They put me in Room 606, next to the other “schizophrenics”. Some, like the man down the hall who thought he was a tree, were real. Others ranged from clairvoyant to folks avoiding social proprieties by pretending to be sick. Our rooms were arranged in numerical order, first by floor, then from left to right. I hadn’t toured the first five, but an orderly explained that each floor hosted a different ward — the fifth floor had comatose patients, the second floor had a visiting area. The sixth floor contained two corridors, a lounge, a game room where patients could dance and engage in other types of indoor activity, and the cafeteria. The orderly said there was another on the fourth floor. At the end of my corridor, a large window covered the wall intersecting Rooms 601 and 623, and I was told to stay out of Room 607 due to vacancy.
Titus refused to leave our room during the first week. He sat silent in a corner, staring at the wall as if willing it to disappear.
“You are overthinking this,” I said. “No one will care if you join me in the garden. They already think I’m crazy.”
Titus continued to stare. For a second, I wondered if he had frozen, or died some horrible ghost death I knew nothing about.
“They will release you if you recover.”
“I don’t want to be released,” I said. “I like Dover Hill. No one yells or makes fun of us. They’re nice Titus. They talk to us. They understand.”
Titus said nothing.
“We can’t go home anyway,” I said. “The neighbors already think I’m crazy, and Father will lock me up again. At least here, I get to go outside.”
“For how long?”
I thought for a moment. The doctor quarantined patients who refused to recover. Some of the terminal ones lost privileges for refusing to take their medication, and on my third day, I watched her orderlies pry open the mouth of an elderly man. She forced the pills down his throat and had him escorted to his room. We haven’t seen him since.
“I won’t be obvious,” I said. “I’ll pretend I’m talking to someone else when orderlies come.”
Titus stared at the wall. I employed additional schools of reasoning, in case one might penetrate his antiquated breeding, but our conversation eventually devolved into a monologue similar to that of another patient’s with a brick wall. The ghost had all the virtues and vices of the 18th century, and for a moment, I wondered if I should hit him, maybe pull his ears so he would fill our room with something besides silence and dread. He would never yell at me; he never did, though once he made for better company than a dresser drawer or mop.
“Might I trouble you for shelter?”
It had rained for three days. Since Memorial Day, the streets had emptied, and our neighborhood fell silent save for the occasional passing car. Out of mercy, Father permitted me to open my window, in case mildew should accumulate in my second floor bedroom. I had seen no one for several months. I was not to interact with boys, much less than the ghosts of the departed same.
“I will only be a moment,” said Titus.
I opened the window, and a whiff of fresh air hit my face with sprinkles of water. The ghost fell in, bringing with him a dampness that filled my room with the scent of dew.
“Thank you,” he said. “Wind does not benefit those who float.”
I giggled. “You can stay as long you like,” I said. “Just don’t leave this room. I’m not allowed to have guests, especially when I’m grounded.”
“Why are you grounded?” said Titus.
“I made a mistake. Father says I have to stay here until he figures out what to do with me. Mother brings me food twice a day.”
“How long has it been?” said Titus. “A week? Two?”
“Six months,” I said. “Eight, if you count the two before I tried to escape.”
Titus stopped wringing his hair. “What happened?” he said. “They are your real parents, aren’t they?”
“Yes,” I said. “They’re just upset. It hasn’t been not all bad. Ghosts like you have come and gone, and Father will eventually me out.”
“I hope so,” said Titus, “for your sake.”
He slept in a corner that night, a shimmering semi-transparent mass shaped like a boy. I watched him, fascinated by the company though careful not to make a sound. In many ways, he reminded me of an old friend, silent but warm. It was as if I could go outside again. I shook my head, dismissing old memories and the weather. Father had instructed me to sleep, and Mother would notice in the morning if I did not. I hid under the covers and tried not to dwell on my visitor.
The next morning, I found my room clean and my textbooks arranged neatly on my desk. Mother rewarded me with a piece of licorice, which I offered to share with Titus.
