Haunted Walls

Edward Lee

Short Fiction

The nurse asks me to sign a document I cannot see. Or I can see it, but cannot read it, the words nothing more than indecipherable black marks scratched into the whiteness of the paper, a whiteness which, combined with the harsh shine of the overhead fluorescent lights, hurts my eyes. The nurse explains to me what I am to sign, but each word seems to bounce of my ears rather than enter. I sign the document anyway, for I can go no farther until I do, and even though I would rather be anywhere else than where I am, there is nowhere else for me to go.

The nurse takes me to a large room with a small bed, an attached bathroom that seems larger than necessary, the shower itself wide enough for at least three people. She hands me pills to take and then tells me to call if I need anything, though she does not tell me how to do so, presumably assuming that I already know. She tells me to try and sleep, and I almost cry at her professional kindness, and also at the word ‘sleep’, because I cannot remember the last time I slept. I almost cry too because that is what I have been doing for almost a month now, every breath I take seemingly carrying tears with it, as though my body has deemed it necessary to expunge all moisture from itself.

The nurse leaves. I undress, the smell of my body like something recently dead, the process of putrefaction just beginning to taint the air. My clothes smell too, and they are slightly shiny, greasy, and I wonder how long I have been wearing them. I put on the pajamas that lie neatly folded in the centre of the bed, the material as thin as the sky they are the colour of. They are clean and smell of nothing, not even any hint of washing powder. Thinking of washing powder I find myself thinking of the flowers I bought my wife for Valentine’s Day – how long ago was that? – when I was still under the impression that we were working on our marriage, while she had already turned her heart and mind to its ending. I shake my head as though this might dislodge the remembrance, but of course it does not. I shake my head again, all the same. I never suspected my wife was unhappy until she told me, the words leaving her mouth as though she had been rehearsing them for some time. She wanted our marriage to end there and then but I asked her for another chance, that I would be willing to do anything she wanted if it meant that I did not lose her, my heart, along with my mind, already beginning shake with the cracks to come.

I sit down on the edge of the bed and allow my eyes to travel the room, noting that it has been designed to decrease any opportunities to kill yourself, though anything I might use to do so – my laces, my belt, phone-charger – have been taken from me. I have been doing this in all rooms of late, just as I have watched buses and cars speeding along the road, just as I check the times of the tides at the nearest beaches to me, and even those it would take me days to reach. Disappointed in a muted way – my emotions feel both tender and numb, overloaded and dormant – I lie down on the bed and evade sleep, or to be precise, sleep evades me, the tattered rags of my life blowing across the inside of my eyes, moments I do not wish to think about demanding that I pay attention to them.

Slowly the morning comes, the stretching of time almost audible to my ears, just as I can almost hear the sound of everything broken inside me shift when I move, every turn of my head a scattering of shattered glass, every step an avalanche of crumbling stone. All unreal I know – time silent, the broken pieces of me never audible – while simultaneously certain of their truth, like knowing there are no such things as ghosts and still starting at sudden sounds in empty houses. My eyes are still sore, both from tiredness and from the beam of the flashlight a nurse would shine in through the small window of the door every half hour to check if I was still alive; I could hear them approach every time, a jingle of keys and the soft slip of their soles on the floor, and so could have easily closed my eyes before the beam appeared to spare myself the sharp stab of the invading light, but I kept my eyes open, welcoming the sting of pain, its surge distracting my mind for a few brief moments. 

A different nurse than the one who brought me to the room comes to wake me. I do not stir as she knocks on the door and enters the room. I remain lying there, eyes open, my gaze on the ceiling but seeing nothing. The nurse says my name and I sit up on the bed, swinging my legs over the side, my feet slapping onto the floor. For a moment I forget that I took my socks off and the shock of the cold floor staggers into me, and I wonder what is now happening to me, haven’t I endured enough. But then I remember my bare feet, realise that it is only the coldness of the floor shaking my skin. 

I dress as the nurse watches me and I sense that her body is leaning towards me, ready to catch me should I fall. But I could be just imagining this, and besides, I do not fall, or even stagger as I dress myself, though I do have to sit down to put my socks on and I am reasonably sure I have never had to do that before. But I am tired after all, from the onslaught of stress, from a lack of sleep, from a thousand different things, a tiredness that feels like a layer of cement coating my bones, their yellowish whiteness made grey. As I put on my runners my fingers, from muscle memory, try to tie the laces that are not there, and I see a flash of a silk scarf tightening around skin, feel the explosion of pain in my head as blood is slowly stopped in its flow to my brain, but both the image and the pain vanish almost as quickly as they appeared. I wonder why I imagined a silk scarf when I do not own one or know anyone who owns one, but then a moment later I remember researching possible ways to kill yourself – some relatively painless way that did not involve stomach-turning pills or blood spilling blades, both of those methods notoriously unreliable as well as painful – and a silk scarf or tie was recommended for using your own weight to suffocate yourself, the silk material allowing for smooth movements. 

