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Of the Shadow

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By Bronson FleetPublished 2 years ago 4 min read

It was twenty years ago now, I was working up in Oregon. A state mental hospital. I was fresh outta nursing school, and nursing was a different field back then. I had interviewed a couple of places but every time I went in and sat down the doctor or administrator looked at me funny. I suppose it was because I’m a man and back then it was different. But I interviewed at this mental hospital in Oregon and they didn’t have that look on their face when I sat down so I took the job.

It was the six to two shift. They gave me a big set of keys and told me they were happy to have me, but there was pity in their eyes. I didn’t know why until a long time later.

This wasn’t a mental hospital like some would think, with padded rooms and straight jackets and all. This was a hospital built for those whose madness resided in the heart rather than the head. (Oftentimes they look so similar people think they’re the same thing, but they’re not.) A place for those who didn’t have a place in society or in a prison cell so they had to be put on a tiny concrete island in the middle of a sea of trees.

‘Inside the Home of The Thirty Sickest Men in the State of Oregon’, was the headline they printed after everything that happened there happened. They tried to interview me but the hospital said I wasn’t allowed. I wouldn’t have said much except to ask, “What if a child picked up that paper?” I doubt that would’ve stopped them anyways.

When you work at a place like that it’s best to shut up. Just put your damn head down and work. I’ve kept that philosophy all my life but I learned it there. No good ever comes of knowing; the good or the bad. The good makes you an addict and the bad disgusts you. And there’s no coming back from either of those things. Once they are there they are there, like a tumor at the center of your brain. When I started though, I didn’t know that yet.

There was a patient on the row, one of the thirty we kept. His name was Arthur but everybody called him Santa. I would’ve been confused by this if it wasn’t so obvious. He was a big man, bald on top with snowy white hair on the sides, and I’d be lying if I said his cheeks weren’t rosy. He was a good patient though. Compliant, never caused a fuss, easy to talk to. So I said to him one day, “You know they’re trying to get you boys outta here right? Tryin' to get you healed up and back out in the world.”

“Eric, I can’t be in the world again.”

“Sure you can,” I said, “It ain't so hard if you don’t think about it too much.”

“I’m not fit for it.”

“Thirty years locked up and you ain’t fit yet? What’s so wrong with you?”

He looked at me then and told me what he’d done. I ain’t the paper, so I won’t dictate that story here. He was fifteen and she was a girl of five. That’s all I’ll say about it except one last thing. The reason he knew he couldn’t go back in the world. Words I’d pay to forget.

He said, “Eric, it wasn’t so much what I did that I remember, but it was the smell. All I know is that that smell is still with me, and I love it.”

That’s my point about knowing.

There was another patient. Every morning I came in at six a.m. The building was mostly dark until seven. I took my big set of keys off my belt and opened a big squeaking steel door and locked it behind me. And when that lock turned it meant I was on the island.

There were fifteen doors on the right wall and fifteen on the left, none of them locked, and a stretch of dark hallway we called The Valley of the Shadow of Death. I wasn’t so religious at the time but it was as good a name as any I suppose.

There was this patient who was always up at six a.m., standing in his doorway. It was like he was waiting for me; who the hell knows why. He’d come into the hall as I walked the Valley and shake my hand. “Good morning,” I’d say but he never said anything back. He’d only smile at me until I pulled my hand away and continued past.

A year went by, everyday the same thing, until one day it wasn’t. I came through the big steel door and there he was in the mostly dark. He stepped into the hall and put out his hand, that big smile on his face like we were old friends.

He was wearing a name tag. Much the same as mine except his belonged to the night nurse and mine was on my chest. I checked to make sure. Hello, my name is, then in big, bold print, Soph… but the last letters were stained by a dark, round splotch. And his shoes. I’ll never forget this, his shoes squished with every step. Like he’d just come out of a rain storm and soaked them through.

That was a bad day. I’d had some before and many since, but in a sick kinda way I cling to that one, or, better, it clings to me. Some people can’t handle the bad, but I’ve always seen worse.

I think about that man sometimes. About that day and how he looked when they walked him out of the Valley, still smiling. Looking so at peace he was almost transparent. Like a man so light he might evaporate.

And I think about those people with the pity in their eyes when they gave me my keys and said, “Good to have you!”, and I wonder if they might evaporate too.

Lord knows, I surely won’t.

Short Story

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Bronson Fleet

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    BFWritten by Bronson Fleet

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