“Ghosts do not eat,” he said. “But I appreciate the sentiment.”
I munched on my treat, scribbling through my worksheets as rain beat against my window. Titus watched, correcting the occasional spelling errors. It was nice to have his company. Father worked all day in advertisement, and Mother spent her time in her room.
“Have you always taken lessons in here?” said Titus. “Why don’t you go to school?”
“Mother doesn’t like school. She says girls used to pinch her when she went, and all anyone cared about was burning rubber and back seat bingo.”
“What is ‘back seat bingo’?” said Titus.
I shrugged my shoulders. “I have no idea.”
When the rain refused to relent, I invited Titus to stay another night.
“You can have a blanket if you like,” I said. “Do ghosts get cold?”
“No,” said Titus, “but we appreciate the concept of warmth, like you. There is a certain therapeutic effect to keeping company with the living, though whether it’s purely psychological is up for debate.”
I got the impression that he was smarter than me, but took solace in establishing a mutual understanding. Even before my grounding, I spent most days by myself, alone in the cold except on the days the gardener brought his son to work. I used to bother the boy when he passed by, insisting that, since he had planted flowers everywhere else, he should do the same beneath my window.
Months passed, and Titus remained due to my insistence and the rain refusing to relent. He told me stories of his adventures at sea, of getting ambushed by pirates, and swearing to the code of the dead so that he could remain in this world. In return, I told him stories from my childhood and of the visitors like him that came before him.
“When did you first realize you could see ghosts?” he said.
“I don’t know. It must have been sometime last year. We had a storm in late autumn and…well…”
“Well?” he said.
“I went outside to check on a friend. It was my fault for getting wet, and Father got very angry when I came back.”
“Is that why he locked you in?” said Titus. “For getting wet?”
I shook my head. “No,” I said. “I brought my friend into the house. He fell asleep outside and I didn’t want him to catch a cold.”
“Oh,” said Titus. “Your father dislikes your friend?”
“No, he just didn’t want him in the house.”
Titus paused. “Did your father think your friend was a gentleman caller?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Father doesn’t like to talk about the incident.”
“I see,” said Titus. He glanced around the room. “You like flowers, don’t you? I’ve never seen so many references to horticulture.”
“It’s not a bad pastime for a shut in,” I pulled a book from the bookshelf. “My friend gave me this. He said I could read it during the days he doesn’t visit.”
“Is this the same friend that got you in trouble?”
“He didn’t mean it,” I said. “He used to work in our garden with his father. We’d talk about the flowers, our hobbies…” I paused. “You’re not going to haunt him, are you?”
Titus waived the question away. “I told you,” he said. “Even a single transgression again the living will damn a ghost to hell.”
Back in Room 606, Titus continued staring at the wall as if he hoped to bore a hole in it. I pulled him towards me, shaking him and hoping to elicit some kind of reaction.
“Will you please come with me to the garden?” I said. “It’s five o’clock. We’ll miss the flowers if the sun sets.”
Titus remained frozen. I rolled my eyes. If he wanted to behave like furniture, he could have stayed at the house.
While the ghost moped, I joined a group of patients on their way to the courtyard. We trudged slowly, guarded by orderlies on either side. A tall one with short black hair stood but a few feet in front of me. I could not see his face, but the animation of the patient next to him told me he must be handsome. The woman spoke rapidly, waved her hands and gestured towards the gates. The orderly turned. His profile, at least, was handsome.
Something bumped my shoulder, and a girl drew up beside me, also watching the orderly. She had bandages around her head so that only brown hair and one eye remained visible. I thought I saw her flinch when the other patient laughed.
“Hi,” I said.
She continued to stare at the orderly.
“Do you know them?”
She turned to me. Clouds swirled in her exposed eye, milky save a faded circle of green at the circumference. I apologized, moving quickly towards the front of the line so that I would not have to explain my train of thought. The girl was blind; she had not been watching the other patient.