I follow the nurse out of the room, my mouth moving as I shape answers to the questions she is asking me, though I cannot hear what I am saying, nor, for that matter, can I hear what she is asking. Then it begins. The nurse and her colleagues, other nurses, some doctors, begin to try to heal me. They ask me questions I have answered dozens of times before over dozens of years. They write down everything I say, even as my file – thicker than the phonebooks that are no longer sent to every house, the world speeding beyond the need for such things – lies open before them; I imagine what they write will be added to that file, either transcribed or simply stuck in as it is, the handwriting, for the most part, unreadable. They teach me to breathe, and to imagine balloons carrying my woes away – the balloons can be any colour, but I must try to stick to whatever colour I pick – and countless other methods I have tried countless times over countless years. They change my medication, increase this dose, lower that dose, introduce something entirely new, something that may help but will not be apparent for weeks if not months and in the meantime may make me feel worse than I already do. In truth, they are not trying to heal me, not as such, no. They are trying to stop me from wounding myself, and, reaching deeper inside, trying to stop me from feeling compelled to wound myself, to stop me from finally striking the fatal blow where I will reach the peace I cannot know while I still breathe. They have accepted, it seems, as I accepted some years before, that that is all that can be done, my depression a beast that refuses to be tamed, only calmed for short spaces of time, the chemicals in my brain unable to remain balanced for too long, even less so when there is a ‘trigger’ – in this case, the ending of my marriage – to push me out of my delicate equilibrium.

I meet others in that place, others like me, some worse than me, some better, though it is almost impossible to accurately judge such things when each person’s malady is constantly changing shape and strength, depending on everything from the hour of the day to the colour of the sky and every imaginable scenario in-between. I sit in rooms with them and listen to them talk, listen to them cry, listen to them shout at their fellow patients, the nurses and doctor, and also the air around them. At night I listen to them cry too, listen to them roar, listen to every way they try to make sense of their placement in this place. And one evening, just before the night begins, I listen to a handful of them sing. First, they sing Sinatra’s ‘My Way’, each line sung as though written by each singer. Then they sing Don Mclean’s ‘American Pie’, their voices reaching an unnaturally high pitch as they sing the line about this being the day that they will die. I never join in the singing. Nor do I speak when we sit in groups, the possibility that any word I speak will drag everything I am inside outside, every word and every organ, every thought and every food I have ever eaten, every drop of blood and every illness I have ever know, bar the one that has brought me here, keeping me fearfully silent; I imagine myself as Pandora’s urn, with that last evil thing remaining firmly fixed inside me, but I dismiss it almost immediately as I am sure I have the basics of the tale wrong. I manage hellos and goodbyes to my fellow patients and nothing more, and I realise, long after, that may make me seem deliberately standoffish, which gives me cause to cry for the first time in many months with a mixture of sadness and anger that I am the way I am.

 It will transpire, through no obvious fault of the nurses or the doctors, no fault I can pinpoint at least, that the nurse and doctors will break me more than I was broken before. I cannot provide any empirical evidence that I have been broken deeper by my stay in the hospital, only that I can feel it inside me – and hear it too, of course, even as I acknowledge such a thing is impossible – like waking in the morning and feeling some new physical pain in your body even though you have no idea what it is or how you managed to injury yourself. I imagine it as less a collection of causes and more to do with the place itself, the illness in its walls, absorbed across all the years and hours and minutes of misery, of voices raised and tears shed, seeping into me to mingle with the illness already there, that has always been there for as long as I can remember. In truth, I know this does not make much sense, and yet I feel that it comes as close to an explanation as I am likely to find.

My healing truly begins when, some weeks later, I am discharged back into a world I am not able for, a world I have never been truly able for, and which may partially explain why I could not be healed within those walls of cries and songs. But even then, the healing I undergo still does not entirely heal me, but merely, as it so often has, smooths over the cracks and wounds, like an adhesive holding a dozen jagged pieces in place. And yet, as I write this, four years later, I am somehow still alive – yes, it does genuinely surprise me as I think on it, especially when I think of the dark days I have had over these past four years, though none as dark as those which brought me to the hospital – the fear of returning to that place that did not heal me instilling a need in me to, if not live, at the very least survive as best as I can, least I find myself back within its haunted walls.

Edward Lee’s poetry, short stories, non-fiction, and photography have been published in magazines in Ireland, England, and America, including The Stinging Fly, Skylight 47, Acumen, The Blue Nib, and Poetry Wales. He is currently working on a novel. He also makes musical noise under the names Ayahuasca Collective, Orson Carroll, Lego Figures Fighting, and Pale Blond Boy. His blog/website can be found at https://edwardmlee.wordpress.com

Photo Credit: Square Lab on Unsplash

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