by AARON OXFORD | Honorable Mention, student prose contest

“Mr. Crawford, did you hear what I said?”

I looked at the man sitting in the chair across the small coffee table from me and squinted. He was dressed in a pair of khaki slacks, with a button-up white dress shirt and olive green vest. A red tie was visible against the white shirt, disappearing under the vest at the tip of its “v” neck. He had one leg crossed over the other, so I could see the shine of the light reflected in his brown loafers. A notepad sat in his lap, with a pencil poised above it as though he had just stopped writing. The light shone off his bald head to match the gleam on his shoes. He was looking at me over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses that sat perched on the tip of his nose, and I could tell that he was getting impatient by the way he pressed his thin lips together and wrinkled his brow above those ice blue eyes.

“Mmm sorry. . .Dr. Godfrey.” Recognition hit me as my own slurred words got my sluggish brain to start processing the world around me again. “Wha’ did you say?”

“I asked if you remembered why you are here.”

I glanced out the nearby window again, focusing beyond my reflection. The iron bars on the other side of the glass couldn’t keep the rain from pattering against the pane. Droplets made their zigzagging course toward the bottom of the sill. They combined with the sudden tears in my eyes to help blur the form of a small body lying in the parking lot outside. The water around the form tinged pink as it washed across the asphalt.

“The accident.” I said to the window.

“The accident happened more than a year ago, Mr. Crawford.” Dr. Godfrey said as he scribbled notes. “What can you tell me about the incident with your wife?”

“I-I don’t know. I don’t remember.” I squeezed my eyes shut, but the damned image lingered in my mind.

“Do you remember the police bringing you in? Anything at all about that night?”

I kept my eyes closed. My head slumped toward the ground between my knees, and I had the sudden urge to rock in the chair. I wasn’t sure how long I sat that way, but was barely aware of the doctor walking to the intercom on the wall and calling for an orderly. A burly, young man, with brown hair cropped close to his skull, wearing light blue scrubs, came into the room. I felt the firm pressure of his grip at my elbow.

“It’s alright, John. Let’s go back to your room,” He said with genuine compassion.

My room was bare of any decoration. Four white walls boxed in a twin bed with a metal frame. The scent of bleach, or other cleaning products, just reinforced the sterilization of its spartan image. The bed was bolted to the floor. There were no sheets for the same reason there wasn’t anything else in the room. It was hard to inflict self harm if you didn’t have the tools. I was just happy the single window in the room was too high on the wall for me to look out.

I lay back on my bed and stared at the ceiling. It was calming to focus on the white tiles to the exclusion of everything else. I just had to be careful not to fall asleep. I couldn’t control my thoughts while I slept.

An hour passed before the same orderly came to get me for dinner and rec time. We walked together down the hallway, passing other rooms with other patients. You could always tell the new ones from those that had been here awhile. They lay on their beds, sometimes in the fetal position, but always they cried. They cried and they struggled to block out the hell they were seeing. The old hats just sat despondently, waiting for someone to tell them what to do and when to take their next dosage.

We got to the cafeteria, and I was steered to the line and given a tray. I couldn’t place the smell of the food, but knew it was some kind of meat byproduct. We didn’t pick what we received. Everything was pre-planned. So were the seating arrangements. I was still kind of new myself, but had been here long enough for the medicine to take the edge off. That meant I got to eat in the cafeteria with other people instead of in my room. It also meant that I was seated at the last table in the room, mostly empty except for myself and a couple of catatonics. So I was a little surprised when they sat the new guy next to me.

He was a smaller man, with dark hair and dark eyes set in a hatchet face. The way he twitched and wrinkled his nose reminded me of a cornered rat. He seemed like the perpetually nervous type, his eyes darting around the room, occasionally flinching away from something no one else noticed.

“John, this is Andrew. Andy is a regular here at Pineview, but he was out in the real world longer this go-round than ever before. Dr. Godfrey thought it might do both of you some good to get to know each other.” The kind orderly gave Andy a pat on the shoulder after the introduction, and then left us to get acquainted.

Andy frowned at the tray of food in front of him, and idly pushed a few peas around with his plastic spork. “Goddamn, this shit never gets any better does it?”

I huffed out a single breath of a chuckle. “I guess not. I haven’t been here long enough to say.”

“Well hope you aren’t. I could really use a fucking cheeseburger right now.”

I nodded, but went ahead and took a bite of my peas mixed together with the mystery meat on my plate. “It’s not so bad. You get used to it.”

