Castle Pines Sanitorium. Colorado, 1946. Spring.
They're playing "jeep" again. Cho is the first one to make it to the common room, and I watch him set up the chairs. As usual, his movements are graceful and his placement precise; more like a geisha about to perform a tea ceremony than a "disturbed" twenty-seven-year-old about to reaffirm the delusions this group shares. The chairs are aligned facing the big picture windows on the western wall, side by side with the little magazine pedestal in between. A bit of white fluff is pulled from a pocket and reverently placed on the pedestal. There is a small snag today; the love seat that invariably gets pressed into service for the remaining two seats was taken away yesterday to be reupholstered. I see Cho looking for it, and wonder how he'll react to its absence. He's a tiny bit more "present" than the others, so I'm not too worried. Others might throw a fit at such a change in their environment, but Cho adapts. As long as his little stuffed dragon is still perched on the magazine pedestal, I'm sure he'll find a way to finish the "jeep."
It doesn't take him too long. He's pulled the piano bench over and aligned it behind the "front seats" well before the others show up. He runs a hand through his hair, stares out the windows, smiles that bemused, self-conscious smile and murmurs something. I've known him long enough to realize that he's not speaking to himself. No indeed. Most likely, he's discussing today's "journey" with the little dragon. Its name is Hakuryuu, which I guess means something like "white dragon" in Japanese. A practical name from a practical man who just happens to live in an utterly impractical world. Cho takes that dragon almost everywhere, but doesn't admit it. In his mind, the dragon flies, and I think sometimes Cho believes its wings might just grant him freedom from his current existence. Why else would he claim that the "jeep" and the dragon are really the same creature? Freedom embodied in a stuffed animal – childish, but somehow poignant in this place where childhood fantasies and adult realities so often blend confusingly.
Cho looks back towards the observation desk. He sees me watching him. I wonder who I will be today. Cho is not the group leader – far from it – but he does have the odd distinction of deciding the reality for the day. If he says they'll make it to an "inn" before nightfall, then the four of them will likely sleep in their own rooms without too much fuss come lights out. If he claims they're too far away, they'll try to doze off in the chairs, and fight any orderlies like mad, should they bother to try moving them. Cho decides how many hours the "jeep" can drive before calling a halt, and whether the other patients are people or animals or trees. He's very subtle about it. He never comes out and designates anything, but I've watched this game a hundred times and there's no doubt where the cues come from. The others may be more flamboyant, but Cho is, well, influential.
He pats the dragon on the head and walks over to me. He seems relaxed and has a friendly if slightly artificial smile on his face. At least I haven't been cast as a bad guy just yet, although sometimes it's hard to tell. He had that same smile on his face the time he broke Walter's arm. But it didn't reach his eye that day – did I mention he only has one? In any case, he stops just out of arm's reach. Some part of his mind remembers the rules about approaching doctors.
"Good morning." His voice is polite and mild. It never ceases to amaze me how many of the staff have been completely snowed by that voice. He sounds like the kindergarten teacher he claims to have wanted to be. I know better than to let my guard down. He's wearing the earrings Sanzo gave him, but that's no guarantee. That's kind of a long story, and I realize I'm staring.
"Good morning, Cho, did you sleep well?"
"Ah, yes. The rooms were quite comfortable, thank you." I'm guessing I'm an innkeeper. I've played this role before, and don't mind it really. In this role, I'm allowed to make small talk, and I'd have to really screw up royally for the situation to get violent.
"Glad they suited. What can I do for you?" He's not really the kind to talk to anyone out of the group for no reason. Sha is pretty social and Goku will talk to anyone if there's food or fighting involved, but Cho is more comfortable with solitude and silence.
"I was wondering if perhaps I could persuade your cook to pack us provisions for the road? It looks to be a two day drive to the next village and I'm sure you noticed how much our young companion eats." His tone is guileless, but a hint of something darker wavers in his eye. He is a bit more "present" than the others, after all, and he knows I, the doctor, do not approve of overnight trips. He also knows that I, the innkeeper, should have no objection. And here I was hoping things might be friendly today.
Goku's voice comes echoing down the hall. He's arguing about something with Sha and I realize I have to think fast. "You know, Mr. Cho, there's a hunting cabin just a little over a day's drive from here. If you push, you could probably make it by nightfall." I'm bending the "rules" and I know it. I'm not supposed to make "reality" decisions, but he did cast me in a role where that was a possibility. The cabin thing would at least mean they'll all go back to the quarters area to sleep. Cho'll probably decide that a hunting cabin only has one room, and as such they'll all wind up together in one of their designated spaces, but at least I wouldn't have to have orderlies try to drag them out of the common area. Besides, bed-check is easier with only one bed to check. I mentally cross my fingers, and breathe a sigh of relief as he relents.
"Ah, indeed? How convenient," he says, his eyebrow arching in speculation before he looks me in the eye. "We'll aim to stop there then." And he laughs lightly. Who's playing who here is anyone's guess.
"I'll go talk to the cook about your provisions. It should only take a few minutes."
"What should only take a few minutes? Huh?" Goku has arrived, and I watch Cho's face for that brief but lovely moment as the last shreds of "here" are forgotten and companionship and the anticipation of the journey take over. He smiles at Goku as he would never smile at anyone outside of their group.
"Our host is going to see to provisions for the day." I take that as my cue and walk over to the observation desk to fill out the requisition.
"Oh! Will there be meat buns? They had really good ones. Tell him to pack lots. I could eat at least thirty, just for me, okay?" Goku's hyper, happy voice carries, and I glance over at them. Cho catches my eyes and I nod. Meat buns it is, and he'll reach that cabin come hell or high water.
Then Sha smacks Goku on the back of the head and says something along the lines of "but you just ate." I don't have to hear it to know the cadence of a familiar round of teasing and arguing. They make their way over to Cho's arrangement of furniture and squeeze together on the piano bench. Sanzo finally arrives, walking over to speak in quiet tones with Cho before joining the others in the "jeep."
The nurses are more than a little used to this routine. I notice someone has put a fair bit of effort into the dainties and victuals in the basket that Marjorie hands me, and I can only wonder at the way these four patients effect people. Cho notices too, and smiles in appreciation. It's not quite a genuine smile, but the last traces of calculation and anger are gone, so I return it.
"Have a safe trip." For your sake and ours, I don't have to add.
"Thank you." An almost smile, a polite laugh, and he walks gracefully to his place in the "jeep." I watch him hand the basket to Sha. I watch Sha and Goku squabble. I watch Sanzo smack them both with his newspaper. I watch their world complete itself. Reality has been decided, and Cho smiles contentedly over an invisible steering wheel. They're playing "jeep" again today. Somehow, I can't bring myself to want to stop them.