I N S I D E
by Steven Michael Abell
The Neurobehavioral Inpatient Unit at
Monroe Hospital has a stringent No-Touching
policy. A long hug between patients would be
broken up like a fight in the hallway of a high
school. Handshakes are forbidden. High-fives
are definitely not tolerated, not even at the
puzzle table. So when I locate a pivotal jigsaw
piece and press it into place to complete a
handcart that’s been leaning unfinished for
what seems like years against the side of an
old barn, this entire pastoral scene buried
beneath several inches of fresh snow, Molly and
I simply stare into one another’s eyes and smile
until the moment is dense enough to breathe in.

Twelve days in the hospital and I can pass as a
stable human being for several hours at a time.
As it happens, I'm mostly just waiting for time
to pass: a long shower before breakfast; pills;
craft time; outside time (ten-by-four-foot
concrete veranda with metal bars, view of the
broadside of the hospital's administrative
building, part of the parking lot, and a section
of sidewalk on an unpopular street); lunch;
group (sometimes); pills; TV; dinner; pills;
pills; bed. I see the phonetic spelling of a
prevalent generic medication written in marker
on my nurse's forearm:
bew-pro-pee-on. The r
has a tendency of multiplying and attaching
itself to the second p, in your head.

When I met with the head psych, a few days
ago, in her tiny office, she said I'll likely be
sleeping in my own bed soon. I can't envision
myself at home: reaching under a shade to
turn on a lamp, opening a book for class—or
the oven for melting cheese on a turkey
sandwich. I have tickets to see Neko Case this
Tuesday night. General Admission. I imagine
trusting my head with my hands. The screen
fades to black.

I thank my nurse for my second-to-last pill of
the day and I walk down a hall that leads to
the common area. I look into Molly's room as I
pass by. The door is open and the lights are
off. I continue walking.

In the big breakout room, group is in session,
and the common area is deserted. Most of the
lights on the entire floor have been shut off for
the night. The TV is demonstrating, for its
hushed audience of tables and chairs, how to
properly service a lawn tractor. Moonlight sifts
through the picture window, touching brushed
legs. A milky landscape poses off-center on a
number of polished rivets.

I walk heel to toe on the STAND BEHIND THIS
LINE boundary that's supposed to keep
patients eighteen inches from the nurses'
horseshoe-shaped countertop, so—I don't
know. So our drool doesn't drip into their coffee
cups.

Molly's been skipping most group sessions and
I didn't see her in her bed. I worry for a
moment that she's back in the ICU.

It seems that this floor of the hospital has been
repurposed. There are no doors in the
entryways to the five rooms in the ICU. And on
the doorjambs, beneath a few heavy coats of
latex paint, you can see plain as day where the
hinges used to be.

Before I enter my room, I see—in the fish-eye
convenience store mirror placed where the
hallway turns into the only blind spot in the
ward—someone sitting in one of the three
chairs placed there, flush against the wall.

Staring forward, Molly pats the deflated
padding of the chair next to her. I sit down.
She says, "I hid some contraband in a drawer
by the milk fridge. I'll split it with you if you
don't squeal." She's talking to my reflection in
the window: a person who can't hear her but
might be able to hear what her reflection is
saying, or at least read Molly's lips looking back
at us.

Her voice vibrates through flesh and bone,
reverberates off the glass, the walls, the floor—
waves picked up by my reflection's satellite,
me. A stream of headlights move laterally along
the Interstate, against the brown-green hillside
built up behind this double-paned reproduction
of our gaze.

"Do you ever think about how we're," Molly
says, "in bodies?"

"Sure," I say.

"Moving through buildings," Molly says. "Towns
counties countries continents planets galaxies.
Our hearts. Wrapped up in systems encased by
something so big we don't ever stop to think
about it and definitely can't name it. This
unarmed thing causes people to feel small. So
we hurt ourselves to feel bigger. We harm
others to feel less small."

I turn and look at her. "How about we go snag
those snacks?"

Molly distracts the nurses while I open the
drawer and remove a plastic single-serving
container of orange juice and two little packets
of cheddar cheese. I set the items on a table in
the common area and Molly joins me. A nurse
walks over to turn off the television. The room
becomes momentarily devoid of noise but for
the easy plod of the nurse's footsteps.

"I asked them," Molly says softly, peeling just a
fraction of the lid from the orange juice
container, "if they use color safe bleach in the
laundry room. I said my skin feels itchy. They
said it might be a side effect of one of the
drugs I'm on." Molly takes a drink of the
orange juice and sets it on the table. "We're
going to have to share this," she says, swiping
her tongue along her upper lip to pull a speck
of pulp into her mouth. "I was gonna steal you
a chocolate milk, but I thought it might spoil in
the drawer."

We sit and nibble our squares of cheese,
trading sips from the plastic juice container. I
can tell that the pill my nurse gave me has
dissolved in my stomach and is beginning to
enter my bloodstream.

"Thank you."

"Forget about it."

"So is your skin actually itching?"

"What?"

"Do you have itchy skin right now?"

"No. Do you?"


Steven Michael Abell is a poet from Missoula, MT. He
received his BA from the University of Montana and his
MFA from Arizona State University. He is co-creator of
7minute abstract, an artistic multimodal social media
experience.
DECEMBER 2020
FLASH FICTION
CONTEST 2020
Honorable
Mention
$25 Award
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