Authors: Brian Kirk
Sugar Hill rose before him as he crested the hill, its central spire reaching up to pierce the leaden sky. The narrow lane leading off the main road towards the facility was lined by cedars and large oaks draped with flowing strands of Spanish moss. It was the oldest mental health facility in Georgia, first established back in the early 1800s as a plantation for a wealthy farmer. The man's wife had been from humble beginnings and grown eccentric under the weight of their wealth, supposedly showering gifts like pearl necklaces and frilly lace cravats upon various farm animals that she had grown affection for. When the husband mistakenly butchered her favorite cow, which she'd raised up from a calf, and had it served for supper, she snapped, falling into a bleak, babbling despair that she never could recover from.
As penance, the man granted his plantation to the state. His wife needed treatment, and he wanted her to feel at home.
While the facility had been expanded to accommodate hundreds of patients (thousands during a grim period of overcrowding that was largely omitted from its written history), the architecture remained true to its origins. The main building was red brick with white accents, two-story with a columned entrance and a wide front porch featuring rocking chairs. White picket fences fronted the facility. The taller, wire-mesh ones with razor wire were farther back and harder to see.
The staff parking lot was around the side, with a special, card-access entrance. The facility offered the impression of genteel charm, but it was as guarded and secure as any state penitentiary. And, at times, could be just as dangerous, if not more so.
Alex took a deep breath before sliding his card through the entry slot and punching in the passcode.
Remember, back from vacation,
Inside, Sugar Hill shed its architectural ancestry, taking on the sterilized appearance of a traditional hospital with white cinder block walls and green-flecked linoleum floors. The staff entrance was deceptively quiet. It led down a short hallway, lined with written warnings and security instructions, to a large steel door with electronic locks. Once through this security entrance, however, the final buffer between the patient's realm and the outside world was removed and the chaotic sounds of insanity echoed from within its inner depths.
Alex strolled past the security desk, offering a curt wave to the two orderlies stationed there.
An elderly African American patient wearing a loose-fitting hospital gown was walking the hallway. She offered Alex a gap-toothed smile as he passed by, then stopped and spoke to his back. “Swoosh! He goes, he goes. Swoosh, he goes!” she said, sliding her hands together and shuffling her feet.
He kept walking as her rambling voice and discordant two-step faded to a murmur behind him. He turned the corner and opened the door to his office, a small room crowded with bookshelves surrounding a wooden desk covered with paperwork. The only form of wall art was the framed psychiatry degree from Emory. A whiteboard was crammed into a corner, featuring a red triangle bordered by half-erased acronyms.
Alex dropped his briefcase and checked his messages. Eli wanted to see him. ASAP. So did Angela.
He checked his appearance in a handheld mirror that he kept in the top desk drawer, and set off to see his brother instead.
He found Jerry in the dining area, hunched over a tray of uneaten eggs, shriveled sausage links and scorched toast. His head was hanging down, hiding his face behind a curtain of unkempt hair. The room was filled with the sounds of clanging trays and incoherent chattering, but Jerry seemed deaf to the chaos around him.
Alex sighed and sat across from him, crossing his legs and resting an arm across the table, drumming his fingers. “Jerry,” he said. There was no response, so he said it again, then slapped his hand against the table a couple of times and shook Jerry's breakfast tray. “Hey, Jerry.”
Slowly, Jerry raised his head; a string of saliva was rappelling from his bottom lip down to the collar of his paisley gown. His eyes were glazed, but a glimmer of recognition caused him to furrow his eyebrows and lean closer. His mouth attempted a feeble smile before going slack once again. He mumbled something that sounded like “I'm humble pie”.
“Hey, brother,” Alex said, shielding the disappointment from his eyes. “How you doing?”
Jerry checked over both shoulders and then leaned as far across the table as possible, planting an elbow into the plate of scrambled eggs. “Where've you been?” he asked in a low, conspiratorial voice. He reached out and grabbed Alex by the wrist. “Are you part of this?”
Alex sighed. “I'm sorry, I've been away.” He placed his hand on top of Jerry's and searched his eyes. “Part of what?”
“They've got me locked up. Like a chicken. They took my eggs. Now I'm in a coop.”
Alex ran a hand through his thick, wavy hair. The same shade of black as Jerry's, except shorter. “Jerry, you're not locked up. You're just being held for observation. You're sick again, and we need to get you well. I'm going to get you home just as soon as I can. I promise.”
“No, that's not it. I saw.” Jerry emphasized his statement by pointing to his eyes. “The big one knows,” he said, scanning the room again. “He tried to kill me.”
Alex studied his hands.
They've got the dosage too low,
Damn it, Eli.
“Well, I'm going to get to the bottom of things. Okay? We'll get you back home as soon as we can. Just try and relax.”
