I am already in as much trouble as I can be, I think. I have left my room, hi_nd detonated some poor cafeteria hash-slinger’s fartmobile, and certainl_amned some hapless secret smoker to employee Hades for his security lapses.
When I get down from here, I will be bound up in a chemical straightjacket.
I’ll be one of the ward-corner droolers, propped up in a wheelchair in fron_f the video, tended twice daily for diaper changes, feeding and re- medication.
That is the worst they can do, and I’m in for it. This leaves me asking tw_uestions:
1\. Why am I so damned eager to be rescued from my rooftop aerie? I a_unburned and sad, but I am more free than I have been in weeks.
2\. Why am I so reluctant to take further action in the service of gettin_omeone up onto the roof? I could topple a ventilator chimney by moving th_inderblocks that hold its apron down and giving it the shoulder. I could dum_attling handfuls of gravel down its maw and wake the psychotics below.
I could, but I won’t. Maybe I don’t want to go back just yet.
They cooked it up between them. The Jersey customers, Fede, and Linda. _hould have known better.
When I landed at Logan, I was full of beans, ready to design and implement m_ar-driving scheme for the Jersey customers and advance the glorious cause o_he Eastern Standard Tribe. I gleefully hopped up and down the coast, chillin_n Manhattan for a day or two, hanging out with Gran in Toronto.
That Linda followed me out made it all even better. We rented cars and drov_hem from city to city, dropping them off at the city limits and switching t_op-grade EST public transit, eating top-grade EST pizza, heads turning t_ollow the impeccably dressed, buff couples that strolled the pedestrian- friendly streets arm in arm. We sat on stoops in Brooklyn with old ladies wh_alked softly in the gloaming of the pollution-tinged sunsets while thei_randchildren chased each other down the street. We joined a pickup game o_treet-hockey in Boston, yelling “Car!” and clearing the net every time _artmobile turned into the cul-de-sac.
We played like kids. I got commed during working hours and my evenings wer_lissfully devoid of buzzes, beeps and alerts. It surprised the hell out of m_hen I discovered Fede’s treachery and Linda’s complicity and found mysel_lying cattle class to London to kick Fede’s ass. What an idiot I am.
I have never won an argument with Fede. I thought I had that time, of course, but I should have known better. I was hardly back in Boston for a day befor_he men with the white coats came to take me away.
They showed up at the Novotel, soothing and grim, and opened my room’s keycar_eader with a mental-hygiene override. There were four of them, wiry and fas_ith the no-nonsense manner of men who have been unexpectedly hammered b_utwardly calm psychopaths. That I was harmlessly having a rare cigarette o_he balcony, dripping from the shower, made no impression on them. The_ropped their faceplates, moved quickly to the balcony and boxed me in.
One of them recited a Miranda-esque litany that ended with “Do yo_nderstand.” It wasn’t really a question, but I answered anyway. “No! No _on’t! Who the hell are you, and what are you doing in my fucking hotel room?”
In my heart, though, I knew. I’d lived enough of my life on the hallucinator_dge of sleepdep to have anticipated this moment during a thousand freakouts.
I was being led away to the sanatorium, because someone, somewhere, ha_igured out about the scurrying hamsters in my brain. About time.
As soon as I said the f-word, the guns came out. I tried to relax. I kne_ntuitively that this could either be a routine and impersonal affair, or _creaming, kicking, biting nightmare. I knew that arriving at the intake in _alm frame of mind would make the difference between a chemical straightjacke_nd a sleeping pill.
The guns were nonlethals, and varied: two kinds of nasty aerosol, a dart-gun, and a tazer. The tazer captured my attention, whipping horizontal lightning i_he spring breeze. The Tesla enema, they called it in London. Supposedly club- kids used them recreationally, but everyone I knew who’d been hit with on_escribed the experience as fundamentally and uniquely horrible.
I slowly raised my hands. “I would like to pack a bag, and I would like to se_ocumentary evidence of your authority. May I?” I kept my voice as calm as _ould, but it cracked on “May I?”
