Thoughts slowed, synchronizing to the alarming throb of my beating heart, a heart beating louder than the ringing in my ears. It rose to a steady pound. I’m the big bass drum in a symphony. I knew now they got me with the needle. If I could just keep them from sticking me, I could get somewhere. I could escape. For now, I’m strapped to a bed, and more aware of my foggy thoughts than my surroundings; a big tree, open fields, streetlights, I fade out.
I woke to the banging of large metal doors, pounding knocks, rattling keys. Doors open and slam, all the way down the white brick hallway. I can hear the army coming, guards along the trenches. They’re a regiment marching in starched uniforms, black plastic shoes clonk on the grey polished floor, squeaking louder than that pill cart they push around and worship like a shine.
They beat on the doors like barbarians, like Vikings, like Templers crusading for their glorious pill doses, am pills, mid-morning pills, lunch pills, afternoon pills, evening pills, pm pills. The cart announces its eternal presence with a bell, ding, chime, dong, back and forth the bell always clashing through the dull, bare halls. Where can I hide. They are here.
“Up, Up,” they say, “Time for pills, get in line.” Layered commands pass through the walls in great thumps. Behind these fortified rooms we are summoned to stand in straight orderly lines, in the hall, in our pajamas, under the fluorescent light for everyone to see. We obey the metal shine of Jefferson Hall 33, a behavioral ward for “at risk” youth. We kids just call it, prison 33.
The crusaders herd us to shower time, snack time, break time, mealtime, recreation time. The clock ticks and tocks all day long until the morning comes again with syncing rhythms, and a parade of commands. The army tells me, “If I can be a good girl, I can get a point and succeed to another level. If I can be good girl, I can get an extra snack.” I am fighting for points and levels. This is my way out. If I get their points, I gain a level. If I get four levels, I get out.
We are buzzed out of the locked facility with guards at each end of the line, and two nurses along the middle. One-two, one-two. We march in a single file line down a sidewalk to the food hall named Washington Hall, where the troubled youth melt into a cafeteria filled with SMI adults belonging to halls named after Kennedy and Franklin. I am trapped like a dog in facilitates named after patriarchs that led our country. How proud everyone must be of this catastrophe, misfits out of sight, out of mind.
The cafeteria is white noise with random outburst, symbols of chaos, scooting metal chairs on tile floors, trays scraping the trash cans, the offbeat plops of serving spoons dropping mush into hard plastic bowls, and the silverware always rumbling together. Staff members pick up plates, put down plates, scooch people right or left. Old people sit in their wheelchairs facing the corners, mumbling to themselves, the corner dwellers, the rebels, rioting with whatever strength they had left to show the world they were still alive; one beat the wall with his cane, another clapped for more.
An elderly lady stood behind me, touched my hair and said, “Oh look, how pretty, what is a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” She patted my shoulder. I was on display too. A nurse came along and moved her away from me. A man repeatedly thumped his sippy cup on the metal table. A woman yelled, she had to go pee. Others had drooping pants and food on their shirts. I wanted to leave. I had to get out. I bounced my leg up and down. I refused to eat. I had points taken away. A guard yelled at me. We were all back in line.
They opened the doors, and I ran. I ran hard and fast and did not look back until I reached a twenty-foot fence. I jumped on, climbed two long stretches and then felt what might have been inferno’s hands pulling me down. They piled on me, two holding my legs, one twisting my arm, the other had his knee on my shoulder, one over my chest. I couldn’t see. I felt restraint belts tightening, my legs being strapped together. I was screaming profanities. They carried me like an animal, taking pride over their kill. They attached me to a bed wheeled me down the hall, and locked me in a small, padded room. The nurse said, “Dr. Kwen is here. She wants to see you when you are calm.”
“Yeah,” I shouted, “I’m the one that needs to calm down, not the five men that attacked a twelve-year-old girl!” The door slammed behind me. I was the one that was wrong, that was “Over-the-top.” There was a little window, with black diagonal pinstripes, I spent hours tracing those lines and all the lines in the entire room. I lost. They beat me. I yelled at the top of my lungs, “Let me out, Abusers, Cowards.” No one came for hours, until night. It was a new nurse, she came and loosened my restraints and walked me to my room. I went to bed.
The next morning, before the doors, the bells, or breakfast, I was pulled into a meeting with Dr. Kwen. She looked at me, “So I see you cut your hair off, do you think that was an appropriate thing to do?”
“Well, I don’t know Dr. Kwen, do you think it’s appropriate that I get my haired pulled when your guard dogs tackled me like I’m a mass murder, then put me in restraints all night, and…now I’m back on level R!” Level R is the restricted level, it’s the worse level. Then there are levels 1, 2, 3, and 4. To get discharged from this facility, I must maintain a level 4, and meet all other program goals set up by the therapist, family, and doctors.
