When I returned, I found Titus still staring at the wall. He seemed frozen, like a permanent fixture resembling the table and bed on his either side. He said nothing when I pulled him to his feet, and did not resist when I laid him on the bed.
“What are you doing?” he said when I rolled him towards the inside.
“I want to sleep with you.”
“Absolutely not,” said Titus. “It’s bad enough I’ve ruined your life. I don’t—”
He tried to sit up, but I pushed down on his chest. “I don’t have my bear anymore, so you will have to suffice.”
“You did not need one last week,” he said.
“I had a friend last week. But since you’ve stopped speaking to me, you’re going to serve some function besides decorating my room. I don’t like cluster and I don’t want to be alone.”
When Titus said nothing, I climbed into bed and pulled the sheets over us. He was much broader than my teddy bear, but he smelled nice, like the sea and autumn air. I put my arms around him. It was close enough. At least Titus did not fidget.
“It’s not so bad here,” I said. “The other ghosts have gotten used to the place. You will too. Why not make some friends?”
“Who told you there were other ghosts?” said Titus.
“Brenda,” I said. “She’s another patient at the ward. She’s got her own version of you, a man named Darcia.”
“And you’ve seen this Darcia fellow?”
“No, but he’s her ghost so why would he appear to me?”
Titus turned so that we were face to face.
“Your ability is universal,” he said. “You can see all ghosts. Even if we vanish, you can still feel our presence.”
“Are you sure?” I said. “I can’t see Darcia, and I haven’t seen any new ghosts since you arrived.”
“But you’ve seen more than one at a time?”
“When I was younger, yes.”
“Then ask your friend if she has as well. If this Darcia is her only ghost, he may simply exist as an outlet for a lonely and desperate woman.”
“Possibly. Then again, she might say I’m the crazy one.”
Titus looked down at his hand as I slipped my fingers through his.
“It’s alright. I know I’m not. You are tangible. To me alone, but you exist, as did the others. But no one has ever verified my presence either, and look…” I put my other hand against his cheek. “See? It’s all there. I’m not crazy. I can see you, clear as day, and touch you…” I ran my hand down his arm. “Has anyone else seen you? Or touched you before we met?”
Titus said nothing. He took my hand in his and held it up to his mouth.
“Then we are at an impasse,” I said. “It’s alright. Regardless of who’s crazy, Brenda said we can’t leave. Apparently the hospital is cursed, and anyone who tries to escape dies.”
“Do you believe her?” said Titus.
“No, but just the same, there’s no harm in staying put and making friends. Who knows? If we do decide to leave, we might take some of them with us.
Titus paused for a moment. “Are you sorry?”
“For what? We’re free, aren’t we? At least in the nuthouse we have company. It’s better than living alone outside.”
The next morning, I found Titus on his back, staring at the ceiling.
Titus said nothing.
I got to my feet and dressed quickly. One of the orderlies would arrive by nine with my breakfast and pills.
As I slipped a dress over my head, a pair of hands pulled the fringes down and tied the ribbon behind my back.
“If you wish to go outside, I will come with you.”
“What brought about the sudden change?”
Titus picked up my hairbrush. “Since I cannot make you leave, I want to meet the people in this hospital, see for myself that they’re not dangerous. It is as you suggested, if we cannot leave, we might as well proceed to live as comfortable to us.”
The door rattled. I heard the jingle of keys before the door swung open. In came the orderly I saw in the courtyard: he towered over us, over six feet in height, and he couldn’t have been more than twenty-five in age. From the front he looked less like a human and more like something from a romance novel. His black hair matched perfectly in shade with his eyes and goatee, and his olive skin suggested tropical origins.
“Hello,” he said in perfect English. “So this is where they put you.”
He produced a clipboard and grinned in a way that suggested he intended to share an inside joke.
“Lucille Dane. Fifteen. Claims she can see ghosts.”
He scanned my person.
“You don’t look crazy to me.”
“I’m not,” I said, “But you’re not supposed to believe me.”
I held out my hand for the pills. The orderly chuckled.
“Your pills are outside with your breakfast,” he said. “I’m Peter, by the way. It’s nice to meet you.”
I sat on my bed as he wheeled in a cart with a tray. He had toned arms, Peter, slender but well-defined. For a moment I wondered if his wife would not feel jealousy for him working in a hospital of shut-ins. Perhaps she did not care. Perhaps he did not have a wife.