The reader of the litany nodded slowly. “You tell us what you want packed an_e’ll pack it. Once that’s done, I’ll show you the committal document, al_ight?”
“Thank you,” I said.
They drove me through the Route 128 traffic in the sealed and padde_ompartment in the back of their van. I was strapped in at the waist, an_trapped over my shoulders with a padded harness that reminded me of _ollercoaster restraint. We made slow progress, jerking and changing lanes a_egular intervals. The traffic signature of 128 was unmistakable.
The intake doctor wanded me for contraband, drew fluids from my various parts, and made light chitchat with me along the way. It was the last time I saw him.
Before I knew it, a beefy orderly had me by the arm and was leading me to m_oom. He had a thick Eastern European accent, and he ran down the house rule_or me in battered English. I tried to devote my attention to it, to forge_he slack-eyed ward denizens I’d passed on my way in. I succeeded enough t_nderstand the relationship of my legcuff, the door frame and the elevators.
The orderly fished in his smock and produced a hypo.
“For sleepink,” he said.
Panic, suppressed since my arrival, welled up and burst over. “Wait!” I said.
“What about my things? I had a bag with me.”
“Talk to doctor in morning,” he said, gesturing with the hypo, fitting it wit_ needle-and-dosage cartridge and popping the sterile wrap off with _humbswitch. “Now, for sleepink.” He advanced on me.
I’d been telling myself that this was a chance to rest, to relax and gather m_its. Soon enough, I’d sort things out with the doctors and I’d be on my way.
I’d argue my way out of it. But here came Boris Badinoff with his magi_eedle, and all reason fled. I scrambled back over the bed and pressed agains_he window.
“It’s barely three,” I said, guessing at the time in the absence of my comm.
“I’m not tired. I’ll go to sleep when I am.”
“For sleepink,” he repeated, in a more soothing tone.
“No, that’s all right. I’m tired enough. Long night last night. I’ll just li_own and nap now, all right? No need for needles, OK?”
He grabbed my wrist. I tried to tug it out of his grasp, to squirm away.
There’s a lot of good, old-fashioned dirty fighting in Tai Chi—eye-gouging, groin punches, hold-breaks and come-alongs—and they all fled me. I thrashe_ike a fish on a line as he ran the hypo over the crook of my elbow until th_ein-sensing LED glowed white. He jabbed down with it and I felt a prick. Fo_ second, I thought that it hadn’t taken effect—I’ve done enough chemica_leep in my years with the Tribe that I’ve developed quite a tolerance fo_ost varieties—but then I felt that unmistakable heaviness in my eyelids, th_elatonin crash that signalled the onslaught of merciless rest. I collapse_nto bed.
I spent the next day in a drugged stupor. I’ve become quite accustomed t_unctioning in a stupor over the years, but this was different. No caffeine, for starters. They fed me and I had a meeting with a nice doctor who ran i_own for me. I was here for observation pending a competency hearing in _eek. I had seven days to prove that I wasn’t a danger to myself or others, and if I could, the judge would let me go.
“It’s like I’m a drug addict, huh?” I said to the doctor, who was used to no_equiturs.
“Sure, sure it is.” He shifted in the hard chair opposite my bed, gettin_eady to go.
“No, really, I’m not just running my mouth. It’s like this: I don’t think _ave a problem here. I think that my way of conducting my life is perfectl_armless. Like a speedfreak who thinks that she’s just having a great time, being ultraproductive and coming out ahead of the game. But her friends, they’re convinced she’s destroying herself—they see the danger she’s puttin_erself in, they see her health deteriorating. So they put her into rehab, kicking and screaming, where she stays until she figures it out.
“So, it’s like I’m addicted to being nuts. I have a nonrational view of th_orld around me. An inaccurate view. You are meant to be the objectiv_bserver, to make such notes as are necessary to determine if I’m seein_hings properly, or through a haze of nutziness. For as long as I go on takin_y drug—shooting up my craziness—you keep me here. Once I stop, once I accep_he objective truth of reality, you let me go. What then? Do I become _ecovering nutcase? Do I have to stand ever-vigilant against the siren song o_raziness?”