“Heh, I’ve been here longer than you have, pal. I ain’t never getting used to this shit!” He shook his head, and pushed his tray towards one of the catatonics. “Maybe this guy will appreciate it. Probably not though.”

“I’m pretty sure they get spoon fed by the orderlies.” I said, frowning at the tray.

“Heh, I know that man. Just making a little joke. I know all about what goes on at this place.” He said, like he knew something no one else did.

I turned my frown towards him, and raised an eyebrow.

“Just don’t take the meds anymore. They aren’t helping like you think they do. That’s all I’m saying.”

“But, you’ve been released before.” I said. “The drugs had to help you some.”

“Yeah, if by help you mean make you smile through the fucking pain. You still See everything. Once you’ve Seen it, it never goes away. Your Eyes are open now, amigo. There’s no closing them to reality. We know what’s out there, even if the normies want us to ignore it for their comfort.”

I looked away from Andy, and that’s when I saw her again. She was laying in the middle of the cafeteria floor in a blue and white dress. One ruby-red slipper was still on her foot. Blonde curls hid her face. Blood began to pool from under her body in an irregular blob. I couldn’t take my eyes away, even though I knew what was coming next. The small body twitched, and her head began to peel off the floor, strings of thickening blood and hair pulling away from her face. Her eyes met mine, and I saw all the anger and pain of the world reflected back at me in that broken visage. Once delicate features twisted into animal rage, and she opened her mouth wider than a human could have, though no sound came out. It didn’t need to. The screams were being torn from my throat.

They kept me in my room for several days. No rec time for the malcontents. I spent the time staring at my ceiling, inhaling the bleach fumes, and taking every drug they brought me. The fuzzy feeling and lack of stimulus was more relaxing than any meditation could have been. I was almost sorry when it ended.

I didn’t see Andy again the next time I went to dinner in the cafeteria. I wondered if they were purposely keeping us apart now. It didn’t really matter, I suppose. I ate in silence, and tried not to look around at anybody.

After dinner, I was allowed to go to the rec room. It was filled with zombies. Not literally, of course. Just mindless humanity, too high to do anything but shamble aimlessly and occasionally stare at the TV mounted on the wall. There were several tables and chairs scattered around the room. A few were occupied by orderlies trying to play board games with some of the more lucid patients.

They kept the TV tuned to an old sitcom station, playing reruns of shows like I Love Lucy. I watched for a bit with the other zombies before shuffling off toward one of the corners of the room to be alone. It was no luck. My corner was occupied tonight. A small, twitchy form turned as I approached, and Andy gave me a toothy grin. His bloodshot eyes looked intense.

“Hey bud! That was some party the other night, heh heh! You had everyone worked up real good. Whole place was crawling tormentors. I thought that dipshit Godfrey might even see them for a second. He sure looked like he felt them! Hehehe!” His giggles had a piercing, demented quality.

“What are you talking about?” I asked. “Who did he see?”

“Oh hoho! You’re still taking the meds aren’t you, sheep?” He teased. “Baah, Baah! Good little sheep. You must have a pretty powerful pain to see your tormentor through the meds, chief! Open your Eyes, sheep! You think you’re the only one who Sees?!”

Then he was off like a jack-rabbit. Bounding from one zombie to the next, a chorus of “baah, baah” followed him. Some of the patients actually took the time to notice, and glanced at his eyes before jerking their heads back in fright. Gasps and moans became cries of fear and sorrow in his wake, and the orderlies in the room worked to calm the sea of agitation while corralling Andy.

It was then that I noticed something about the other patients. Maybe Andy’s words had stirred some kind of intuition. I looked—really looked—for the first time at their eyes. They weren’t all glassed over and vacant. Not all of them. Several of them, all of the disturbed ones, had their eyes tracking something only they could see. No, that wasn’t quite right either. A few of them looked in multiple directions, not only tracking things no one else saw, but also some of the invisible things being viewed by the others.

I sat in my corner and watched their behavior with fascination. It didn’t take long for the orderlies to get Andy out of the room, and the rest of the seething masses settled. They worked quickly and efficiently like they’d done so many times before. That night was the first time I didn’t take my medication.

“What do you see?” A voice asked from the darkness.

“Nothing,” I almost replied. But, right as my lips formed the words, a raindrop hit the windshield in front of me.

I was driving through a neighborhood in the rain. As I became aware of my surroundings, I answered the voice, and told it what I saw. The radio station blared “Monster Mash” as I roared around the corner of one street onto the next. The car fishtailed in the water slightly before I regained control. I looked up into the rearview mirror to make sure no one had seen what had happened. Especially not the police. I couldn’t afford to get pulled over in my state, with the car reeking of alcohol.

