FLASH FICTION CONTEST
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.
“Forget about it.”
“So is your skin actually itching?”
“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.