The doctor ran his hands through his long hair and bounced his knee up an_own. “You could put it that way, I guess.”
“So tell me, what’s the next step? What is my optimum strategy for providin_ompelling evidence of my repudiation of my worldview?”
“Well, that’s where the analogy breaks down. This isn’t about anythin_emonstrable. There’s no one thing we look for in making our diagnosis. It’s _ollection of things, a protocol for evaluating you. It doesn’t happe_vernight, either. You were committed on the basis of evidence that you ha_ade threats to your coworkers due to a belief that they were seeking to har_ou.”
“Interesting. Can we try a little thought experiment, Doctor? Say that you_oworkers really were seeking to harm you—this is not without historica_recedent, right? They’re seeking to sabotage you because you’ve discovere_ome terrible treachery on their part, and they want to hush you up. So the_rovoke a reaction from you and use it as the basis for an involuntar_ommittal. How would you, as a medical professional, distinguish that scenari_rom one in which the patient is genuinely paranoid and delusional?”
The doctor looked away. “It’s in the protocol—we find it there.”
“I see,” I said, moving in for the kill. “I see. Where would I get mor_nformation on the protocol? I’d like to research it before my hearing.”
“I’m sorry,” the doctor said, “we don’t provide access to medical texts to ou_atients.”
“Why not? How can I defend myself against a charge if I’m not made aware o_he means by which my defense is judged? That hardly seems fair.”
The doctor stood and smoothed his coat, turned his badge’s lanyard so that hi_icture faced outwards. “Art, you’re not here to defend yourself. You’re her_o that we can take a look at you and understand what’s going on. If you hav_een set up, we’ll discover it—”
“What’s the ratio of real paranoids to people who’ve been set up, in you_xperience?”
“I don’t keep stats on that sort of thing—”
“How many paranoids have been released because they were vindicated?”
“I’d have to go through my case histories—”
“Is it more than ten?”
“No, I wouldn’t think so—”
“More than five?”
“Art, I don’t think—”
“Have any paranoids ever been vindicated? Is this observation period anythin_ore than a formality en route to committal? Come on, Doctor, just let me kno_here I stand.”
“Art, we’re on your side here. If you want to make this easy on yourself, the_ou should understand that. The nurse will be in with your lunch and your med_n a few minutes, then you’ll be allowed out on the ward. I’ll speak to yo_here more, if you want.”
“Doctor, it’s a simple question: Has anyone ever been admitted to thi_acility because it was believed he had paranoid delusions, and later release_ecause he was indeed the center of a plot?”
“Art, it’s not appropriate for me to discuss other patients’ histories—”
“Don’t you publish case studies? Don’t those contain confidential informatio_isguised with pseudonyms?”
“That’s not the point—”
“What is the point? It seems to me that my optimal strategy here is t_epudiate my belief that Fede and Linda are plotting against me—even if _till believe this to be true, even if it is true—and profess a belief tha_hey are my good and concerned friends. In other words, if they are indee_lotting against me, I must profess to a delusional belief that they aren’t, in order to prove that I am not delusional.”
“I read Catch-22 too, Art. That’s not what this is about, but your attitud_sn’t going to help you any here.” The doctor scribbled on his comm briefly, tapped at some menus. I leaned across and stared at the screen.
“That looks like a prescription, Doctor.”
“It is. I’m giving you a mild sedative. We can’t help you until you’re calme_nd ready to listen.”
“I’m perfectly calm. I just disagree with you. I am the sort of person wh_earns through debate. Medication won’t stop that.”
“We’ll see,” the doctor said, and left, before I could muster a riposte.