A passing wind reminded me that I was outside. I closed my eyes, taking a deep breath as the evening chill brushed against my face. I relished the taste of freedom, its dance past my lips and through my windpipes and stomach. Prison or not, at least here, I could breathe. I sat on the grass and shoved my hands in the dirt by the flowerbeds, allowing my fingers to curl around the damp, dark earth. It did not fall through my fingers.
When the other patients settled, I noticed one of the other female patients sitting beside me, an older girl, maybe seventeen, nice-looking, as if she could be in the pictures with a little extra weight. Her chestnut hair bounced against her chest as she too shoved her hands in the dirt.
“It’s nice, isn’t it?” she said. “So refreshing. Did you know it’s good for your skin?”
I shook my head.
“I’m Brenda,” she said. “You must be the new girl. I hear you can see ghosts too.”
“Yes,” I said. “You–”
She gestured to her left. “This is my friend Darcia.”
I looked at the empty spot to her left.
“He’s handsome, isn’t he?”
I stared at the spot a little longer, wondering if a ghost might appear with time. Brenda looked on my other side, then around me before frowning.
“Where is your ghost?” she said.
“In my room. Titus didn’t want to come out. He’s upset we’re here in the first place.”
“That’s how Darcia felt as well,” said Brenda. “When we moved here two years ago, he declared this place unsuitable for a man of his position and insisted we return to New Hampshire. He’s gotten used to it by now, though he’s also gotten a bit scruffy, don’t you think?”
Again I looked to her other side, waiting for signs of movement or a disturbance to break the silence. The flowers tilted with the wind, and trees rustled, but nothing out of the ordinary happened save a passing dung beetle rolling his ball. For a ghost, Darcia certainly did not care if we acknowledged his presence, if he had a presence.
“He still won’t call this place home,” said Brenda. “Not that I blame him, but we can’t leave. Despite his own condition, Darcia refuses to let me join him in the afterlife.”
“It’s sweet of him,” I said. “But there’s nothing wrong with this hospital. It’s safe, it’s got amenities, and a courtyard. It’s supposed to be the best in the country.”
“Sure,” said Brenda. “It’s great… until you try to leave.”
She lowered her voice to a whisper. “In case you didn’t know, this place was a state asylum twenty years ago, complete with mayhem and mismanagement. It only came under Dr. Clayton’s care after the Hatman incident.”
“What is the Hatman incident?” I said.
Brenda scanned the area, then leaned towards me.
“It all started when the first doctor killed himself. He had been discovered experimenting on patients, and police found a pile of dead bodies in the hospital’s basement, all rotting at different rates and all bearing signs of misused insulin shock therapy. Most of them were orphans or the elderly, people no one would miss. The only exception was the doctor’s own son, a little boy around grade school age. His father had gouged out his eyes and slit his throat, then duct taped him to the ceiling of the basement with a note that read ‘No One Leaves.’ As a last act, he set himself on fire, dressed in a full suit, including his wide-brimmed hat. It was a nightmare for the community; the state gutted the building and only erected a new hospital after several years. For a while, things were fine, then patients started reporting strange encounters. Objects went missing, mostly pens and writing utensils, and scribbles started appearing on walls that no one claimed credit to. Eventually, even the staff started seeing shadows around corners. Several folks reported being followed by the shadow of a man with a wide-brimmed hat–the Hatman, they called him. They didn’t know whether to be scared; nothing happened unless they tried to leave. A old woman vanished shortly after being discharged, as did a young man, a middle-aged lady. Finally, after several months, a doctor who had quit his job disappeared the day after he resigned. The entire hospital searched for him and the Hatman. The orderlies even issued flashlights for the night patrol. Only the problem was… he got them first.”
