Prologue: St. Julian's Hospital for the Dangerously Unstable
Michael Audri wiped the sweat off his forehead and hobbled up the slope, the pain in his throat like a horsewhip, driving him at a quick pace even in this heat. The sun was near its zenith, baking the red-orange rock of the mountainous landscape, heating the crown of his head to such a degree he felt his hair might catch on fire at any second.
Goddamned idiots thought Michael with vehemence. Sent me to die! He found it hard to believe that there were no doctors in Terra Spring. Instead, the townsfolk had pointed him up this steep mountain, towards perhaps the most boring building Michael had ever seen. His throat infection was not so bad that he needed to be confined to a bed, but it was bad enough that he wasn't going to leave it untreated. And so, he'd begun his trek up the slope, trying to get to this St. Julian's Hospital before the heat of the day killed him.
Michael finally stopped, sitting gratefully under the shade of an overhang of rock on the mountainside path, and opened his backpack to take out a water bottle. He drank greedily from it, letting some splash onto his face and hair. Then he took out his cell phone to check the time: 3:17 pm.
Great. He growled wordlessly. I've been out in this burning hell for nearly two hours! To be honest, he hadn't thought it would take him this long to get to the hospital. And he wasn't even sure they could treat him!
"St. Julian's Hospital," grumbled the man he had cornered a few hours earlier, asking where he could get his throat looked at. "Go there and ask 'em. They're the closest." Suddenly he had grinned. "St. Julian's Hospital for the Dangerously Unstable, that's what they used to call it, until everyone got all politically correct and shit. The name changed, but the place hasn't. Still filled with a hundred crazies. Nobody goes there much, 'cept some of the doctors can work on normal people, and there's a pharmacy there." The man's face had gotten downright nasty here. "Better be careful, unless some mad loon attacks ya up there. Or they decide to lock you up. Know what happens to a pretty boy like you up in places like that?" The vile man had walked away laughing.
I hope you get bitten by a scorpion, thought Michael silently to the man. From this height, he could see all of Terra Spring laid out before him. Not that it was a big place. It was small enough that he was sure everyone must know everyone else. There were two elementary schools, one middle school and one high school. One church, its pointed spire visible to him from where he sat, was set up near the center of the town, with the tiny City Hall facing it. The houses were bigger than he was used to, but he supposed that must be all the extra space that the state of Colorado had to offer. He was more used to the tinier apartments and the bustling thoroughfares of New York City than the mountains and wide open spaces of western America.
How had he gotten from the crowded city he loved to this place? The question was one he'd asked himself quite a few times on his journey. And it's a question, he thought, knocking the back of his head against the rock idly, that I still can't answer!
He'd just gotten home the night after his high school graduation, when he'd felt this pull, something akin to magic, if he believed in such things. A pull drove him west, from his home in New York, like he was some manifest destiny settler from the eighteen hundreds. His parents had been alarmed when they woke up to see he'd packed his belongings in the night and was waiting to tell them goodbye. His mother had cried, begging him to stay, and his father had gotten angry, asking him why he was doing this to them. Michael had been unable to give them any answer. Any answer that would have made any sense. He couldn't tell them that there was a need to be west, a need more urgent inside him than hunger or thirst. This knowledge that there was someone who needed his help, his protection, was as solid in his mind as the knowledge that the sun would rise in the morning. They would have thought he was insane. They would have tried to stop him.
And so Michael had set out west with a single suitcase on a rickety bus, with the pull at his heart his only indicator of where he was going.
Michael put a hand on his chest, where he estimated his heart was. Or where it would be if I had one, he thought cynically. The pull had been like a living thing, tugging at him until he'd been forced to relent to it. It had come suddenly, one night, and just as suddenly, it had disappeared. Why had it gone away? What had made it go away? It had gone last night, when he'd arrived in Terra Spring. Was this where he was meant to be? Or had it just been a coincidence that the longing had stopped in this town? Or was he simply mad? With a disgusting jolt, he remembered what that awful man in town had said to him about the taking care lest they lock him up. That's impossible, he chided himself, there's no reason for them to think I'm crazy.