As I ate, Peter watched from the chair by my desk. I purposely left the medicine where it sat, though neither this orderly nor the one before him seemed to care. The previous one had been a woman, a brunette with a a scowl for all but the door every time she entered my room. I got the feeling she didn’t want to be here, though the one time I tried to talk to her resulted in threats to report me to the doctor.
“Need a napkin?” said Peter, holding one up.
I shook my head and wiped my mouth on the back of my hand.
“You’ll get your dress dirty,” he said. “It’s a nice one. Bright, like the color of stars. You’re well dressed for someone locked in this place.”
“I’m new,” I said. “I will learn their habits soon enough.”
Titus said nothing during the exchange. His figure, slumped against the wall behind the bed, continued its inspection of the window. Several times I glanced at him, waiting for his verdict of the new orderly. When he remained useless, I finished my cereal.
“All finished?” said Peter. “That’s a good girl. Don’t change too much, alright? I’d rather not add another shabby, shaking patient to my route. It’s what that needle jockey wants; subjugation. She likes to rule while the rest of us toil for her benefit.”
I swallowed some milk. I hadn’t expected further conversation, much less bitterness from an orderly. The previous one just dropped off my food and left. She never made eye contact, and I suspected she feared either the patients or her boss.
“Why are you here?” I said. “If you don’t like the doctor, I mean.”
“My sister got me the job. She works here with her fiance. You’ve probably seen him, big guy, toned, goes by Ted? No? Well, it’s not so bad, save the doctor’s ridiculous rules about bedtimes and noise. Otherwise, I’d invite you to watch me rehearse with my band.”
“You play in a band?” The words sounded ridiculous coming out of my mouth, yet he sounded as if he wanted to talk. Perhaps he felt isolated from the pack; the lone orderly in a game of doubles.
“Bass,” said Peter. “It’s not glamorous, and I’d be kidding you if I said I had what it took to be a professional musician. Everybody needs a pastime, and there’s not much to do around here unless you count feeding the Corner Man.”
I said nothing.
“No pressure,” said Peter. “But if you’re up for breaking the rules, my band and I practice in the old warehouse across the street. Bring the other patients with you. It might be fun.”
I considered. He didn’t seem intimidating, Peter. Quite the opposite. He had an honest voice, kind of goofy, but no rumble and smolder. I thought of asking Titus for his opinion, then reminded myself he no longer spoke.
“Are you always this friendly?” I said. “I’ve never seen you before.”
“Yes you have,” said Peter.
We stared at each other. My chest deflated. How did he know?
“Yesterday, in the courtyard. I saw you behind me, looking up. I’ll be very disappointed if you weren’t looking at me. You seemed happy, and it’s hard for me not to notice a happy person in a sea of vacant stares. I saw you head this way after dinner, so I traded routes with my sister.”
He smiled and mentally, I noted the relationship between him and my previous orderly. Perhaps their parents raised them separately: what his sister lacked in personality Peter compensated for in abundance. He seemed more alive than anyone I had met, like he knew something I didn’t or had seen parts of the world I didn’t know existed. I thought about taking his offer to see his band, then reminded myself not to be forward. I should discuss this with Titus, when we were alone.
“Well, I best get going,” said Peter, getting to his feet. “Lots of other patients on this route, and the old bird will flip if I’m late with their medication.”
“Will you come by tomorrow?” I said.
“Of course. I didn’t trade shifts for nothing.”
As an unfamiliar thrill ran through my body, I caught sight of Titus, slumped against the wall behind the bed. He rained expressionless, though his eyes followed Peter out the door.
“What’s wrong?” I said when the door closed. I got the impression he found the man distasteful. Strange, Titus was not the possessive type. He normally took pleasure to people who showed interest in me.
“Are you planning to sneak out?”
“Of course not,” I said. “But you have to admit, it was nice of him to offer.”
“Maybe,” said Titus.
“Why don’t you like him? He’s more pleasant than that other girl. She keeps calling me ‘Lily.’”
“I don’t care what she calls you as long as she does her job. That man though…he’s might be dangerous.”
“Isn’t that a bit dramatic?”
“Is it?” said Titus. “There’s dry blood under his fingernails.”
“They all do every once in a while,” said Brenda some two hours later. “Most orderlies assist with surgical treatments. We have very few nurses. Working here is not an ideal job, even given the generous pay.”
I looked at Titus. He didn’t seem convinced.
“So where is Darcia?” I said.
Brenda raised an eyebrow. “He’s right here,” she said, gesturing to her other side. “Can’t you see him?”
I looked at Titus. He shook his head.
“Has he made himself invisible?” I said.
