“A self-aware shadow is something to fear. It will always be part of you, without ever realizing it is of its own mind.” —Greek engraving (circa 180–220 BC)
Noise filled the halls that night. Whimpers and cries coming from the rooms. Footsteps resonated down the hallways from the direction of room 207. This was where the Bible-clenching Matthew liked to pace in circles at night. Whenever he wasn’t in the hospital’s chapel, he was preaching his way through the hallways. Quick, frantic skin-to-tile slapping struck the floor as he vigorously read the words of God.
“Behold, the Lord came with many thousands of His holy ones! He will come to execute judgment upon all and to convict all the ungodly of all their ungodly deeds, which they have done in an ungodly way!”
In his mind, he stood before a thousand worshippers at some kind of twisted religious rally. He then held his Bible in the air with both hands.
“The angels! I see them! They come to me in my dreams, and I see them in my waking life! I see them everywhere around me! Don’t you see them too? The beautiful angels walking the earth to protect us! With the fire in their eyes! It must stop! They must stop taking us from our loved ones! They hunt for the weak, and only God will prevail! Am I the only one with this gift to see? You will believe me when it happens and—”
The slam of a metal door coming from another hall halted Matthew in mid-sentence. The door slammed so loudly that the entire C Ward went dead silent. The crying ceased. No more laughter. “Reverend Matthew’s” words of God froze in his throat. Running boots replaced the sounds of Matthew’s footsteps.
They wheeled an old restraint chair down the hall toward Matthew’s room. On C Ward, the sounds of boots meant one thing: the nurses were coming. With one thing in mind, they came to shut Matthew up and give him a good dose. Scrambling back toward his room, Matthew almost made it, but they grabbed him and forced him into the harness of the restraint chair.
“You can’t blind me from seeing any of this!” Matthew shouted. “You must obey! This truth is the only truth! You... musst... underrrrrr...” His preaching drifted off like a vinyl record slowly coming to a stop.
They knew the drugs had begun to work, kicking in heavily. The patients around the ward called it the “Thorazine shuffle”— and for good reason. When the nurses gave them just enough, they’d walk around the ward like the half-dead, searching for their next foggy-headed thought. With a full dose, they’d enter a world of nothingness, a comatose state. Out cold, they were placed back in their bed as a mother does when her child falls asleep in front of the TV. But the nurses didn’t care for bedtime stories. There was no counting sheep, no fairy tales for the patients. All they desired when they pushed that plunger down was the sweet sound of silence on the ward.
Knocked out, Matthew was taken to his room. Several male nurses hunched over him, waiting for another sound to fall from his mouth. They followed protocol and took his vitals to make sure he was still alive under the medicated haze of the drugs. The heart monitor beeped like a metronome, and the whirr of an air pump could be heard as the blood pressure cuff closed the circulation to one arm. Satisfied, they disconnected him from the machines and left the room. Heading to their offices, they laughed amongst themselves about the latest gospel Matthew had shared.
The silence set in, and C Ward fell asleep, like Matthew. The only noise left in the building came from the security station, the low volume of the guard’s small TV presenting his favorite late night talk show. They were interviewing yet another celebrity, asking what they’d had at their last meal and other useless information. In the middle of the night, the selection of thrilling TV was limited. Instead of settling for infomercials, celebrity gossip helped pass the time. The security guard, a man named Adam who’d started at Cottage Grove only a few months earlier, sat mindlessly watching the screen. Numb to the world, as though he were also in a trance, he hung on to every word coming from the television. Adam had the ghastly pallor of a basement-dwelling gamer, which wasn’t too far from the truth. A little overweight and innocent as could be, he wore his brown hair in a crew cut, obviously trying to portray the “cop look.” His haircut was the toughest thing about him.
“Oh, my—that is, like, totally my favorite drink too! Wow! We’re twins!” said the senseless TV host.
“So, Tanya, you were amazing in your role in Last Night’s Standoff. How did it feel to play such a heroic character?” asked the host.
The clock ticked slower and slower into the night as Adam continued watching, munching away on his sour cream and chives potato chips. He had the oversize bag of chips in his lap and his cell phone in his hand, searching for reviews of Last Night’s Standoff on popfilmcharts.com. A door down the hall cracked open. It was room 206, the room across the hall from Matthew’s.
The door creaked open, hesitantly, as if the person opening it was fearful about what might lay on the other side. It was pulled back just enough to let in some light from the hallway.
“Hey, Shane,” someone said. “You awake?”
Everything remained silent, except for soft snoring coming from inside the room.
“Shane, you in there? They did it to me this time. I think they finally gave me the red dose. I can feel it. I know this’ll be the last time we talk and I can spread the truth. I want you to know they’ll come soon for you. Stay away from the angels with the fire in their eyes. They’ll hunt you down if you aren’t careful.”