Brenda took a deep breath, then looked around again.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to scare you. It’s just… the police found a second pile of bodies, including the missing doctor’s. Most ended up the same as the boy from years before: gouged eyes, slit throats, duct tape everywhere with a sign that says ‘No One Leaves’. The state closed the hospital and sent everyone from the police to the church to investigate. When they discovered nothing, they sold the property to a wealthy investor, who sent Dr. Clayton to establish another asylum. Locals complained, but stopped when Clayton promised to admit only the chronically ill. The hospital has been incident-free for almost a decade, but no one leaves, and some of the older patients are afraid of their own shadows.”
As Brenda rambled, I couldn’t help questioning the veracity of her story. How could she, a girl from another state and but a few years older than me, know so much about murders that occurred decades before? Had she heard the story from someone else? Did the doctor or an orderly spread it as a deterrence from escaping? She certainly didn’t improve her credibility certainly by claiming clairvoyance; no ghosts, named Darcia or otherwise, had appearing during our conversation. Maybe Brenda was a pathological liar. Maybe ghosts only appeared to their designated humans, and the cosmic laws prevented more than a handful of spirits from bothering the same person.
The latter I accepted as true, since it was better than the alternative: that either Brenda or I, or both, had lost our marbles.
We had dinner at seven, a silent affair involving rows of patients, like inmates, with steel trays and liquid consumables. The orderlies delivered medication to each of us, and Brenda and I swallowed our pills without thought. I couldn’t tell if the pills were meant to affect me outside of giving me chills. They tasted like peppermint, sweet, icy, like wind.
Before leaving the cafeteria, I looked out its window at the city beneath the hills. The ashen sky blended well with the skyscrapers, melting together, save the subtle outlines of edges and antennas. Lights flickered on and off, marking the departure of their workers, off on another journey, some home, some to buy a night’s dream with a week’s worth of compensation.
Brenda pulled me away before the orderlies noticed my behavior. “Come with me,” she said. “I’ll introduce you to the others.”
She led me into the common area separating our ward from the depressed and demented. Unlike the game room, this place had couches instead of chairs and cabinets filled with trinkets and games. Four teenagers sat around a coffee table with hands held in front of their faces as if holding cards. They varied in height, but not presentation. Each donned a gray shirt with matching gray jeans.
“They’re the Lounge Crew,” said Brenda. “Telepaths playing Spades with no cards.”
The four men introduce themselves as Chris, Carol, John and Willy. They had been friends for years, and patients for most of their lives. It was Willy’s family who discovered Dover Hill, after the four attempted to fly off the roof of Willy’s house in order to test the limits of their powers.
“You’re welcome to join us,” said Carol. He seemed the youngest, a square-faced boy with a wide mouth and thick glasses. My first impression was that he could not see despite the glasses; he spoke at Brenda when addressing me.
The others made space. Willy changed the game to poker, or so he said when he pat the table to signify folding his cards. Unlike the others, Willy sported a blue scarf that matched his eyes. The boy would have been handsome, if he had a stronger chin.
“The game is simple,” said Willy as Carol made shuffling gestures. “Five cards each with one round of discard. Chris will start the bets. I’ll get the chips.”
I waited for him to get up, but he remained seated, hazy-eyed as Chris, John, and Carol called out their bets. On my turn, I echoed Carol’s claim. Brenda did the same.
“Excellent,” said Willy. “You may look at your cards.”
He touched the table. The others did the same, except Chris, who slapped his hand against its wooden surface. My hands hovered over the spot before of me. There were no cards. I looked over at Brenda. There were no chips either.
She tapped the table with her hand.
“Discard three,” said Chris. He withdrew, but not before stretching and accidentally kicking John. At six-foot seven, with a sharp, hook-like nose, Chris took up an entire three-seat couch by himself. Unlike the others, he refused to sit, and instead lounged with one knee up and his other leg over the armrest. John shot him a dirty look.
“Discard two,” said John. His brown hair turned a shade redder along with his face. I admit I was impressed by the chameleon effect.
“Discard two as well,” said Carol. The group turned to me.
“Discard two?” I said.
They continued to stare. I waited for one of them to speak.
“Which two?” said Willy. “Hand over your cards.”
I stared at them. Surely, there must be an unspoken rule.