Jerry opened a packet of cigarettes laying on the table and lit one, inhaling deeply and blowing rank smoke into the air.
“Shit, Jerry, you can't smoke here.” Alex grabbed the cigarette from Jerry's mouth and dropped it into a cup of orange juice. He looked up and saw the large orderly, Devon, rushing over and waved him off. Devon paused, assessing the situation, then raised his hand and walked back to his place along the wall.
Jerry watched Devon walk away, then turned back to Alex with narrowed eyes. “What have they told you? What do you know?”
“What do I know?” Alex said. He swirled the cigarette butt in the juice cup, turning the orange liquid grey. “Let's see. I know that today is Tuesday. I know that Santa Claus isn't real. And I know that running over your wife's dog is not the best way to get laid. As far as the conspiracy involving whatever it is you think you've seen, I know that it's due to a chemical imbalance occurring in your brain that we'll correct with a combination of medicines.”
Jerry laughed, stretching his pale skin across a gaunt, skeletal face. “The medicine just makes you blind,” Jerry said. “If you don't want us to see, wouldn't it just be easier to cut out our eyes? Take them with you. Look through them and you'll see what I see.”
Alex frowned. The primary pursuit of his research was working to understand the nature of psychotic perception. In order to do so, he first had to gain a better understanding into the nature of regular perception, which was an enigma. Where did consciousness come from? From the mind? From a nonlocalized source? No one knew. Cognitive mapping studies had failed to find a source for conscious thought. And the mind was incapable of unraveling its own mysteries.
What really comprised the core of his theoretical work, however, was trying to understand the biological need for altered states of consciousness. Why did the mind have the capacity to create delusions? To hallucinate? To perceive the unreal? And why, so often, did such altered states appear to the perceiver as the actual reality? A world more real than this one.
While at Emory, Alex had been intrigued by a grant-funded study into the effects of certain hallucinogenic compounds. As a top student in the psychiatry department, his inquiries had granted him an invitation to participate in the research, to assess the study from a therapeutic point of view.
The central compound under examination was a potent hallucinogenic called dimethyltryptamineâa naturally occurring neurotransmitter found in almost all forms of life, including the human mind. It was believed to be produced by the pineal gland, released during REM sleep and times of extreme stress, such as in the moments before death. An endogenous drug responsible for dreams and death's white light. When concentrated amounts were injected into patients, it produced profound states of altered consciousness. Ineffable experiences that seemed to result from a scrambled mind. Exceptâ¦
Except many of the reports featured similar descriptions. Strangers with dissimilar backgrounds were having shared experiences. Life-altering experiences featuring complex geometric patterns which participants invariably referred to as the “true fabric of reality”. Wild journeys to other dimensions where contact was made with alien entities who possessed primal wisdom. Encounters with an energy field described as the God source where participants reported feeling perfect love and understanding.
Underneath all of these shared themes was the unifying belief that whatever the test subjects had experienced had been real. As real as the laboratory in which the experiments were being conducted. A belief that persisted in the minds of the test subjects long after the experiments had concluded.
While Alex did not believe that these visions or hidden realms were real, he accepted that the participants believed them to be. Just as a person suffering from a psychotic episode will consider his or her delusions to be actual reality. It was a trick created by the release of chemicals to stimulate our minds during sleep and protect us from existential stress. Why it seemed to be encoded with archetypal images or capable of accessing our subconscious was still a mystery. But controlling its production by the pineal gland was something Alex had learned to do. It was the core function of the experimental compound that he had created and tried to sell to Philax.
“If you don't want us to see, why don't you just cut out our eyes?”
Alex opened his mouth then closed it. He scanned the room, observing the patients. Some sitting catatonic before full plates of food. Some rocking back and forth, mumbling incoherently. Some gazing towards the ceiling with agonized expressions, as though watching the Rapture descend.
you see?” Alex asked his brother.
Jerry nodded his head and leaned back. “The source,” he said. “The truth.” He tapped his temple and pointed his finger at Alex. “I see what's hidden, and that's why you've got me locked up like a chicken in a coop.”
“Jerry, you're notâ”
A hand came down on Alex's shoulder. “There you are,” Angela said. Her lips were pressed tight, her dark eyes burrowed into his own. Then she looked over at Jerry and smiled. “Hey, Jerry! How are you feeling this morning?”
“I'm fine,” he said robotically, then bent over his tray of food and began poking at his eggs.
“That's great. Mind if I borrow your brother for a minute?”
Alex reached out and grabbed Jerry's hand. “Hang in there, big guy. I'll get you home just as soon as I can.”
Jerry looked up through his curtain of hair. His eyes jittered and he squeezed them shut and shook his head, as if to clear his mind of what he'd just seen.