I was finally allowed onto the ward, dressed in what the nurses called “da_lothes”—the civilian duds that I’d packed before leaving the hotel, which a_rderly retrieved for me from a locked closet in my room. The clustered nut_ere watching slackjaw TV, or staring out the windows, or rocking in place, fidgeting and muttering. I found myself a seat next to a birdy woman whos_ong oily hair was parted down the middle, leaving a furrow in her scalp line_ith twin rows of dandruff. She was young, maybe twenty-five, and seemed th_east stuporous of the lot.
“Hello,” I said to her.
She smiled shyly, then pitched forward and vomited copiously and noisil_etween her knees. I shrank back and struggled to keep my face neutral. _urse hastened to her side and dropped a plastic bucket in the stream of puke, which was still gushing out of her mouth, her thin chest heaving.
“Here, Sarah, in here,” the nurse said, with an air of irritation.
“Can I help?” I said, ridiculously.
She looked sharply at me. “Art, isn’t it? Why aren’t you in Group? It’s afte_ne!”
“Group?” I asked.
“Group. In that corner, there.” She gestured at a collection of sagging sofa_nderneath one of the ward’s grilled-in windows. “You’re late, and they’v_tarted without you.”
There were four other people there, two women and a young boy, and a doctor i_ufti, identifiable by his shoes—not slippers—and his staff of office, th_lmighty badge-on-a-lanyard.
Throbbing with dread, I moved away from the still-heaving girl to the sof_luster and stood at its edge. The group turned to look at me. The docto_leared his throat. “Group, this is Art. Glad you made it, Art. You’re _ittle late, but we’re just getting started here, so that’s OK. This is Lucy, Fatima, and Manuel. Why don’t you have a seat?” His voice was professionall_mooth and stultifying.
I sank into a bright orange sofa that exhaled a cloud of dust motes tha_anced in the sun streaming through the windows. It also exhaled a breath o_rapped ancient farts, barf-smell, and antiseptic, the parfum de asylum tha_radually numbed my nose to all other scents on the ward. I folded my hands i_y lap and tried to look attentive.
“All right, Art. Everyone in the group is pretty new here, so you don’t hav_o worry about not knowing what’s what. There are no right or wrong things.
The only rules are that you can’t interrupt anyone, and if you want t_riticize, you have to criticize the idea, and not the person who said it. Al_ight?”
“Sure,” I said. “Sure. Let’s get started.”
“Well, aren’t you eager?” the doctor said warmly. “OK. Manuel was just tellin_s about his friends.”
“They’re not my friends,” Manuel said angrily. “They’re the reason I’m here. _ate them.”
“Go on,” the doctor said.
“I already told you, yesterday! Tony and Musafir, they’re trying to get rid o_e. I make them look bad, so they want to get rid of me.”
“Why do you think you make them look bad?”
“Because I’m better than them—I’m smarter, I dress better, I get bette_rades, I score more goals. The girls like me better. They hate me for it.”
“Oh yeah, you’re the cat’s ass, pookie,” Lucy said. She was about fifteen, voluminously fat, and her full lips twisted in an elaborate sneer as sh_poke.
“Lucy,” the doctor said patiently, favoring her with a patronizing smile.
“That’s not cool, OK? Criticize the idea, not the person, and only when it’_our turn, OK?”
Lucy rolled her eyes with the eloquence of teenagedom.
“All right, Manuel, thank you. Group, do you have any positive suggestions fo_anuel?”
“OK! Manuel, some of us are good at some things, and some of us are good a_thers. Your friends don’t hate you, and I’m sure that if you think about it, you’ll know that you don’t hate them. Didn’t they come visit you last weekend?
Successful people are well liked, and you’re no exception. We’ll come back t_his tomorrow—why don’t you spend the time until then thinking of thre_xamples of how your friends showed you that they liked you, and you can tel_s about it tomorrow?”
Manuel stared out the window.
“OK! Now, Art, welcome again. Tell us why you’re here.”
“I’m in for observation. There’s a competency hearing at the end of the week.”
Linda snorted and Fatima giggled.
The doctor ignored them. “But tell us why you think you ended up here.”
“You want the whole story?”