I saw my reflection in the mirror. Bloodshot eyes and rumpled clothes a testament to the number of drinks I’d had at the office party. Lipstick was smeared on one side of my lips, and the buttons on my shirt weren’t lined up properly. I wiped at my mouth with a napkin I had in the car, and worked to fix my shirt as I turned into the neighborhood. My wife was already pissed. She would kill me if she saw the evidence. I was drunk and distracted. It was raining, and I wasn’t paying attention to the road ahead. There shouldn’t have been any trick-or-treaters out. Not that late. Not in the rain.

She was playing in a puddle in the middle of the street. Her golden curls plastered to her head in the rain. She had a basket on one arm, presumably filled with candy, with a small stuffed dog sticking out of the top. My headlights lit up her terrified face, mouth gaping wider than a human’s should have, for a split second. I jerked on the wheel as hard as I could, the car sliding into a spin on the wet surface. I heard a honk and screeching tires as the car coming from the other direction swerved to miss me. Swerved the only direction they had available with a split second’s notice. Into the lane I had just vacated.

I heard the impact. Saw a little red shoe go flying through the air in my rearview. I sat there for a minute, my whole body shaking. This couldn’t be real. It didn’t really happen. Then I heard the screams from the driver of the other car.

I got out into the rain, and rushed to the front of the other vehicle. The driver was crouched over a small form. Wet blonde hair hid her face. One ruby-red slipper was still on her foot. The water in the street around her was tinged red and pink in the headlights. I couldn’t take my eyes away from the small, still form. Even though the other driver was still screaming. Even though it wasn’t their fault. I couldn’t acknowledge them. I couldn’t acknowledge every life I had ruined that night. Just the one that had ended.

A snap brought me back to consciousness.

“Very good, Mr. Crawford.” Dr. Godfrey congratulated. “I think the medication is starting to help. We’re finally making progress.”

I was reclined on the leather upholstered chair in the doctor’s office. I pushed myself back into a sitting position, and studiously avoided looking at the forms hovering behind Dr. Godfrey. Even so, I was aware of the straight jackets they wore, and the menacing glares they directed his way.

“If you say so, doc.” I whispered.

“At least we’re having honest conversations now, Mr. Crawford.” He replied. “Can you tell me now if you remember why you are here?”

“Yes.” I said simply. “I attacked my wife with a knife.”

“Why?” He asked.

“I was delusional.” I answered. “I thought I was protecting her from something that wasn’t there.”

“So you attacked her with a knife?”

“I didn’t know it was her,” I replied truthfully. “I was seeing things that weren’t there.”

My eyes went to the standing mirror in the corner. I saw her lying there in the reflection of the doctor’s office. A pool of blood formed under her body to create an irregular blob on the tiled floor. Her body jerked as she pulled her head off the floor, looked into my eyes, and screamed silently from her impossibly wide mouth.

“You’re lucky she refused to press charges,” the doctor continued. “You’ve somehow managed to avoid prison on two separate occasions. One could look at that as being very fortunate.”

I looked back at Dr. Godfrey and saw his tormentors writhing around him, their arms held tightly to their sides, lips and eyelids sewn shut. He couldn’t See them.

“Yeah, I’m grateful.” I said with an insincere smile. “To be so fortunate.”

I walked back to my room with the kind orderly by my side. We passed the room I had learned was Andy’s when he was in residence. I had seen him one last time after the ruckus in the rec room. It was pure chance that left me in the hallway by his room, door open, while we were both unattended.

“Hey sheep. Bleep, bleep!” He said in a singsong voice.

I don’t know how he knew it was me. A bandage covered both of his eyes, and I could see spots of blood soaking through the gauze. A shiver went through me as I entered his room.

“Hey Andy.” I said gently. “What happened, man?”

“They’re here, they’re there. They’re everywhere!” He continued to sing.

“I see them too.” I whispered. “Are they really there?”

“Real? What is real!?” He squealed in glee. “Real to you, real to me! Is it real if both can See?!”

I saw them then. His tormentors. A pair of junkies, both with needles still hanging from the skin of their arms inside the elbow. A girl and a boy, both in their teens or early twenties, both with long hair hanging in front of their eyes. Andy didn’t lose his smile as he turned his head to watch their approach.

My curiosity got the better of me. I walked up to Andy and lifted the edge of his bandage. A ruined socket wept blood from the empty spot where his eye should have been. I didn’t need to look at the other side. I knew it was missing as well.

“Didn’t help to tear them out,” he sang in a whisper as he turned back to me. “…still can See them all about.”