“You know this wouldn’t happen if you would stop trying to escape, “ Dr. Kwen answered.
“You have no right to hold me here like this.”
“We do actually, and the only way you are going to get out is to start cooperating.”
“Yeah, that’s all you want, let’s see how well she can behave. I’m not your dancing bear. You can’t treat me like this.”
“You know, this behavior is not how you get what you want.” Dr. Kwen responded.
“How do you know what I want, have you, or has anyone ever asked what I wanted?”
“I think we are done for now,” she said.
“Yeah, we would be.”
“I want to see progress,” Dr. Kwen reminded me, as I aggressively swung open her door and walked back down to the sitting area.
There were twenty of us kids, two doctors, eight staff, five guards, and three nurses, except for graveyards, then it was only three nurses and on call guards occupying the other halls. Justin, a boy a bit older, came in and flopped on the couch next to me. He arrived two days after I did, almost two months ago. He was cute. He had brown curly hair. I put my hands in it, when I could get away with it. The floor was co-ed, but no contact. We were combined during meals, recreation activities, and school. If any of us get too close, the whistle blows, and a voice calls out in reprimand, “No contact.”
Justin’s doctor’s appointment went badly too. He sulked next to me stretching his arms over his head, stretching out his legs, and dropped his faced down confessing, “I’ve been demoted a level.”
“Hey,” I said, sneaking a touch to his arm, “In my book, that’s a point.” I caught his eye, and he chuckled. We were sitting across from a shelf filled with board games, “Justin,” I started laughing, “I’ve got the funniest idea…”
Justin perked up, prodding “Well, what is it?”
“Let’s get a few kids together, like Megan,”
“Like Adam” he added.
I continued, “Let’s sneak chess pieces and throw them at the nurses tonight, like down the hall, and then rush to bed. They will never know who did it.
Justin shrugged, “Sounds fun. We’ll spread the word during recreation time. Come on,” He set up the chess table. Snacks were served, and we all conspired while sipping our juice cups and eating packaged cheese. Here’s the plan, after lights out, we go in intervals, barely opening the door, throwing a game piece down the hall at the front desk where the nurse sits, then get back to bed. When the guard comes for bed checks, we’ll all play asleep.
We jumped, the whistle blew, turning our heads to the nurse, “No… contact, too close, separate, separate,” she demanded. Justin’s hand was over mine, he lifted. I held my hands up to show her we’re clear. We all broke off and started playing other games, each of us pocketing a rook, a knight, a queen.
It was Friday night movie in the group room. We sat in square, modern looking chairs stacked around a large TV. We shared subtle looks across the room reminded of tonight’s war. A foot started tapping, another on the furniture, one popped straws, one lifted and dropped a footstool, fingertips dallied on magazines, on pants, and soon we were all making noise. Our bodies were electric, filled with anticipation. We were already liberated just to conjure up something exercising our rights. The whistle blew, “You’ll stop that if you want to finish the movie!” It went silent.
I was remembering the excitement of sitting in front of a symphony, red chairs under dim light, instruments in a low, taunting tuning session. The playbills rustle, whispers quiet, the atmosphere ready, on the brink of explosion. Intrusively, the lights woke us all up from our dreams as a nurse shrieked acrossed the PA system, “Fifteen minutes and light out.”
The cart came around the hall with three white coated nurses, one guard, and the swaying bell, the cart’s pride and glory. We are cattle going to a trough. We were all in two lines marching to our bedrooms, after each one proved their obedience, proved they had the ability to do what they were told.
In bed, I listened to the first sound of footstep pass my door. It set me at ease to know the staff kept their schedule. A drumroll churned in my chest. My nerves were bumping, they were swinging from my head to my toes. I slid down to the floor. Now, I was an animal stalking my prey, waiting behind tall stalks of bamboo. I crawled over to the door, positioning myself behind the grasses, slowly cracking open the door. The nurse was working at the desk at the end of the hall. She would glance up occasionally to view the two reflective mirrors hanging midway through the hall.
The guard, a burly man tapped his pen against a clipboard while standing next to the desk. He leaned over the counter for a few minutes, and then disappeared into the back. I reached in my pocket and took hold of the rook. I stood up, aimed, and threw. I was back in bed before I knew what I hit, or if I was seen. I heard nothing; I watched the clock. I was sleeping.
