If by some miracle I survive my twenties, I am certain I’ll look back on today and think, This was the day I began to lose my mind.
Today was the day I coasted into work, still high from last week’s breakthrough, my grin beating back the gloom of these crumbling halls … and was unceremoniously shoved into a living horror show, a knife-sharp shadowdance called The Life of Martin Grace. That moment, there—me striding through Brinkvale, punching in on the Depression-era time clock, greeting my coworkers—was when my perception of terra firma reality shifted. Just a nudge. But enough.
I am stone-cold certain that Lina Velasquez was a meth-addicted hummingbird in a past life. The woman is pulled tauter than piano wire. She’s all cat’s-eye glasses and waving arms, a nitro-fueled perpetual motion machine. Her voice is a nasal blur in the background on any typical day. I don’t know why sleepy Brinkvale needs an administrative assistant who’s so damned kinetic, but I suppose everyone has a place … and Lina was currently putting me in mine.
She was at her desk, behind the scratched, shatterproof window of the Administrator’s Office, perched on the edge of her antique swivel chair, phone receiver pinched between shoulder and cheek. She was typing on her computer keyboard with one hand. I blinked and stopped, peering in at her.
Already exasperated, she rapped on the window with her free palm. The rings on her fingers clack-clack-clacked, insistent.
I cringed. Total principal’s office flashback.
“In here, now,” Lina said. “Dr. Peterson. Urgent.”
“I have never been an “urgent” kind of guy, but I’m getting better at handling moments like this. Late last week proved that. Still, before landing this gig, the word wasn’t in the Zach Taylor vocabulary.
“Uh, what’s up?” I asked. I glanced past Lina to the doorway of Peterson’s dimly lit office. The old psychiatrist was at his desk, hunched over the scattered contents of an open manila folder. They glowed under an ancient gooseneck lamp. The septuagenarian’s desk was cluttered with towers of precariously stacked papers. My mind captured the moment in charcoal-sketch caricature: Doc Peterson, staring up at his own paperwork Tower of Pisa, cartoon hearts swirling around his bald head. I filed away the image, and tried not to grin.
“What?” I realized Lina had been talking. She pooched her lips and twitched them to the right. This was Lina’s nonverbal Venezuelan shorthand: Make your eyes follow my lips, make your feet follow your eyes.
I walked past her into the dark room, uneasy of its dimness. It smelled of old books and stale coffee. The fat metal blinds were drawn shut. Peterson glanced up from the contents of the folder. He gestured to a chair in front of his desk and offered me a smile framing yellowed dentures. I didn’t know if the man took pleasure in the act of smiling, but it didn’t appear that way. The desk lamp’s light glimmered in his saucer-sized spectacles.
My path rarely crossed with Peterson’s. Three months ago, he’d interviewed me for an hour, then abruptly offered me the job of staff art therapist.
“Brinkvale provides a more, ah … positive … environment than you might imagine from the stories,” he’d said as I left his office that day. Since our little chat, I hadn’t spent more than five minutes with the guy. We’ve done the smile-and-nod bit in the halls ever since.
To hear the saltier veterans of the hospital talk, that’s a good thing. They often suggest that the years here have put fractures of the larger-than-hairline variety in Peterson’s sanity. He’s known colloquially as the Madman in the Attic—“the attic” being the first floor of this building.
They don’t call us Brinkvale employees Morlocks for nothing.
The old man’s owl eyes blinked at me, that wide grin still stretching his jowls. I smiled back and sat on the edge of the black vinyl chair, a blocky thing that was at least a decade my senior. “Hi, Dr. Peterson.”
I shifted position in an attempt to see Peterson’s face over the preposterous stacks of papers. I tried not to picture cartoon hearts over his head.
“It’s a pleasure to have you in again, Zachary,” he said. Peterson’s voice had the distinctive lilt of the overeducated; each word clearly enunciated, starched and pressed. He nodded at a comparatively small pile of papers beside the folder.
“I read your report,” he said. “I’m proud of you.”
“From Friday?” I asked. “Spindle?”
Peterson gave a dry chuckle, and shook his head.
“Spindler. Gertrude Spindler. That is the patient’s name, Zachary.”
Maybe that was her name now. And maybe it had been her name for the first fifteen years of her life. But Gertie Spindler was “Spindle” for the dark era in between. She was calling herself Spindle when I met her a month ago and, in my mind, that’s who she’ll always be. Her lifelong obsession with strings, thread, fabric and patterns would have been merely eccentric had it not been for the secrets she’d been hiding with them. Hiding in them.