“Whatever parts you think are important.”
“It’s a Tribal thing.”
“I see,” the doctor said.
“It’s like this,” I said. “It used to be that the way you chose your friend_as by finding the most like-minded people you could out of the pool of peopl_ho lived near to you. If you were lucky, you lived near a bunch of people yo_ould get along with. This was a lot more likely in the olden days, bac_efore, you know, printing and radio and such. Chances were that you’d grow u_o immersed in the local doctrine that you’d never even think to question it.
If you were a genius or a psycho, you might come up with a whole new way o_hinking, and if you could pull it off, you’d either gather up a bunch o_eople who liked your new idea or you’d go somewhere else, like America, wher_ou could set up a little colony of people who agreed with you. Most of th_ime, though, people who didn’t get along with their neighbors just mope_round until they died.”
“Very interesting,” the doctor said, interrupting smoothly, “but you wer_oing to tell us how you ended up here.”
“Yeah,” Lucy said, “this isn’t a history lesson, it’s Group. Get to th_oint.”
“I’m getting there,” I said. “It just takes some background if you’re going t_nderstand it. Now, once ideas could travel more freely, the chances of yo_inding out about a group of people somewhere else that you might get alon_ith increased. Like when my dad was growing up, if you were gay and from _ig city, chances were that you could figure out where other gay people hun_ut and go and—” I waved my hands, “be gay, right? But if you were from _mall town, you might not even know that there was such a thing as bein_ay—you might think it was just a perversion. But as time went by, the ga_eople in the big cities started making a bigger and bigger deal out of bein_ay, and since all the information that the small towns consumed came from bi_ities, that information leaked into the small towns and more gay people move_o the big cities, built little gay zones where gay was normal.
“So back when the New World was forming and sorting out its borders an_erritories, information was flowing pretty well. You had telegraphs, you ha_he Pony Express, you had thousands of little newspapers that got carrie_round on railroads and streetcars and steamers, and it wasn’t long befor_veryone knew what kind of person went where, even back in Europe and Asia.
People immigrated here and picked where they wanted to live based on what sor_f people they wanted to be with, which ideas they liked best. A lot of it wa_eligious, but that was just on the surface—underneath it all was aesthetics.
You wanted to go somewhere where the girls were pretty in the way yo_nderstood prettiness, where the food smelled like food and not garbage, wher_hops sold goods you could recognize. Lots of other factors were at play, too, of course—jobs and Jim Crow laws and whatnot, but the tug of finding peopl_ike you is like gravity. Lots of things work against gravity, but gravit_lways wins in the end—in the end, everything collapses. In the end, everyon_nds up with the people that are most like them that they can find.”
I was warming to my subject now, in that flow state that great athletes ge_nto when they just know where to swing their bat, where to plant their foot.
I knew that I was working up a great rant.
“Fast-forward to the age of email. Slowly but surely, we begin to mediat_lmost all of our communication over networks. Why walk down the hallway t_sk a coworker a question, when you can just send email? You don’t need t_nterrupt them, and you can keep going on your own projects, and if you forge_he answer, you can just open the message again and look at the response.
There’re all kinds of ways to interact with our friends over the network: w_an play hallucinogenic games, chat, send pictures, code, music, funn_rticles, metric fuckloads of porn… The interaction is high-quality! Sure, yo_ain three pounds every year you spend behind the desk instead of walking dow_he hall to ask your buddy where he wants to go for lunch, but that’s a smal_rice to pay.
“So you’re a fish out of water. You live in Arizona, but you’re sixteen year_ld and all your neighbors are eighty-five, and you get ten billion channel_f media on your desktop. All the good stuff—everything that tickles you—come_ut of some clique of hyperurban club-kids in South Philly. They’re makin_ool art, music, clothes. You read their mailing lists and you can tell tha_hey’re exactly the kind of people who’d really appreciate you for who yo_re. In the old days, you’d pack your bags and hitchhike across the countr_nd move to your community. But you’re sixteen, and that’s a pretty scar_tep.
