard itched and his cancer was throbbing. He was embarrassed to have been caught in a lie, and confused that Helen Racing seemed to be the one who was embarrassed. Abram kept sending overbearing glances her way; she stared fixedly at the file in her hands.
Drew said, "I thought she had to stay for at least thirty days."
"That is the recommended minimum. Thank you, Helen," the doctor said softly, dismissing her with a glum nod.
She handed the file to Abram and left without a word.
"That is the recommended minimum. But she was a voluntary admission. And whosoever checketh himself in," said Abram, "may checketh himself out also."
"And yet I thought she had to stay for at least a month," Drew said again, helplessly.
"We can't keep people against their will, Mr. Dunkel."
"No? No, I guess not."
"It's a different story if the admission is compulsory, of course. Or if we have been given cause to believe that an individual might be a danger to herself, or to others ... Would you like a little tour?"
"She talked about you a lot," said Dr. Abram.
They had descended a stairwell and were now proceeding down a hallway whose walls, floor, and ceiling were all identically tiled, like the inside of a giant ventilation duct. The recessed fluorescent lights were mirrored in the polished floors. These reflections, as they walked, seemed to move at half speed. Was this natural? Some everyday optical trick? Or was there something odd about this hallway? Was Abram watching him, to see if he'd notice? Was this a psychological test?
"I must admit ... " Abram tilted his head to one side in a pantomime of thoughtfulness. He seemed to be deciding how much to tell Drew. Drew had, from habit or in defense, pulled out and switched his PDR to record—as if this were an everyday interview; as if he were still only here in a professional capacity.
Abram was young, too. For some reason, this reassured Drew. He thought he could probably handle this Dr. Abram. Nor, he thought, would Miranda have been intimidated by him. Abram looked like someone it would be easy to talk to. Like your neighbor's kid, intelligent but non-judgmental.
"I must admit," Abram resumed with a little huff of determination, "that at first I thought you were a delusion. Not you, ha ha, not your existence, but Miranda's relationship to you. Our guests, as you might imagine, often cultivate the belief that they are related to famous people."
"I'm not exactly famous," Drew muttered.
"Oh, I don't know," said Abram. "You'd be surprised. Your name comes up. We'll be taking this next right," Abram warned him, ten seconds before any action was required. "Anyway, as I was saying, for the longest time I thought you were a delusion of grandeur. When she ..." He chuckled, as if to warn Drew that in ten seconds he would find something humorous. "When she kept insisting that we contact you, we thought it was because she wanted to, you know, go public. We thought she wanted an interview. She had some very ... vivid ideas, which we assumed she wanted to share with you and, through you, with the world. One of the doctors here had a patient, before my time, who insisted on speaking to Eliot Hearnes."
"Yes, but Hearnes is dead." The cancer in his shoulder made itself felt.
"And was at that time, too. We'll be taking these stairs, just here. As you can see, all the buildings are interconnected by these underground hallways. Very handy with the weather we've been having lately. Though I heard it stopped raining for a few hours last night ..."
"Who did you hear that from?"
Abram looked confused. "Oh, from the radio, I imagine ... I do read the paper," he added quickly, "the Post-Times, I mean, though not the whole thing. But I don't usually follow the weather much, so I suppose I must have heard it on the radio. Good afternoon there, Mary."
"Good afternoon, Doctor."
Drew turned to look, but saw only a nurse's uniform and a bob of white-blond hair.
"This," Abram was saying, "is Fechner Wing. Rather unfortunate choice: you can imagine what obscenities it conduces to. But all the wings are named after various eminences in the history of psychology and psychiatry. There's Adler, Binswanger, Jung of course. The James Wing, the Sperry Wing, the Abraham wing—no relation, I'm afraid. The obligatory Bleuler and Kraepelin wings, of course. No Freud wing, which always surprises people, but nowadays ..."
"Was that," Drew said hoarsely, "was that Sister Mary?"
Abram looked at him. "I beg your pardon?"
