It was on a bleak and dreary morning in mid-December that Paul Edgecombe made the trip out to Briar Ridge to see Percy Wetmore. A grey-veiled sky had been threatening rain through much of the morning, and it was not until Paul had gotten on the road that the clouds actually let loose. Now, a cold and piss-poor drizzle was falling; too sparse to consider a downpour, but just substantial enough to make the going downright miserable. The god-awful combination of damp and frigid put the sort of chill in the air that seeped straight into a man's bones and stayed a spell. It had been dreadfully cold lately, mused Paul, over the rhythmic "swish-squick, swish-squick" of the old Ford's windshield wiper blades against the freezing glass. He knew it would only get colder as the winter stretched on.
The start of that winter had blown in on strange winds to say the least. It seemed to Paul that much had changed since John Coffey's midnight date with Old Sparky, since what had come to be known as the "incident" with Percy on E-block. Harry and Dean were long gone by now (greener pastures and that lot) and both Paul and Brutus had transfers to Boys' Correctional pending. Their tenure on the Mile would be up by Christmas. As it was for those with the misfortune of serving on the Green Mile, a man did his time and one way or another, he always left in the end.
Through all the years, though, through the countless times Paul had seen a man leave and never return, he hadn't ever seen anyone go out the way Percy had.
Paul had wondered often, after the fact, just what the hell had happened there. He wondered, even as Jan had, if John had indeed used Percy on Wild Bill; "Like a weapon," he believed were Jan's exact words. He wondered if it were true. Paul had seen, through John, what Wharton had done. Maybe, Paul thought, Percy had seen it too, and that was why he'd done what he'd done. With deadly accuracy, at that.
As Paul drove, watching the light rain on the windshield turn to sleet, he let his thoughts drift to Percy. In all honesty, he still had no idea why he was going to see Percy to begin with. He knew it was not out of any sort of emotional attachment; their affair (Paul could hardly even call it such) had been brief at best, and Percy had been just as fiery as he would have expected, but in the end, they had only been together twice and never anything more. There had never been any love there. At least, that was what Paul told himself on those long nights when his conscience had other things to say.
In the end, he decided, it was curiosity of the most morbid sort that drove him. It was that base human instinct that made it impossible to look away from something horrid, like a train wreck or a grisly accident. He wanted to see the aftermath. Paul had witnessed firsthand John Coffey's powers of healing-Mr. Jingles, Melinda Moores, even his bladder infection. He had not seen what the long-term effects of retribution in its purest eye-for-an-eye form looked like.
Part of him wasn't sure he even wanted to.
The mental hospital at Briar Ridge was "the newest, top of the line" in state facilities, equipped with revolutionary new technology and medical procedures to aid the treatment of patients in "various stages of mental…disarray." At least, this was the manner in which the haughty young Englishman, who identified himself as a Dr. Barrett, described the place as he walked Paul down the sterile white corridor (white walls, white tile floors, everything was just so white) that seemed to go on for miles. "Our facility is divided into five wards, and separated by three floors," the dark-haired man prattled on as Paul listened, halfheartedly. "The first and second floors house patients with intermediate mental disorders. The third floor is reserved for cases which are, shall we say, more severe." Barrett paused a beat before adding, "There are no windows on the third floor," in a cryptic, in-case-you-were-wondering sort of way. As if it were somehow relevant.
"I see," responded Paul neutrally.
"Since Mr. Wetmore's condition is relatively stable, and he doesn't pose any sort of immediate threat to himself or others, he's here in the intermediate ward. His room is the last one on the right, at the end of this hallway here. You can let yourself in, but you'll have to buzz to be let out. The doors lock from the outside."
So it is like prison in here, thought Paul grimly. You might let yourself in, but it'll take more than sheer free will to get you back out.
The doctor walked with Paul to the end of the corridor and stopped just beside the door.
"How is he, exactly?" asked Paul suddenly. "Has he spoken at all?" Barrett just shook his head.
"I'm afraid not. Mr. Wetmore appears to be in what we refer to as catatonic shock. Traumatic events can cause the mind to slam shut like a steel trap. It's an uncanny defense mechanism, truly."
Presently, a thought occurred to Paul. It was a horrible thought, and he verbalized it just as quickly as it came to him.
"Is there any chance at all that he might come around?" he asked. He left hanging the latter part of the question-any chance he might recover and remember everything that happened that night? If he did, Paul thought, he would surely sing like the gallant little bird that he was, and he, Harry, Dean and Brutus would still be sunk.
"It's possible. We've no way of knowing that now." Barrett paused a moment, a quick frown toying with his features, as if the young man had just had an epiphany of his own. "Mr. Edgecombe, may I make a personal query?" The manner in which he inquired made Paul acutely uneasy; he had the look of a man trying to get to the bottom of something.
"I suppose," answered Paul.
"You supervised the patient for several months. He worked under you, if I'm not mistaken."