“Why move? These kids live online. At lunch, before school, and all night, they’re comming in, talking trash, sending around photos, chatting. Online, you can be a peer. You can hop into these discussions, play the games, chor_ith one hand while chatting up some hottie a couple thousand miles away.
“Only you can’t. You can’t, because they chat at seven AM while they’r_etting ready for school. They chat at five PM, while they’re working on thei_omework. Their late nights end at three AM. But those are their local times, not yours. If you get up at seven, they’re already at school, ’cause it’s te_here.
“So you start to f with your sleep schedule. You get up at four AM so you ca_hat with your friends. You go to bed at nine, ’cause that’s when they go t_ed. Used to be that it was stock brokers and journos and factory workers wh_id that kind of thing, but now it’s anyone who doesn’t fit in. The geniuse_nd lunatics to whom the local doctrine tastes wrong. They choose their peer_ased on similarity, not geography, and they keep themselves awake at the sam_ime as them. But you need to make some nod to localness, too—gotta be at wor_ith everyone else, gotta get to the bank when it’s open, gotta buy you_roceries. You end up hardly sleeping at all, you end up sneaking naps in th_iddle of the day, or after dinner, trying to reconcile biological imperative_ith cultural ones. Needless to say, that alienates you even further from th_olks at home, and drives you more and more into the arms of your online peer_f choice.
“So you get the Tribes. People all over the world who are really secret agent_or some other time zone, some other way of looking at the world, some othe_eitgeist. Unlike other tribes, you can change allegiance by doing nothin_ore that resetting your alarm clock. Like any tribe, they are primarily loya_o each other, and anyone outside of the tribe is only mostly human. That ma_ound extreme, but this is what it comes down to.
“Tribes are agendas. Aesthetics. Ethos. Traditions. Ways of getting thing_one. They’re competitive. They may not all be based on time-zones. There ar_nitting Tribes and vampire fan-fiction Tribes and Christian rock tribes, bu_hey’ve always existed. Mostly, these tribes are little more than a sub- culture. It takes time-zones to amplify the cultural fissioning of fan-fictio_r knitting into a full-blown conspiracy. Their interests are commercial, industrial, cultural, culinary. A Tribesman will patronize a fello_ribesman’s restaurant, or give him a manufacturing contract, or hire hi_axi. Not because of xenophobia, but because of homophilia: I know that m_ribesman’s taxi will conduct its way through traffic in a way that I’_omfortable with, whether I’m in San Francisco, Boston, London or Calcutta. _now that the food will be palatable in a Tribal restaurant, that a book by _ribalist will be a good read, that a gross of widgets will be manufactured t_he exacting standards of my Tribe.
“Like I said, though, unless you’re at ground zero, in the Tribe’s native tim_one, your sleep sched is just raped. You live on sleepdep and chat and secre_gentry until it’s second nature. You’re cranky and subrational most of th_ime. Close your eyes on the freeway and dreams paint themselves on the bac_f your lids, demanding their time, almost as heavy as gravity, almost a_emorseless. There’s a lot of flaming and splitting and vitriol in the Tribes.
They’re more fractured than a potsherd. Tribal anthropologists have built u_ncredible histories of the fissioning of the Tribes since they were firs_ecognized—most of ’em are online; you can look ’em up. We stab each other i_he back routinely and with no more provocation than a sleepdep hallucination.
“Which is how I got here. I’m a member of the Eastern Standard Tribe. We’r_entered around New York, but we’re ramified up and down the coast, Boston an_oronto and Philly, a bunch of Montreal Anglos and some wannabes in upstat_ew York, around Buffalo and Schenectady. I was doing Tribal work in London, serving the Eastern Standard Agenda, working with a couple of Tribesmen, well, one Tribesman and my girlfriend, who I thought was unaffiliated. Turns out, though, that they’re both double agents. They sold out to the Pacific Dayligh_ribe, lameass phonies out in LA, slick Silicon Valley bizdev sharks, pseud_ipsters in San Franscarcity. Once I threatened to expose them, they set m_p, had me thrown in here.”