"Oh, nothing." A moment later, he asked, "Do you have sisters here?"
"Do I have sisters here?"
"I mean, nuns."
Abram chuckled. "Nuns? I don't know. Do you mean as guests?"
"No, never mind."
"We're going to be taking this next left. You'll notice that on the walls along this hallway we've hung—well, see for yourself."
"Drawings?" said Drew.
"O.T. is big around here, straight-how. Some of them are actually pretty good," he pointed out.
"Occupational therapy. Arts and crafts sort of stuff."
"And this is some kind of ... job training?"
"No, the 'occupational' is used more in the sense of, you know, being occupied, keeping yourself occupied. Making things and building things. It really helps them feel productive. It can be difficult, so many hours in a day ... So we get them drawing, and sculpting ... On Wednesdays some of them take music lessons ..."
Abram gave him a look of vacant expectancy.
"Do they also type," said Drew, "or write, or ...?"
"Oh yes," said Abram. "In the Project Room we've got a few old typewriters, sometimes we let the guests bash away at them. I remember now ... yes ..." Abram made a face like one dredging something from the distant past. "Miranda liked the typewriters, didn't she?"
"There were some pages of typing in her file."
"Oh, that's right. I forgot that you peeked at her file ..." He laughed forgivingly. "Well, they thought you were with the press."
"I am with the press."
"Come to think of it, there should be one by Miranda here ... I seem to recall she was quite the artist."
"She attended art school."
"Yes. In D.C. The last couple of years, I understand."
"Huh! She never told me about it. The little minx."
Did this man know anything about her? But then Drew began to question his own knowledge. In her letters, she'd talked about researching art schools here, with the idea of transferring. And Sheila had said something about her missing classes. But was it in fact an art school at which she was enrolled?
"How often did you talk to her?" he asked Abram.
"One half-hour twice a week with all my assigned guests."
"So, three or four times in total?"
Abram was running his finger along the wall beneath the drawings. "Here we ... nope."
"I talked to another doctor on the phone," Drew said. "A woman. Who was supposedly assigned to her case."
"We get rotated every month," Abram said vaguely. "This is hers. Now I remember, of course."
It was not a drawing. It was some kind of hieroglyph, some message in a dream-language. She had pressed so hard that the paper had begun to curl, and there were rips where the pencil had punched through.
It was not like any of the pictures he'd seen in the spare bedroom. But, at the top of the page, some person had carefully inscribed in blue ink Miranda's name, patient ID, and the date, 8 Oct. All the drawings, he saw now, had been similarly labeled.
How must it feel for someone who considered herself an artist to have her work defaced like that?
But then, this wasn't exactly a work of art. No more than the gibberish she had typed was literature.
His heart emptied.
They had let her go?
What had he told the young man at the desk? "Questionable admissions to psychiatric institutions." Maybe it should have been "questionable discharges."
"This door here will be us. Good afternoon there, Duncan."
"Good afternoon yourself, Doctor Abram."
"How was lunch?"
"Pretty good. Lisa still don't wanna eat, but otherwise."
"Well, she's got to eat."
"Don't we all."
"Well, stay plugged, Duncan."
"All a one can do."
"Here we are," said Abram to Drew. "That was Duncan," he explained.
They had reached the end of the hallway gallery and stood before two heavy steel doors. Abram punched numbers into a keypad, then said, as if he were continuing their conversation, "Though my pleasures be few and all my joys gone, I should be without care when I've heard such a song." Then he turned to Drew and said, "Your turn."
His cancer throbbed. "It might not work," he said. "I've been having problems lately with these things."
Abram wrinkled his lower lip encouragingly. "Just punch in any nine digits."
"If you don't want us to have your cin." Abram winked. "It's not actually connected to anything."
"I mean, it doesn't do a look-up. It just gets your voiceprint on the way in, and as long as it matches on the way out ..."
Drew entered 112233445 and said the phrase. The door drifted open.