And yet the hospital he was travelling to provided its own concerns. From where he sat, he could see the dull, squat edifice, looking as if someone had dropped the drab gray rectangular building onto the bright red-orange mountain by accident. Did it really have dangerous, mentally ill patients? He thought the man from town had been right about that.
Suddenly, Michael stood up again, stowing his water bottle back into his green backpack after a last drink and shoving his cell phone into his loose khaki shorts. There was no point in worrying about any of this. I'll go up there and see if they can do anything about my throat, and then I'll decide on what to do next.
With the decision made, he began the trek upwards on the winding slope with renewed vigor.
The sun had travelled a ways further in its decent by the time he was walked through the black-top parking lot of St. Julian's Hospital, once known as St. Julian's Hospital for the Dangerously Unstable. He walked past the old, dusty cars and climbed the steps to the entrance, noting that all the windows on the floors except the first had metal bars over them, reminiscent of jail cells. It's probably just to prevent anyone of them from jumping out the window and hurting themselves, he thought. The idea was pushed out of his head once the automatic doors slid open and his face was assaulted by a gust of colder air escaping into the outside heat. Gratefully he stepped inside, and was met with another assault to his senses.
Everything was white. The walls, the sleek, waxy linoleum floors, the ceiling, even the uniforms of the people who walked by him: they were all the brightest of white. Even after the intensity of the sun outside, the glare of his surroundings stabbed his eyes and made him blink as they teared. As his eyes adjusted, he decided the whiteness had a kind of sterile quality to it. Or perhaps he just thought that because this was a hospital.
Feeling conscious about his red T-shirt and khaki shorts, he stepped away from the doors and walked up to the receptionist's desk. The man there looked up in a bored sort of way, his eyes half-lidded as if he were sleepy. Or hiding something, thought Michael, suddenly absurdly suspicious.
"How can I help you?" asked the man. Even his words sounded drowsy, slow and unconcerned. It was clear that he didn't get all too many new visitors and wasn't about to get too excited about Michael.
"I think I have a throat infection," snapped Michael tiredly. He just wanted a place to sit down, after walking for four hours up the steep slope of a mountain in blinding heat. "Is there anyone here who can prescribe me anything for it?"
"Did you make an appointment with one of the doctors?" If the receptionist registered his less than polite tone, he didn't react.
"I tried," retorted Michael, "With my cell phone and two others in town, but I couldn't reach you."
"I see," replied the man, as unconcerned as ever, and Michael felt a savage urge to throttle him and watch those half-lidded eyes pop open. "I'm afraid you'll have to wait while I see if anyone is free." He gestured to the waiting area, a room off to the side.
Michael hobbled into the room on tired legs and sat down heavily in one of the hard, angular chairs. The pain in his throat still bothered him every time he swallowed, but he was just happy, now, to be sitting.
The waiting room was just as whitely sanitary as the reception area. It lacked all the things Michael had come to expect of waiting rooms: magazines and potted plants, quiet music, and thick carpeting. This room only had a collection of stiff, hard-backed chairs lined up perfectly against three walls. It was as if prolonged visits were not encouraged here.
All the better for him! Michael did not want to stay in this bright, sterile place a second more than he had to.
Once he'd finally caught his breath and his legs no longer felt like they were about to fall off and crawl away, he finally sat up a little and turned to dig his water bottle out.
The receptionist leisurely strolled into the waiting room as Michael was stowing the bottle back into his backpack.
"Dr. Lee can take you now," said the man, lethargically. "There are quite a few doctors missing today, so you're very lucky anyone can be found with the time to look at walk-ins."
"Thanks," answered Michael, sourly. He stood up, slinging his backpack onto his shoulders and followed the receptionist at his sluggish pace.