Matthew shut the door and tiptoed back to his room.
Despite their best efforts, the nurses gave Matthew only enough Thorazine to put him in a medicated stupor for a short time. They were lucky they didn’t simply kill him. But this loose regard for medical protocols was nothing new at C Ward. Just another night at Cottage Grove Hospital. Dr. Hoffmann would be arriving in a few hours for his morning rounds. By then, Matthew would be deeply asleep and dreaming of the angels.
Dr. Joseph Hoffmann was always on time. Always. He was careful and precise with everything he did. At 7:30 a.m. on the dot, Joseph arrived at work every weekday—and often, on the weekends, when he was on call. At Cottage Grove Hospital, the small town’s psychiatric hospital, Joseph held the position of head psychiatrist in the high-security unit.
Cottage Grove was a small town nestled near the foothills of the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. Like most small-town hospitals, Cottage Grove Hospital had a small but tightly knit staff keeping it all afloat. Joseph was captain of his ship. Though in his late fifties, he had maintained an air of youth. He was tall and fit, his salt-and-pepper hair styled fashionably. His strong good looks matched his demeanor and personality. He was proud of his reputation and enjoyed the respect that it brought him. Many of his colleagues and staff at the hospital knew him to be a wise mentor and earnest doctor, but he could also be closed off to the world around him. From the outside looking in, it seemed like everything was going his way. But those who knew him best understood the burden he carried with him everywhere.
Joseph’s office was located at the far end of Hall 1, the first of four halls that formed a cross. Each of the three wards were low buildings set apart from each other, with their own staff of nurses and security personnel. Surrounded by a wide-open pasture before a thick forest, the buildings at Cottage Grove Hospital were as isolated as the patients inside. Each morning, Adam greeted Joseph at the entrance of the hospital before he clocked out for the day. Adam and Joseph had a certain type of mutual understanding. Adam would keep Joseph briefed about the goings-on around the ward, while Joseph would give him a bit of respect and attention, which was welcome in Adam’s boring front desk security job.
“Good morning, Adam. How are you today?”
“Fine, Dr. Hoffmann. You sleep well?”
“Yes, yes, thank you. Anything new on the ward?”
“Yeah,” Adam said eagerly. “Diane’s back on suicide watch.
She’s still asking for her son and says if she doesn’t get to see him soon, she’ll off herself.”
Joseph heaved a sigh. “Again? Lovely. Looks like another typical day on C Ward.”
Adam smiled knowingly. Even though he was merely a security guard, Adam knew more about the cases on the ward than the doctors or nurses would suspect.
“Thanks for the update, Adam. Keep up the good work.”
Joseph continued on his way toward his office, but Adam stopped him before he was more than a few steps away.
“Oh! Dr. Hoffmann, I almost forgot. Matthew was preaching again. I mean really preaching. It was the same story about the angels this and the Bible that. They hit him up with a shot of Thorazine. Later, I saw on the monitor that Matthew had slipped into 206 and talked to Shane. Something about how he was going to die from the ‘red dose’ the nurses had given him. His disruptions have been getting worse—and now he’s going around telling other patients the nurses are dosing him with lethal medicine. It’s upsetting the other patients. We can’t have that happen, can we?”
Joseph shook his head. “No. Don’t worry. This will be all handled. I’ll talk with him. Whatever is said about the doctors or guards being threatening to the patients here—well, that happens. I’m sure it’s just run-of-the-mill paranoia. The patients are going to feel that way about us no matter what. After all, we’re a threat to their worlds. You’ll get used it. We all do. Their mental illness, which can seem so peculiar to us, is their reality. I’m sure your reality seems just as strange to them as theirs does to us.” Joseph paused and smiled. “You’re doing fine, Adam.”
“Thanks, Doc. See you in the morning! I pulled my eight hours, so I’ll be heading home soon.”
“Get some rest, Adam. See you tomorrow.”
Joseph turned back around toward his office and continued with a slight wave of his right hand, his briefcase in the left, and his eyeglasses resting on top of his head. His daily journey through the main lobby took him past the recreation room where the patients spent most of their time. The nurses had categorized the patients, and though Joseph publicly disapproved, he had adopted some of the terms, which could be quite descriptive and colorful. There were the “hall walkers,” patients who paced the halls or walked in circles. There were the “gamers,” who always had a rivaling competition of checkers or Battleship going on. Then there was the resident “piano player,” who could be found playing a non-existent piano on the edge of a table in the corner. It was a bit like an adult daycare, but with psychotropic medication. Their activities director did her level best to keep the active patients engaged, but it was a losing battle. Too many of them didn’t even realize they were in a hospital, let alone have the awareness to notice if they were bored or getting into trouble.