I slowly backed away toward the door, watching as the junkies surrounded Andy on both sides. His grin became feral as he glanced first at the boy on his right, then deliberately turned his head to the girl on his left. His laughter was loud and terrifying. It was insane. I fled down the hall, as fast as I could, but his voice caught me as I ran.

“No escape! Can’t get away! They’re always there! Night and day!”

“Dr. Godfrey says you’re doing better, John.” The orderly said good-naturedly, bringing me back to the present. “We can get you into a better room now.”

“That’s good,” I replied, looking from Andy’s empty room back to him. I didn’t mind looking back at him. He didn’t have anything lurking around him.

Instead of continuing toward the hallway to my room, we took a right into an unfamiliar wing. Some of the doors in this wing were open, and I saw smiles on the faces of the occupants. It had been a long time since I’d seen a smile. Their beds had sheets and pillow cases, instead of the built-in plastic cover. One of them was sitting at a desk, and appeared to be writing a letter. With an actual pen.

“Here we are,” the orderly said, opening a door at the end of the hallway.

I looked inside and saw that it was similarly furnished as the others. The orderly left me there, and I sat on the bed. It was much softer than what I had become accustomed to. The desk didn’t have any writing implements, but I supposed I could get some if I asked. Light spilled in through the window as the sun began its descent. I frowned at the window. It was low enough for me to see outside.

I couldn’t remember how many days it had been since I had stopped taking my medication, but I knew I couldn’t stand it any longer. I needed to forget again. Especially if I was going to live in that room.

I went through dinner and rec time with as little contact with other people as I could. Since I was in the new wing, I was allowed to be with the new people in this area instead of the old cafeteria and rec room. It was harder to keep to myself, as chatty as these other people seemed to be. These “better” people. I still noticed some had tormentors lurking around, but they acted like they didn’t notice. Plastic smiles were molded on their faces, too-white teeth showing in rictus grins.

I was relieved when rec time ended, and rushed back to my room. I didn’t have to wait long before an orderly brought my medication. I stared at the little blue pills, then glanced at the window. It was only a second, but I thought I saw a small form lying in the darkness. I almost fumbled the pills onto the floor before throwing them into my throat, and washing them down with water from the disposable paper cup. I showed the orderly my tongue, like it was definitive proof that I had actually swallowed. I guess they just had us do that because it was part of the routine, not because they really cared. I lay down on my bed, and stared at the ceiling, waiting for my thoughts to get fuzzy.

I continued this routine for several more days, but something was wrong. I continued to see tormentors around the others, but I didn’t tell anyone. I kept having appointments with Dr. Godfrey, and he kept praising my progress. His tormentors still hovered over his shoulders. If I wasn’t insane before, then I knew I was slowly losing the fight against the breaking point.

I saw the little girl lying in her blood everywhere I looked. I had thought the pills would dull the edges again, take away my memories and make everything fuzzy. But, she was crystal clear now. Her silent screaming thundered in my ears. Sleep didn’t give any reprieve. I wanted to scream all the time, to tear out my hair and tell the world what I saw. But, my body didn’t obey those thoughts. I looked in the mirror and saw my fake, plastic smile with too-white teeth. I heard myself thanking the doctor for his help, and felt his hand in mine as we shook.

Then I was in my room again, looking out the window. It was raining again, and the drops streaked slowly down the pane, racing each other in futility like Sisyphus pushing his boulder. That’s how I felt focusing beyond the drops into the night beyond. I knew what I would find, but couldn’t help looking. I saw her through my own ephemeral reflection in the glass. An idiot’s smile plastered to my face.

I still couldn’t scream, but this time I was able to rip my eyes away. I fell to all fours on the floor, panting like a dog and trying not to vomit. I was frantic as my eyes searched for someone to help me. Even though I knew there was no help. I pressed my palms against my eyes with enough force to be painful, and heard Andy’s voice in my head. “ Once you’ve Seen it, it never goes away. Your Eyes are open now, amigo.”

I took my hands away from my eyes and looked at my bed through the tears. I looked at my bed and sheets for the first time in a long time, and I remembered why I hadn’t had sheets before. I laughed with manic glee as I looked at those sheets. I felt grateful for the help they were about to give.


Aaron Oxford is an English major at Tulsa Community College. His short story “Tormented,” published by Tulsa Review, is his first published work. Mr. Oxford has been an accountant and operations manager for more than fifteen years, but plans to continue his degree in English education and become a teacher in the state of Oklahoma alongside his wife, Jordyn. They reside in a small farm outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma, where they plan to raise their four young children.