The man strolled back into the reception area and through a set of double doors, leading him down a sterile, white hallway. They turned into a room that held a counter with cabinets on one end, two chairs and a cot with adjustment knobs that was meant for patients. The room already held another occupant: a girl with long blonde hair and disturbingly large eyes who looked to be his age, perhaps a year or two older. She sat in one of the chairs and was so immersed in the book she was reading that she did not even look up.
The receptionist opened his mouth to speak in his monotonous voice again, but was mercifully interrupted by the arrival of a white-coated man with gray hair and many wrinkles. This seemed to be Dr. Lee. Dr. Lee shut the door behind him and the sound made the girl in the chair jump and look up, finally realizing she was not alone in the room.
"My daughter, Nora," explained the doctor. He was several inches shorter than Michael, who was 6'3" the last time he'd checked. The receptionist quietly exited the room to go back to his desk.
Nora looked up and gave a small smile in greeting, regarding him with those rather large gray eyes and then promptly buried her pointed chin back into her book. It was resting on her lap, so Michael was unable to read the title.
He sat down on the edge of the observation chair as Dr. Lee bustled about and spoke. "Alright, you say your throat hurts and you think it's infected?" He gave him no chance to reply. "You walked all that distance up here? You must have been cooked!" Dr. Lee gave him what he seemed to think was a sympathetic look, but Michael thought his blue eyes were harsh and depthless. He wondered if Nora was actually related to this man. If her small, warm smile was any indication, she was left at his doorstep when she was just a baby. But looking their identical diminutive noses, Michael thought they must be of the same blood.
"It's a lucky thing you came just now, while I was taking a break, otherwise, you might not have found a doctor free for hours to see you." Though he pronounced it a lucky thing, Michael thought he might feel a little resentful at having to forego his break.
"The receptionist said the same thing," said Michael, trying to make conversation as Dr. Lee hurriedly prepared to check his throat. "That you were short-handed today."
"Open your mouth," ordered Dr. Lee, ignoring him. He took a tiny flashlight and aimed into his wide open mouth, looking into his mouth. He snapped it off quickly and said. "You have a minor infection caused by bacteria. I'll assign antibiotics and lidocaine for the pain." He placed the flashlight back in a drawer and peeled off his gloves before finally addressing Michael's comments. "Yes, we are short- handed today. The flu's run the gamut with regards to hospital workers this week." Suddenly he grinned, and Michael was reminded of the disgusting man he'd talked to in town. "Of course, we're always looking for helpers here. Would you be interested in helping us out?"
He thinks I'm going to say no, thought Michael. He wanted to say no, truth be told. He didn't want to stay inside this bright, sanitary place that somehow reminded him of a prison, with mentally ill patients who might or might not be dangerous and people like Dr. Lee. He opened his mouth to tell the doctor, "Thanks but no thanks," when suddenly, his throat seized up and he could not speak at all.
Was this somehow related to his throat infection? Michael did not think so. Suddenly, the force, the pressure that had driven him this far, the pull that had left him last night, suddenly reappeared, deep within his chest. It was stronger now, potent and catching him by surprise, urging him now, in a new direction, with as much force as a whip driving him onwards.
Only a second had passed since Dr. Lee had asked his question and Michael opened his mouth again, sure of the answer he was going to give, though he did not know how he could be sure. "Yes! I would love to help out here."
The doctor's surprise was nothing to Michael's own. Where had that come from? The pull had gone again, but Michael was afraid to try and decline the offer, if it decided to reappear and take over his will once more.
"Well, then," said Dr. Lee, still not over his shock at Michael's answer. "Er…come with me then." And he shuffled through the door. Michael followed, with one last glance at Nora, who gave him the same small, warm smile in goodbye, considering him with her enormous round gray eyes before dropping them back to her book.
What the hell is going on? Wondered Michael angrily. When the pull west had begun, he had tried to rationalize it by blaming it on itchy feet. He'd never travelled before and thought it might be a good idea. He thought maybe he felt restless because he wanted to see more of the word before enrolling in college. Michael knew it didn't make sense, but it was the only kind of logic he could apply to it. Now, with what had just happened during him check-up, Michael could delude himself no longer. Something was wrong with him.