"During that time, did any event take place that might have contributed to Mr. Wetmore's mental decline? Perhaps something on, the, ah-what do you call it?"
"Well, he did have a run-in with a prisoner not too long before. One of the inmates grabbed hold of him and-"
"Mussed him over," Barrett finished for him. "I've read the official dissertation. I'm just wondering if there was anything else. Something that might have been struck from the books, for whatever reason. If there's anything else you aren't telling us, anything you can give us off the record-"
"No," Paul said, and he was instantly afraid he'd answered too quickly. Nope, nothing. Other than being shoved into restraints and left in the dark a while. Oh, and there was that part where a force greater than man itself infected him with…with, well, we don't quite know what it was, but that seemed to be where the real trouble started, as it were. Paul swallowed hard. "Nothing at all that I can think of."
The answer Paul gave seemed to satisfy the young doctor; if there had been any suspicion there, it had passed for the moment, and he nodded in response.
"If you think of anything at all, do let me know." His sharp grey eyes flitted to the door. "You can head in. I'll be right outside if you need anything."
He let himself in, making a conscious effort not to cringe on the inside as the door shut heavily behind him. The lock slid home with an audible click that seemed to reverberate like a gunshot within the confines of the room and even more loudly in Paul's head. As he entered the small room, he glanced around at the spartan surroundings. The walls were bare, painted in the same sterile white as the rest of the place. A small bed sat just beyond the center of the room and just before a small, barred window that overlooked the facility's grounds and offered a rather dismal view of the world outside. It was on the bed that Percy sat, back turned to Paul, staring out the window. Or, at least, Paul presumed he was. Where Percy was, truly, was something only Percy knew and anybody else could only guess about.
Paul took a deep breath before calling out softly-"Percy?"- and receiving no response. If Percy had even heard him, even known he was there, he showed no outward sign of acknowledging so. Paul took a few cautious, measured steps toward Percy then, calling out to him again. When Percy still did not react, Paul closed the space between the two of them (his footsteps echoed louder than they actually were in the small room) and came to stand next to Percy. He brought one hand gently to rest on one narrow shoulder.
Percy did not so much as flinch; it was the same sort of phenomenon that Paul had witnessed (after the incident, he thought grimly) on the Mile. He could remember Percy sitting stone-silent, even with Warden Moores shaking him by the shoulders and bellowing into his face: "Percy! Son! Talk to me if you can hear me."
Except that he hadn't spoken then, and no one was quite sure if he ever would again. He sure as hell wasn't now.
"Well, all right, then."
Paul took a seat on the cot beside Percy, regarding him with an acute sense of unease. It was disquieting, Paul thought, how blank and inexpressive his face was, the only movement there at all the occasional instinctual blink. Most unnerving of all though, Paul found, were the eyes. Once strikingly blue and vibrant, now glossy and devoid. Paul had seen many raw emotions flicker across those icy irises at any given time: Anger, spite, fear, (God help him) lust; never before had Paul looked into those eyes and seen nothing at all. Not a spark, not a glimmer. Nothing.
It was as if Percy's essence, the part of him that was most alive, had up and gone, leaving behind the vacant shell of a mortal form uninhabited.
Paul wondered where Percy was behind those eyes, lost somewhere within the wreckage of his own shattered mind. He found himself wondering, vaguely, what madness sounded like. He imagined it might sound like white noise in an empty room one could never find the exit to. The thought alone made Paul think for a moment that he might be the slightest bit mad himself.
For what seemed the longest, Paul just sat and observed Percy, studying. At first, he didn't speak (because, damn it, what does a man even say to an individual under these circumstances? How does that conversation, one-sided as it might be, even begin?)
It didn't right away, and when it finally did, it did so without any measure of grace or finesse.
"Hello, Percy," Paul started awkwardly. "I would ask you how you're doing, but the answer's… pretty much plain as day, I'm afraid." He paused, taking a deep breath. "The doctors here tell me you're catatonic. I'm not entirely sure what that means, or what that's like, or if you can even hear what I'm saying right now. I don't know what you must think, or how you feel…" Percy blinked, once, and remained otherwise motionless. "Anyhow, you'd more than likely be wondering what I'm even doing here." Paul sighed heavily, averting his eyes to the cold tile floor. "Truth be told, that makes two of us."
"You know, a lot has changed here, recently," he went on. "You're here now, Harry and Dean are gone. Brutus has a transfer pending. So do I. Hell, I don't know why I'm telling you all this." He lifted his gaze, looking earnestly at Percy, even if the latter was not aware of it. "Percy, I can't do it anymore. I just can't. There are some things a man can square with, and some things he doesn't want to. I can't imagine you know what that might be like. Or, maybe you can."
He paused for a beat, considering.
"Do you, Percy?" Paul inquired. "Do you know what that's like?" Percy blinked once, then twice. Impulsively, Paul found himself leaning toward Percy slightly. "Percy, can you hear me where you are?"