I tapped the table. They waited for more.
“She might not know how to play,” said Carol.
“Then she shouldn’t have joined,” said Willy.
“I change my mind,” I said. “I won’t discard any.”
Willy shifted his attention to Brenda.
“I fold,” she said.
Willy announced he would discard three and again the group spoke their bets. I added nothing. Willy, though small, seemed more assertive than the other three combined. I did not want people to hate me so soon after arriving.
“Everyone done?” said Chris. A grin spread across his face. “Read them and weep.”
The others groaned.
“Damn it, Chris,” said John. “I had two pairs.”
“I only had one,” said Carol.
Chris wagged his finger at us. “Not my fault. Next time, bid less when you have terrible hands.”
Willy turned at me. “Well? Show your cards.”
I looked at Brenda. Surely she knew the secret of their mental realm. She knew to fold. Could she not read my signal for help?
“I fold,” I said, echoing what seemed to be the only course of action.
“You can’t fold. The game is over.” Willy pushed me aside and tapped the table in front of me.
“You have a straight,” he said. “Chris, hand over the chips.”
“She said she folded,” said Chris. Willy snapped his fingers.
“Hand over the chips.”
“They’re my win,” said Chris. “She doesn’t even know how to play.”
“She’s doing just fine,” said Carol.
Chris pointed to the table. “What cards do you have?” he said to me.
I looked at Brenda again. She shrugged.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“They’re right in front of you,” said Chris.
The table sat unmoving, still brown, still wooden. I tapped it with my knuckles.
“What are you doing?” said Carol. “Your cards are over there.”
“There’s nothing there,” I said. “There’s nothing in front of any of you.”
A hush fell over the room. Willy’s eyes bulged and Brenda hurried to put her hands on his chest to keep him from rising.
“She didn’t mean it,” said Brenda. “She’s new, aren’t you Lucy?”
I said nothing. John shook his head, and Carol and Chris murmured to each other. Willy settled down, but not before leaning over and lecturing Brenda about keeping proper company.
“Sorry, sorry,” she kept saying.
I excused myself, leaving the Lounge Crew men to their suspicions. A part of me kicked at the idea of being called crazy by men playing imaginary cards.
As I trudged down the hall, careful to tune out the debate between lounge crew members, I considered the logistics of their game. The men saw that which didn’t exist, at least in this realm. Did the Lounge Crew’s cards function like ghosts? Would Titus be able to see them?
I turned into a different corridor, past the rec room where a man sat cross-legged on the floor, his head drooped over an empty bowl. The lights flicked above my head, buzzing alongside the soft thuds of my footsteps. The ward had so many patients, so many interpretations of reality.
My ears twitched. A crescendo echoed behind me. Brenda appeared by my side, panting for breath.
“You left so suddenly,” she said. “Don’t be mad. Willy’s not mean, he’s just impatient. He wants you to play by their rules.”
“What are their rules?” I said.
“I don’t know. But next time, ask them to look at your cards for you if you cannot see. Willy isn’t above helping the less gifted. He only hates being called a liar.”
“Can you see them?” I said. “The cards.”
“Well… no. But I play sometimes and let one of the boys check for me. They never play anything but Spades and Poker, and only Spades among themselves.”
I said nothing. Again, her story seemed fabricated, stupid, as if a figment of imagination created by four children living in their own world. Spades was a four-player game, involving secrecy and partnership. It was impossible to remember which of the fifty-two cards had been played even with physical indicators. How could the four men simultaneously remember the same sequence? Were they really psychics playing cards in another realm? Or simply geniuses who convinced themselves of a nonexistent gift through mutual assurance?
I glanced back at the lounge. The fireplace cracked as the four Lounge Crew members resumed their game. Again, their hands rose to their faces, with no cards in them or on the table. Another theory rose in my mind. Could there be no homogeneity? Could the lounge crew simply be a group of schizophrenics, clinging to their last shreds of sanity as they indulge each other’s delusions as atonement for their own?