"I'll put you with Nurse Stone. She can teach you about writing and filing reports. Once she thinks you're good enough to handle it on your own, we'll talk about paying you." Dr. Lee's voice cut into Michael's worries like a sharp scissor on thin cloth. He looked up to see he was being led to another room, one in which a dark-haired, middle-aged woman sat writing at a desk. She looked up at him with amphibious eyes and inquired with Dr. Lee about what she was to do with "the boy," as she called him.
After Dr. Lee had given his explanation and Nurse Stone had made her own pronouncements of shock, he left and she turned to Michael, shoving six different report sheets under his nose and ordering him to read through all of them.
Groaning inwardly, Michael started reading, wondering what on Earth he was getting himself into.
Demetri, Demetri, called Tamika, trying to address the man in her head. Talk to me, will you? I'm going mad here. She thought that was a good joke, considering she was locked up in a mental hospital.
It was terrible. Came a voice, echoing through her head.
My head thought Tamika, fiercely, making sure Demetri heard. It would not due for the man to suddenly think it was his.
Relax, he said icily. I know this is your head and your body.
You didn't always think that way, Tamika pointed out. She'd been fighting for control of her body for nearly two years now, and it still was not entirely hers. Every time she was able to get a good, proper grip on her functions, she would slip and she would fall back into her mind, as if her subconscious were rejecting the responsibility of a controlling a body. Demetri controlled her bodily functions at the moment. His control never slipped.
Let me try again. Said Tamika.
Demetri sighed inside the shared space in her head and, to her annoyance, with her mouth as well. But he obligingly relented to the press of her mind against his, travelling back into her head, and allowing her to take up control of her body once more. Tamika smiled, feeling her lips curling upwards and shook her head from side to side, her short dark hair brushing along her shoulders. While Demetri controlled her body, she could still feel everything her body felt, but being able to govern this form, being able to move it as she willed, was a feeling that most people took for granted.
Tamika stood up, wobbling slightly, and took a step. She tumbled downwards and struck the floor, a yell escaping her lips and her consciousness fleeing the pain back into her head. Demtri automatically filled the space she had left, settling back to resume control of the body she had fled.
That hurt he said, slightly irritated. As long as he was in her body, he would feel everything that happened to it and would die if she died.
Sorry, somewhat annoyed herself. Demetri didn't have to resume control so quickly. He could have waited a bit and let her try again.
And do what? Fall down and break our neck? He asked.
My neck, retorted Tamika automatically.
Our neck. He countered. I will admit that this headspace and this body rightfully belong to you, but while I am sharing your headspace with you, what happens to your body affects me as well.
Tamika knew he was right, but she hid that thought from him. She could do that now and she suspected Demetri could too: hide feelings they wanted kept private from each other. She suspected there was a great deal Demetri didn't tell her. The time before, when her headspace and her body and truly been her own and she had not known Demtri – that time was hazy and blurry, like looking through a dark window at a summer storm while spiders wove curtains in front of her. Her last, clearest memory was of two years ago: two men dressed all in black stood before her. One raised his hand and the other fell, screaming. She had woken up screaming, or rather her body was screaming, all she could do was recoil in horror inside her own mind as an alien consciousness took control of her body and scream out in horrible rage and loss.
That had been her first impression of Demetri: his pain at what he had lost. Tamika thought it was his body that he had lost:- in fact, she was almost sure of it. But Demetri did not like speaking about that time, before he had appeared in her head.
Are you going to try again, today? Demetri said, and Tamika left her private musings.
No. she said. Even this much had tired her out. She was no longer used to directing her frame as she wanted.
Sadly, she watched as Demetri guided her body from the ground where she had fallen and into the tiny bed. He closed the eyes of the body that seemed to belong to him now more than it did to her and settled in to sleep, sending one last thought to her.
Don't worry. You will get better,
Tamika wanted to believe it, but she despaired of ever truly mastering herself again.