Angela sped away from the table, towards the exit.
Alex had to jog to catch up. But he enjoyed the view from behind. It wasn't lost on him that most contortionists were of Asian descent. It was something he had to force from his mind anytime he and Angela met.
She pushed through the hydraulic door without holding it open, so it rebounded against him.
He shook his head and followed her through.
Once outside, Angela slowed. She kept her voice low. “I've been calling you all morning. Where have you been?”
Alex pointed back towards the cafeteria. “Where you just found me. With Jerry. What the hell happened?”
“It would have been better to have had this conversation before you met with him.”
“Well, that's too bad. I'm more concerned with his well-being than with sticking to protocol. He's not a regular patient, you know. And he's not being treated properly. His dosage is off.”
Angela nodded. “That came from Eli.”
“Yeah, I figured.”
They turned a corner that opened onto a large recreational room with card tables and televisions bolted to the walls. It was empty during breakfast hours but Alex still led them to a back table by the window, near the far wall.
Alex eyed the wall before he sat down. It was covered by a mural painted by a former patient. The mural, with its Picasso-esque abstractions, was a representation of the Garden of Eden with a man and woman scantily covered by leaves. They were surrounded by all forms of smiling wildlife, predators at peace with prey. Lions stood peaceably beside zebra; wolves nuzzled sheep. A diamond-patterned snake presented a red apple to the woman. Carved into the apple's skin was the pyramid with the all-seeing eye from the dollar bill. The woman was smiling, but a single tear trickled down her cheek. The sky featured the vast cosmos, a tapestry of darkness and stars, distant planets and foreign galaxies. There was no sign of the sun.
They sat and Angela sighed. She scanned the room and then propped her elbow on the table and placed her chin in her hand.
“Look, I'm sorry. It's been a shitty couple of days. It's justâ”
“Hard when I'm away,” Alex said, smiling.
Angela gave him a mock look of impatience.
“Come on, you can admit it,” he said, teasing. “You missed me.”
“No,” she said. Her legs were crossed and her top foot began to tap the air. “You just always pick the worst time to take off.”
“What a coincidence. It couldn't be that things just happen to run smoother when I'm here?”
Angela cupped her hand to muffle her voice. “It's gotten worse,” she said.
Alex leaned forward. “Eli?”
She nodded. A crease formed between her eyes and her brows came together. “The new forensic patient, Crosby Nelson, who you were supposed to meet with, by the way, was admitted this week. Eli met with him instead, and there was some sort of an altercation.”
“Jesus, what happened?”
“Evidently Crosby got down in some sort of a football stance like he was going to charge him. One of the orderlies stepped in, but Eli ordered him off. He played chicken with him, or something. I don't fully understand.”
Alex barked laughter. “Wait. He did what?”
“I'm telling you, I don't know. I came in after. Heâ¦ I guess he pretended to play football with him.”
Alex was all eyes. He shook his head. “That's crazy. So what happened?”
“Thankfully nothing. Somehow he got Crosby to settle down. The orderly's pissed, though. He wants to file a complaint.”
“Who is it?”
“The big guy, Devon. Which is another thing. He had a run-in with your brother. Jerry bit him.”
“Christ, this week has gone off the rails.”
And that doesn't even account for my failed test trial or my wife's dead dog.
Angela nodded. She leaned back in her seat and crossed her arms.
From the hallway behind her an orderly pushed a supply cart with a squeaky wheel. From farther down came a deep howling, as if from an angry primate. Alex looked over his shoulder and frowned at the painted wall.
“That's why I wanted to see you first thing,” Angela said.
“Well, my first priority is Jerry. Have any charges been filed?”
“No. There're some discrepancies surrounding the story. A groundskeeper, a friend of your brother's, is apparently saying that Devon used unnecessary force.”
“Yeah, Jerry's not violent. You know that.”
“I know. But his condition is just so unpredictable.”
“Well, he's on the wrong medication. I need to talk with Eli about that. And Crosby. I'll need to visit with him too. What's his schedule?”
“We have a therapy session later today. Can you make it?”
“Sure.” Alex checked his watch. “Anything else?”
“What about Eli?”
“What about him?”
“The review meeting is coming up. I'm worried.”
The far hall filled with the sounds of shuffling feet. Two female orderlies came bounding around the corner, preceding the patients into the recreation room, with bright smiles fixed to their faces. They turned and began greeting men and women as they walked in, shouting in cheerful tones.
“Come on, y'all! Good morning. Good morning. Y'all want to play some games? Let's play us some games, y'all! What do you say?”
Alex stood and rapped his fore knuckle against the top of the table. “That's Eli's problem,” he said.
I've got enough of my own,
he thought as he walked away.