"Just remember the number you entered or you'll never get out." He laughed. "That's a joke. Good afternoon there, Elaine. This," he said to Drew, "is the dayroom. This is where most of our guests— Good afternoon there, Ossie."
"Doctor, good afternoon, I need to talk to you."
"That's fine, fine. How are you feeling?" To Drew he said, "This is where most of the guests in this wing spend most of their time. When they're not in the cafeteria or O.T. or the toilets, that is."
"I can't breathe again Doctor. I'm not breathing."
"But you can breathe, Ossie," Abram said gently. "You are breathing, just fine."
At first Drew was appalled by Abram's cavalier disregard for what must surely be a serious problem; Drew felt breathless just listening to the man. But then he reminded himself where he was. No doubt the poor bastard only thought he couldn't breathe. No doubt he came to the doctor on duty with the same complaint every day. Still, Drew felt sorry for him. He knew what it was like to be told by a doctor, a supposed professional, that he wasn't really feeling what he knew he was feeling.
"Excuse me, Doctor Abram. I'm not interrupting, am I?"
Drew assumed that this calm, polite, well-dressed middle-aged woman must be a doctor or orderly; but Abram's manner with her contradicted this hypothesis.
"Good afternoon there, Madge. And how are you feeling?"
"Fine, Doctor, but I was hoping you could tell me when I will be eligible for grounds privileges again. Nurse Lenore—"
"Fine, that's fine, Madge," said Abram, evidently hearing none of it. "Excuse me for a moment, won't you, Mr. Dunkel, I should speak to the house nurse ..." Abram wandered off, moving vaguely but with self-absorbed determination, and leaving in his wake a group of patients milling like autograph-hunters.
Drew, to differentiate himself from these sad cases, looked about him with the resolute interest of a tourist. The ceilings were as high as a gymnasium's, and there were tall windows that let in gray rainlight. Drew noticed that these windows were made of thick, unbreakable stuff, nicked and scarred to cloudiness, like the maltreated glass of an old aquarium, and they only came halfway down the wall, so you could see nothing through them but sky. Voices, a muttering television, and the shrill plonking of a piano echoed oppressively from the walls and rafters.
How difficult would it be to escape from such a place? If a doctor were distracted by some commotion after entering his number and voice ...? For Drew, of course, it would be easy; he had his umbrella and his raincoat, and so looked like a visitor ...
What if this were a test? If you were clever enough to escape, you were sane, and free to go.
The woman at the piano caught his eye, while continuing to pound at the keys, the highest octave of them. He felt a shiver of premonition and looked away.
"You're the new doctor," said a man.
"Actually, no, I'm not," Drew laughed easily—then realized he was speaking to an insane person, and laughed uneasily.
The man standing before him did not look insane, aside from an uneven haircut. He was wearing jeans and a flannel checkered shirt. On his feet, however, were blue plastic slippers—no, shower-caps, in fact. Except that everyone here, he now saw, was wearing them. So, in this world, they were slippers.
"You look like a doctor." The man spoke simply, with no extra emphasis, as if he were broaching a new topic.
"I do, do I? Well, thank you."
"My name is Andrew. I guess you're a visitor."
"That's right. I'm just visiting. I came with Dr. Abram, who is around here somewhere."
"Dr. Abram looks like a doctor."
"That makes sense."
"I guess you're wondering why I've got these extra receptors in my retinas."
"I ... actually ..."
"A lot of people ask me that. I don't mind."
Drew took hold of himself. The man was just a child, not a monster. "It's good to hear you're not sensitive about it."
"It's a birth defect. A lot of people have them nowadays."
"With all the pollutants."
"Yes. I've noticed that."
"I've noticed there's a lot of pollution, certainly."
"Pollutants," Andrew corrected him.
"Pollutants. Yes. Are you ..." He remembered his PDR, and with it his identity. A reporter. You're here as a reporter. "Do they feed you well here, Andrew?"
His face, which had been blank but friendly, remained blank but became unfriendly. "They told you to ask that."
"Who did? No they didn't."