On a whim and against his own better judgment, Paul reached for one of Percy's delicate hands and took it into his own, palm pressing to palm, and squeezed lightly.
It was in that particular moment that something happened, just as bizarre as it was unexpected.
The feeling was one Paul could only have described as a jolt, like grabbing a hold of a live wire; it was both alarming and strangely familiar, and not unlike the sensation Paul had felt when John Coffey had grabbed him that day in his cell. It was overpowering and paralyzing, the electric sort of current that coursed through Paul's body to Percy's and back again. Paul found with a rising sense of panic and a sinking dread that he could not let go. He felt his pulse accelerate, heard the hollow rush of blood like a storm flood in his ears. Then came a second jolt, more powerful than the first, and Paul lurched bodily. Somewhere in the room, one of the overhead lights brightened and reverberated with a sudden influx of power.
Oh God, Paul thought, and it was all he could think at that moment. Oh, God. Oh, God.
Then, as quickly as the surge had began, it stopped. Paul let out a sigh of relief he was not aware he'd been holding in…and promptly drew in a sharp breath at the realization that Percy was now squeezing his hand. Hard.
"Percy?" Paul looked up then and saw something which, up to that point, he had not seen at all: A flicker of recognition in Percy's azure eyes. Percy blinked once, then again, and suddenly he was looking at Paul with profound realization, as though he were seeing for the first time someone he'd known his entire life without knowing it.
"Paul?" The expression on Percy's face now was one of such sudden and acute lucidity, as though someone in there had flipped the lights back on again, that it unnerved Paul to his core.
"My God," breathed Paul, and got to his feet seemingly not of his own accord. "Percy, you just stay put, and I'm going to go get the doctors-" Before he could make a move, though, Percy's hand was around his wrist, a delicate touch that stopped him in his tracks with force.
"Wait," Percy said quietly. He blinked a few times, eyes taking in and analyzing his surroundings. His gaze came to rest on Paul again, and he inquired, "Paul, where am I? What is this place?"
Paul hesitated; this was a loaded question, he knew, with an equally loaded answer.
"You're in the hospital."
"The hospital?" Percy repeated, blinking a few more times in rapid succession. "Why am I in the hospital? Am I ill? Was I…" His brow furrowed slightly. "Was I in an accident?"
"An accident…might be the right way to put it." Percy frowned.
"What sort of accident? Paul, what happened? How did I get here?"
"You don't remember?"
"No." The answer gave Paul complete pause. This, now, placed an entirely new light on the situation altogether.
"Do you remember anything at all?"
From beyond the other side of the door, Paul could hear muted voices, above all of them Barrett's. At any moment, he knew, that overzealous head-shrinker would come bursting in with a whole slough of orderlies. He knew he wouldn't have much time.
"I remember going to sleep." Percy frowned again, clearly grasping for something that was just out of his reach. "I remember having a dream."
"What happened?" Paul asked in a low voice. Percy's eyes connected with his; his face went expressionless for a moment, and Paul was afraid that he'd lapsed back into whatever state of mental non-being that he'd been caught in before. "What happened in your dream?"
"You were there, Paul," Percy's voice was quiet, eerie, and it sent chills down Paul's spine. He was intent on asking Percy just what he meant by that. By then, though, a key was rattling in the outside lock, and just as his gut had predicted, the door flew open and in strode Barrett, two other doctors in tow.
"Sir, I'll have to ask you to step away from my patient." Paul stood and stepped back. Suddenly, the small hospital room was akin to the same three-ring circus that had taken place on the Mile after the incident had taken place: doctors clustered around Percy like grotesque white-coated vultures, checking his vital signs, asking the pertinent questions. Who are you, where are you; questions that Percy himself didn't know the answers to. At least, Paul thought, he could open his mouth and say so this time around.
As Paul turned and headed for the door, he heard Percy's voice speak up over the melee.
"Paul." He stopped, turned. Percy was standing, supported by Barrett's arm. "In the dream, I was wandering. I dreamed I was lost in an empty room full of sound, and you came for me. You rescued me."
We found each other. We found each other wandering in the dark.
All at once, it was all Paul could do to keep from buckling to the floor. He needed to get the hell out of there, and fast.
He turned back to the door and pushed the buzzer, making his exit as briskly as possible as soon as one of the orderlies unlocked the door for him. He never once looked back, not for a moment.
The mid-December air was still just as harsh, just as unforgiving as it had been when he had left the house that morning, even with the afternoon sun now burning deceptively bright above the trees. The chill in the air sobered him as he drove, headed back in the direction of Cold Mountain with thoughts of his visit with Percy to keep him occupied.
When John Coffey had used his powers to show him what Wharton had done, he had told Paul at the time that he'd had to give a little of himself to him, a gift of sorts. (Paul would go on later to say that John had "infected him with life," and that was the best way to describe what had happened to him.)
In the back of his mind now, though, Paul was asking himself just what sort of gift John Coffey had left him with.
It was going to be a long, long drive home.