Joseph always made it a point to glance into the activities room on the way to his office to see if there were any new faces. Seeing none, he gave a nod and a smile to everyone as he walked by. Once to the end of the hall opposite the main lobby, he slid his key into his office door, and with a quick jiggle of the knob, the door opened.
He set his briefcase on the floor next to his neatly kept desk. Thus began his morning ritual.
Flip on the coffee machine. Turn on the computer. Wait for the load screen. Pour coffee.
Before the computer fully turned on, he looked up toward the black screen and caught his reflection staring back at him.
What if she were here? What would be different?
He spun his wedding ring on his finger and asked himself those same questions every morning. Was it really twenty-five years gone? What if this had never happened?
There had been a time when he woke up to Helen’s smiling face. His morning routine then was to give his new bride a kiss on the cheek and say “I love you” before taking his morning shower and getting dressed. Then he would grab his belongings and head out the door to Cottage Grove. It was his first year as a resident psychiatrist there, and his marriage was perfect. His life had finally fallen into place. He had worked very hard on his education and wanted the best life for Helen and himself. But Joseph never grasped how to relax or how to balance his professional drive with the other parts of his life. Helen had repeatedly warned him that he would die of a heart attack if he kept working as hard as he did.
On that fateful day, Joseph had promised to meet Helen for lunch, but then work got away from him. Joseph could be so stubborn when it came to his work, so rather than argue with him, she went for a run.
12:30 p.m., Cottage Grove, Oregon; Twenty-Five Years Earlier
A three-tone chime resonated over the hospital’s overhead intercom.
“Dr. Hoffmann, report to the front desk. Dr. Hoffman to the front desk, please.”
“Dr. Hoffmann, these police officers are here to see you.” Joseph brightened. He came around the front desk and clasped
the first man’s hand. “How are you, Jeff?”
“Fine, fine,” Jeff said absently. “May we speak with you
privately?” Joseph led the men down Hall 1 to his office.
“To what do I owe the honor of a visit of three of Cottage
Jeff didn’t return Joseph’s jovial smile. “Let’s sit down and talk, Joseph.”
Up to this point, Joseph had thought little of the police wanting to speak to him. It wasn’t the first time the police needed his help. But something of Jeff’s demeanor made him uncomfortable. He had only ever come to deliver another patient from the local lockup. There was no prisoner with him this time, only the two other officers.
As he turned the knob to his door, he said, “Have a seat, gentlemen. Would you like something to drink?”
“No, thank you.”
Sergeant Wilson and Joseph sat on opposite sides of his long wooden desk. The other two officers stood behind the sergeant, hanging over each of his shoulders like wings.
Jeff looked down, then up to make eye contact with Joseph. “We’ve known each other for a while now, right?” He hesitated, but cut off Joseph’s response. “There’s no easy way to tell you this. Helen was hit by a car around eleven this morning. When we arrived on the scene, she was already gone. The EMTs did all they could to revive her. I’m sorry, Joseph. I know...” But he couldn’t complete the thought. It didn’t matter if he did. Jeff could see Joseph had gone entirely blank.
Joseph’s heart shattered into a million pieces. His face was white as snow. He was staring at an empty space on the wall above the door between the two standing officers’ heads. His eyes welled, and then he broke into tears, each drop filled with a different emotion.
Pain. Anger. Agony. Regret. Disbelief.
It was all there, flooding in his head. The news pierced his heart like a dagger—and he placed the blame on himself.
“If I’d met her for lunch...” Joseph murmured.
“Joseph,” Jeff said, sitting forward in his chair. “You can’t blame yourself. Would you like me to arrange for a professional to talk to you? They’re—”
“Professionals?” he asked, coming out of his stupor. “You have people who can help?” Joseph shouted. “This is a psychiatric hospital, for heaven’s sake. What are they going to do, make none of this happen? How would you respond to news like this? I just... I ... I can’t...”
Joseph kept mumbling, slipping from anger into deep sadness and regret. With each rapid breath, he knew his world would never be the same. He felt like his wedding band was turning into lava around his finger, burning through to his soul.
Ever since that day, Joseph spun the ring as part of his morning routine. It was a tic, a comforting mechanism he didn’t even realize he was doing. With the coffee turning cold next to him, the ring felt tighter around his finger as each second passed and he waited for the computer to boot up. The darkness of the screen mirrored the obscurity that lay deep within Joseph’s heart.
Joseph continued to stare at the black screen, his reflection still glaring back at him. Then the screen flickered and turned on. The flash blindly brought him back to the present.
“Dr. Hoffmann, there’s a call for you on line one.”