"I can hear them on you."
Drew tried to smile. "There's no one on me."
"You're ripe. Like a banana."
Drew sighed. It wasn't like talking to a child after all. A child heard what you said. A child could follow the conversation. When a child spoke nonsense, it did so from a love of mischief, because a child knew that nonsense was nonsense, and knew the sort of response it got. A man like this was not a child but a robot, a malfunctioning HDR, stubborn and obtuse.
A woman in plastic slippers came up behind Andrew and tugged at his sleeve. He turned around fully to look at her, then turned fully back again to Drew.
"That's Carla," he said.
The woman laughed with withering derision.
"Carla?" asked Drew.
She looked at him, then away. She laughed again, but falsely.
"Do you know Miranda?" he asked.
"Miranda's an Aquarius," she mumbled.
"Everyone's an Aquarius," Andrew corrected her.
"Shows what you know, Jew."
"She thinks I'm a Jew," he scoffed.
"Do you remember Miranda? She was here last week? Seven days ago?"
"I remember her, sure. And I know what a week is."
His heart reopened, and his cancer shrank. "Was she ..." But he had no idea what to ask. "Can you tell me about her?"
"He's not a doctor," Andrew turned around to tell her.
"I know that. Do you think I don't know that?" She laughed derisively and clutched her elbows. She looked perfectly healthy, just tired. But then he realized that she wasn't wearing any make-up. Most of the women he knew looked tired without make-up—and just as lost at sea without purses or wallets or PDRs or jackets to cling to, or desks or tables to sit behind.
"I can't talk much longer," Andrew informed him, and then walked away, still explaining: "My eyes are getting over-stimulated. They do that every once in awhile. They do that to a lot of people nowadays ..."
As if on cue, the man named Ossie came forward to take his place. "I don't know you," he announced.
"My name is Drew," he said, and fought the reflex to hold out his hand.
"My name is Ossie," he said in a low voice, as if he didn't want it getting around.
"I'm a gardener," Carla said, ducking her gaze cunningly. "Do you like plants?"
Drew looked around for Abram. He spotted him across the room, listening to something someone lying on the floor was saying.
Drew said, "I do, as a matter of fact." Then, in an attempt to moderate what sounded to him like appalling condescension, he added, "Some of them, anyway."
"Do you want to see some of my plants?"
He followed her to a long box filled with dirt in which there really were some plants growing.
"It's difficult," Carla was saying, matter-of-factly and without resentment, "because Bobby likes to eat them."
"That's a shame."
She didn't seem to like this reply. "I would think you'd want to," she said sullenly.
"Oh. I don't know. Maybe I'm wrong." His beard itched with embarrassment and guilt. "I guess what I meant to say was that I misunderstood."
She shrugged off his apology. "This one is called a touch-me-not."
"A touch-me-not," she said, with more volume but no change in intonation.
"Alright, okay. And what's this one called?" He pointed to a tiny fan of green leaves.
"Mind your own business."
"What about this one over here?" he asked.
"That's a Hitler," she said.
"Do you ever shit?"
He laughed, but it wasn't a joke. "Sometimes," he sighed.
"When I shit, I shit Hitler into hell," she informed him. "Yesterday I shit Hitler into hell." She sounded bored, as if she were explaining to him how some appliance worked. "The day before that I shit Hitler into hell. The day before that I—"
"Good afternoon there, Carla," said Dr. Abram. "I think that's enough, don't you? Let's not exasperate our poor visitor."
"Okay," said Carla.
"I see you've met Miranda's roommate, Mr. Dunkel."
"Are you my dad?"
"Miranda's dad, Carla. This is Miranda's dad."
"Yes," agreed Abram. "Such strange names they come up with."
Ossie, who had been listening to all of this from a few feet away, suddenly broke into ringing laughter.
"I don't need to shit my pants to prove to myself that I'm happy!" he cried. "I don't need other people to have a good time! I don't need a long-distance relationship to show people that I know how to get close to people!"
Drew's mind folded up.