Thirty minutes passed, I opened the door again, I saw Justin’s door crack, his head was low, peeking around his door, he stood, he threw. At the same time, I let the bishop fly on his tailwind. I heard multiple pieces hit before the door shut. I was back in bed. In one deep exhale, I was sleeping, listening. The doors started opening and slamming. They were coming. My door opened, I felt a bright white light shine over my face, suspended notes. I was a doll, peaceful, dreaming, silent. The door shut. I buried my face in the pillow and kicked my feet shaking off the laughter.
Forty-five minutes passed. I snuck out of bed, went to the door, cracked it open. This time I had a pocket full of pons, and I would attempt an acrobatic catastrophe flinging them all at once in an air attack. Done. I ran to bed, rolled on my stomach and was a snoring, hibernating bear.
Twenty minutes passed. I crept back to the door opening it in the slightest, shadowed lines were on the floor from Adam’s and Megan’s cracked doors. They were clasping game pieces. They were ready for the grand finale. A conglomerate of dice, checkers, chess pieces take wing through the air.
They crashed all over the place. I heard the resounding clatter splatter about the floor. I was in too much of a hurry to laugh. By the time my head landed on the thin pillow, the sound of doors raced my way. The guard was in my room shining a light on my face before I could make sure I was one hundred percent calm.
“Get Up! Wake up, and get in the hall.” He was gone in a flash on to the next room.
Then the static came across the PA system, “Step out of your rooms and line up in front of your doors.” I looked out the door and saw two guards accompanying the nurse. I heard the deep echoing bell from the metal shrine making its way down the hall. I knew that if I was going to get past them, I needed to go now, before everyone was in single file, before more guards arrived to take captives.
There were about ten of us in the hall by now, one was Justin, smiling. I made a sudden dash straight for the guards, twisting to the left and dodging to the right. I escaped one of their clasps. I got past the desk and went down the hall to the rec room sliding on the floor behind the couch to catch my breath. I felt a body jump on the couch. I looked up, “Megan!” I shouted and jumped up.
Justin slid around the corner. We were roaring with laughter, with power, with the mere joke of it. I hopped on the chair and did a silly dance. Justin waved his hands in the air, either saying goodbye to the world, or hearing some great sounding jazz in that head of his. We laughed until two guards came thundering, buffalos down the hall, even like rhinoceroses, thumping and bumping through the small doorway. They stopped. We stopped. They approached. We picked things up to hit them. .
Suddenly, all the red lights above the doorways were flashing, the elevator doors opened, and five more guards came through. A very loud alarm sounded off, and shouting across the PA system was, “We have a ‘CODE BLUE’ a ‘CODE BLUE,” It probably woke the founding fathers up from their graves. The PA continued, “We need assistance on Jefferson hall, all floors and security staff available, we have a ‘CODE BLUE on Jefferson hall.”
We ducked, blocked, dodged, squirmed away, kicked, punched. The rec room was in round one, most everyone playing ring-around-the couches with the guards, more guards piled in, we were being closed off. Round two was here. Multiple whistles blew while the PA commanded, “Remain still and sit down, or you will be restrained.”
I ran past the furthest table in the kitchen. around the sticky, oinking, growling sea lions. I had two queens left in my pocket; I flung them in the greasy man’s face. I saw Justin get dragged by his pajamas down the hall. I flipped over the table and backed into the snack room. I grabbed a metal try and swung. One guard tackled me against the wall, I dug the tray in his side, and slid down under his legs. Two other guards jumped me and down I went.
My arms bent back, I kicked. A guard flapped his hands over my feet trying to catch my feet. I kicked his shins, his knees. One of them plunged his elbow in my side, the other pulled my legs down. I couldn’t breathe, someone was sitting on me. They turned me down. My cheek was against the cold tile in a puddle of drool. I tried to squirm, but they had every piece of me pinned, squished thinner than a pancake.
“Make room,” one of them yelled. A nurse pushed her way through and shoved a needle in my leg. I was moved on a cot. I saw the keys dangling from the belt, so close, bouncing against his leg. I was reaching, I could still get to the elevator. Rolling down the hall, the kids were being lined up, some smiling, some refusing pills, some laughing, and others sprinting past the guards. It was worth it, even just for a few free minutes.
I was the big bass drum again, head foggy, and fading into a place where there were no nurses, or guards, metal carts, white bricks, or locked doors, where I was not at-risk for behaving inappropriately, where I was not a puppet, where I was not caged.
3 thoughts on “Percussion”
This is a wonderful and emotional piece of writing. I could feel the exhilaration and the despair. Kids trying to be kids but bound by their unkind destinies. Kept me engrossed from start to finish. 🙂
I was gripped and so sorry at the ending.
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I love this Kate, but it’s tragic too. The mental health system needs a lot of work. I’m sorry that anyone would have this experience.