When you can see where the literal bodies are buried by matching swatches that were sewn into two quilts at either end of a decade, you’ve found a person so far gone, she can call herself anything she likes.
But not completely gone. Not last week, at least.
“Spindler,” I agreed, nodding nervously. “Thanks. She’d been telling her story for years. I guess she just needed the right person to listen.”
Peterson’s smile spread. That yellow half moon was so unnatural on his doughy face, it seemed predatory. This is what a grocery store lobster must see, I thought, right before it’s yanked from the tank. I shifted in my chair. The vinyl creaked.
“You have a lot of empathy for your patients,” he said, tapping the file. “You tend to become unusually invested in their lives, and their therapy.”
I flushed. Oh, hell. I knew this moment. I hated this moment. I’ve lived this moment a dozen dozen times in the past decade, in jobs, relationships, art projects, pet projects. This is how I’m wired. I fall in love with things, projects, people, even if just a little bit. I have to, in order to help them. To do anything less would be … well … I wouldn’t know how.
“You know, about that, Dr. Peterson—”
The old man cut me off with a wave of his hand. His lips slid into a more natural, dour expression.
“Zachary, we have all been where you are. I could say that passion ebbs with age and experience, but I doubt you would listen, so I won’t waste your time.”
I frowned, off-balance. Was I being criticized or not? Peterson glanced down at the folder before him. From my vantage, I spotted a Brinkvale admittance form, with more attachments than most. A CD-ROM was in there, too. Peterson closed the folder. He pressed two fingers against its surface and pushed it a few inches forward.
“You are here because you are precisely what I need: bright and gifted at what you do,” he said. “Your methods of connecting with patients are quite unconventional, but your success rate has been notable.”
“I work from my gut,” I said. “I don’t know what’s so unconventional about that.”
Peterson tapped the stack of papers again. “Your first month here, you used a cassette ‘mixtape’ provided by Leon Mack’s daughter to usher him out of a nigh-catatonic mute state. Last month, it was a rabbit’s foot keychain that facilitated closure for Evan Unwin in the death of his infant son. Yesterday, it was needle and thread.”
My frown slid further southward. “Dr. Peterson, art therapy provides opportunities for insight for both the patient and the therapist, and—”
“Of course,” he interrupted. “But even more important is your willingness to embrace your patients as people. That’s what I need right now.” He tapped the folder. “This case is yours, and it takes priority.”
I reached for the file. His hand did not move.
“You’ll be expected to follow up with your other patients, of course; we are spread far too thin to give you a reprieve. But I imagine you knew that.”
The understatement of the millennium. I nodded.
“I also imagine you wouldn’t want to forsake those other patients,” he said. “We’re all committed to quality care here at The Brink.”
His lips tugged upward into another smile, this one conspiratorial. The chief administrator had just committed the ultimate in-house faux pas. New employees learn two things their first day in this hole: where the toilets are, and that you never, ever call this place anything but Brinkvale Psychiatric in the presence of management.
He picked up the folder with a trembling hand and held it out to me. It bobbed in his hand, a boat floating over the sea of paperwork.
“Martin Grace. His transfer came down from County last night. He’s due in city court in less than a week. It is a murder trial, and Grace is the gentleman with whom the district attorney’s office has its grudge. He’s also the prime suspect in eleven other deaths. You will engage the patient, and deduce in the days ahead if he is psychologically fit for trial. Consider it a bonus if he confesses that he consciously, willfully killed Tanya Gold and those other people and deserves imprisonment … or another method of justice. This time next week, I expect to read your conclusions.”
I felt my lips moving, heard my voice before I knew what I was saying.
“What if he’s innocent?” I asked.
Peterson’s forehead crinkled as his gray eyebrows rose above his glasses. He glanced around in the dimness, at the walls. His smile didn’t falter.
“Zachary. He wouldn’t be here if he was innocent.”
I felt a bit sick as I accepted the folder. The thing felt cold in my hand.
Peterson’s expression suddenly brightened, and his voice became dismissive, perfunctory.
“I suggest you take the morning to review the file,” he said. “Conduct short sessions with your other patients after lunch. Then introduce yourself to Mister Grace. Leave the paint brushes and pencils in your office, if you please.”
“Because Martin Grace is blind.”
Copyright © 2009 by Smith & Tinker, Inc. All rights reserved. Manufactured in China. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.