“No, but he might have lowered his visibility.” Brenda turned to the empty space beside her. “It’s rude to play jokes on our friend, Darcia. Turn your opacity up right now.”
I waited with little anticipation. Despite Brenda’s repeated requests, nothing appeared in the lounge.I had hoped that in bringing Titus, he could confirm Darcia’s existence. Surely ghosts could see other ghosts.
“Like I said, she must be an actual patient,” said Titus. “There’s no one there.”
I tapped Brenda on the shoulder. “You never told me what you thought of Titus.”
She turned to look at the space next to me. Titus waved. Brenda furrowed her brows.
“I can’t see him,” she said. “Do you mind asking him to turn up his opacity too?”
Titus put his hands to his temples. His body began to glow, filling the room with a bright, white light. The lounge crew shied from our direction, and the cross-legged man in the corner stopped talking to his shadow long enough to scowl at us. Brenda stared ahead, her expression unchanging.
“Did he do it?” she said.
Titus and I exchanged glances. Brenda pushed past me, kneeling in front of the couch and face to face with Titus. She squinted.
“Oh I see,” she said. “Good-looking guy, for a faded, pasty outline. Taller than I expected. I thought he’d be your size and age. What do you think, Darcia?”
I waited for more. Titus surveyed her, scanning her face as she conversed with the space behind her.
“She’s bluffing,” said Titus. “She feels the need to acknowledge my existence in order prolong her delusions. You have yet to deny Darcia’s existence, so she feels she must do the same.”
“Are you sure?” I said.
“Of course,” said both of them at the same time.
“He looks twenty,” said Brenda.
“Ask her for the color of my eyes,” said Titus.
The bell on the wall sounded.
We stood in line in the cafeteria, waiting for lunch. The lounge crew shuffled in front of us, Willy lecturing about the proper etiquette of bidding in Spades. He stopped when he saw us.
“Ladies.” He nodded in our direction. “Darcia.”
Titus raised his eyebrows.
“You can see him?” I said.
“Of course,” said Willy. “We’re telepaths. We can sense more than cards from the other realm.”
“He also indulges Brenda,” whispered John. “He’s got a thing for her, ever since she started playing cards with us.”
I thought about Titus’ theory. Perhaps Brenda is the type to indulge others in hopes they will indulge her delusions.
“I don’t think we’ve met,” said Chris, extending a hand in our direction.
“Yes, we have,” I said.
“I mean the gentleman next to you,” said Chris. “I’m Chris. You look like you could use a towel.”
“Titus,” said Titus. Slowly, he extended his hand. The telepath attempted to shake it, but his hand fell through and he clutch at nothing.
“That’s a bit of a problem,” said Carol. “I’m Carol. Have you thought of wearing a glove? Might make you easier to spot.”
“What are you two blabbering about?” said Willy. “There’s no one there.”
“Yes there is,” said both Chris and Carol.
“No, there isn’t,” said John.
As they bickered about who was right and who was delusional, it dawned on me that the lounge crew may not be on the same psychic wavelength. Chris could see Titus, but not Darcia. Carol seems to see both. Willy is only conscious of Darcia, and John saw neither. The espers’ argument grew louder as they neared the front of the line. Titus said nothing, and Brenda exchanged words with the space next to her. Perhaps Willy’s control over the lounge crew was only artificial, and it was his personality rather than his powers that bound the others.
“There are only three people there,” said Chris.
“Four,” said Carol.
“Both of you are insane,” said Willy. “Your powers are giving out. You’re seeing kids that don’t exist. Keep it up and you’ll be no better off than the actual crazies in this place.”
“Look who’s talking,” said Chris. “You’ve been struggling to maintain control of your powers. Who tried to play the Ace of Spades twice last game?”
“That was Carol!”
“No it wasn’t!”
All four of them stopped at once. We turned to see the bandaged girl behind Brenda, her brows furrowed as she held on to a gaunt, vulture-like man with half a head of hair. He wobbled next to her, towering like an obelisk on wheels with arms like those of a gorilla. I would have thought him ready to pass out had his biceps not pulsed and tightened.
“Alice, Jeffrey…” said Brenda.
“No!”said the girl. “No more outbursts. You’re adults, not children. Yet you’re always fussing and disrupting Jeffrey with your ghosts and make believe.”
She rounded on us, but turned a foot too far to the right. While Alice lectured, I made a mental note that her voice rang clear despite her bandaged face; it seems only her eyes were damaged.
“And what about poor Jeffrey?” she said. “Do you ever think of him? The poor man can’t create. How is he supposed to play?”
“He can start by going to his room,” said Willy. The rest of the Lounge Crew apologies; Chris shuffled his feet, John turned to the food line and started loading his tray, but Willy threw his scarf over his shoulder and nodded towards the door.
“If you want silence, there’s a morgue on the seventh floor. Otherwise, be quiet and mind your own business.”
Alice let go of the old man. “You’re not one to talk, Mr. Pretend Esper. Always banging your hands on the table and acting like you control the lounge. It’s no wonder people don’t go there anymore.”
“They have no more right to the space than we do,” said Willy. “At least we’re not paint the walls with our own feces.”
Alice turned a shade pinker. “I do not paint my walls with feces. I paint pictures with brushes.”
“And other people’s blood,” said Willy.
“I do not!”
Suddenly, the vulture-like man threw up his hands.
“It’s gone. It’s gone.”
He clutched the side of his head, thrashing left and right. The other patients back away from the line. Brenda reached for his shoulder.
“Don’t touch me!”
A loud slap echoed through the room. Willy stepped forward. Titus raised a hand.
“No,” I said. “He’s not dangerous.”
“He is out of control,” said Titus. “Something’s been lost, and he blames the lot of you.”
Alice managed to find the man’s shoulders again. “Shame on you, Willy,” she said. “Just wait until the doctor hears about this.”
She helped the man shuffled past us and placed a bowl of something on his tray.
“It’s alright,” said Brenda. “Alice’s a bit strange, and Jeffrey’s just temperamental. All music prodigies tend to be.”
When the other moved out of earshot, she added, “Jeffrey composes a new piece everyday. They’re unique, brilliant, and unlike anything you’ll ever hear on the piano. He would’ve been famous, if he didn’t also have dementia.”
My eyes followed the hunched man. He moved from the meatloaf to the silverware, taking a set for himself and another for Alice.
“Why is he here?” I said.
“Tantrums,” said Brenda. “Because he doesn’t know how to write music, he has no way to record the pieces before he forgets them. His sister found him smashing furniture one day after he had forgotten a particularly endearing piece. It took five men to restrain him, and the judge had him locked down when he started ranting about lost loves. They say the madness started when he lost his first love twenty-five years ago, though no one knows if it’s a girl or a song.”
The two made their way to a table in the back. Alice wobbled as she ate, splashing soup all over her white patient’s gown. Jeffrey handed her a napkin.
“No.They’re just friends. The creative types tend to stick together. Alice used to be an artist in New York until an accident left her blind. She still sculpts and paints, and well. She also claims she can tell colors apart by their smell.”
“That sounds more like a virtue than a vice,” I said.
“Not when she’s throwing them at you.”
I eyed the artist as Brenda continued to explain. Like Brenda with Willy, Alice had a special friendship with the crooked musician; she was the only person Jeffrey permitted to touch him. The two had been friends since Alice was first committed. She had a habit of throwing paint balloons at her canvases. Since she couldn’t see, her aim suffered nine times out of ten, and some unfortunate object or animal became the target of her inspiration. To the frustration of her aged grandfather, she took up sculpting to compensate for her lack of two-dimensional output, and after stabbing her landlord by accident, Alice was removed from her studio apartment and placed in Dover Hill.
When everyone finished eating, the orderlies gave us our medication and escorted us out of the room. When afternoon came, they informed us we could spend an extra hour in the courtyard. They thought fresh air would benefit us all.
“It’s possible they’re bringing in a new patient,” said Titus. “We saw no one during our first hour.”
As we followed the short, squarish orderly down the stairs, I caught Titus looking over his shoulder. Brenda rushed in to join the rear, looking more disheveled than she did at lunch.
Our group wandered around the courtyard, admiring a new sculpture the doctor had purchased. It looked like a man, bent, hunched, its metal splattered with red, blue, and purple paint.
“Nice, right?” said Brenda. “Looks like something Alice might have made before she went blind. They say she had her own exhibit back in the day.”
“Do you think she can really smell colors?” I said. Brenda nodded, then went into a reverie about the first time she and Darcia met Alice. I got the impression she enjoyed indulging other people. She liked every patient in the hospital and she wanted them to like her as well.
“Colors cannot be smelled,” said Titus. “Likely the woman keeps her paint systematically organized. She may be a genius, but that doesn’t exclude her from being a charlatan.”
“Why don’t we ask her ourselves?”
Brenda paused. “Ask her what?”
“Alice,” I said. “Titus and I would like to speak with her.”
Brenda looked around. The artist was not in the courtyard.