I looked around proudly, having just completed a real fun little excursio_hrough a topic near and dear to my heart. Mount Rushmore looked back at me, stony and bovine and uncomprehending.
“Baby,” Lucy said, rolling her eyes again, “you need some new meds.”
“Could be,” I said. “But this is for real. Is there a comm on the ward? We ca_ook it up together.”
“Oh, that’all prove it, all right. Nothing but truth online.”
“I didn’t say that. There’re peer-reviewed articles about the Tribes. It was _ead story on the CBC’s social science site last year.”
“Uh huh, sure. Right next to the sasquatch videos.”
“I’m talking about the CBC, Lucy. Let’s go look it up.”
Lucy mimed taking an invisible comm out of her cleavage and prodding at i_ith an invisible stylus. She settled an invisible pair of spectacles on he_ose and nodded sagely. “Oh yeah, sure, really interesting stuff.”
I realized that I was arguing with a crazy person and turned to the doctor.
“You must have read about the Tribes, right?”
The doctor acted as if he hadn’t heard me. “That’s just fascinating, Art.
Thank you for sharing that. Now, here’s a question I’d like you to thin_bout, and maybe you can tell us the answer tomorrow: What are the ways tha_our friends—the ones you say betrayed you—used to show you how much the_espected you and liked you? Think hard about this. I think you’ll b_urprised by the conclusions you come to.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just what I said, Art. Think hard about how you and your friends interacte_nd you’ll see that they really like you.”
“Did you hear what I just said? Have you heard of the Tribes?”
“Sure, sure. But this isn’t about the Tribes, Art. This is about you and—” h_onsulted his comm, “Fede and Linda. They care about you a great deal an_hey’re terribly worried about you. You just think about it. Now,” he said, recrossing his legs, “Fatima, you told us yesterday about your mother and _sked you to think about how she feels. Can you tell the group what you foun_ut?”
But Fatima was off in med-land, eyes glazed and mouth hanging slack. Manue_udged her with his toe, then, when she failed to stir, aimed a kick at he_hin. The doctor held a hand out and grabbed Manuel’s slippered toe. “That’_ll right, let’s move on to Lucy.”
I tuned out as Lucy began an elaborate and well-worn rant about her eatin_abits, prodded on by the doctor. The enormity of the situation was comin_ome to me. I couldn’t win. If I averred that Fede and Linda were my boo_ompanions, I’d still be found incompetent—after all, what competent perso_hreatens his boon companions? If I stuck to my story, I’d be foun_ncompetent, and medicated besides, like poor little Fatima, zombified by th_sychoactive cocktail. Either way, I was stuck.
Stuck on the roof now, and it’s getting very uncomfortable indeed. Stuc_ecause I am officially incompetent and doomed and damned to indefinite res_n the ward. Stuck because every passing moment here is additional time fo_he hamsters to run their courses in my mind, piling regret on worry.
Stuck because as soon as I am discovered, I will be stupified by the meds, administered by stern and loving and thoroughly disappointed doctors. I stil_aven’t managed to remember any of their names. They are interchangeable, wel_hod and endowed with badges on lanyards and soothing and implacable an_ntirely unappreciative of my rhetorical skills.
Stuck. The sheet-metal chimneys stand tall around the roof, unevenl_istributed according to some inscrutable logic that could only be understoo_ith the assistance of as-built drawings, blueprints, mechanical an_tructural engineering diagrams. Surely though, they are optimized to wick ho_ir out of the giant brick pile’s guts and exhaust it.
I move to the one nearest the stairwell. It is tarred in place, its apro_ined with a double-row of cinderblocks that have pools of brackish water an_obwebs gathered in their holes. I stick my hand in the first and drag it of_he apron. I repeat it.
Now the chimney is standing on its own, in the middle of a nonsensica_inderblock-henge. My hands are dripping with muck and grotendousness. I wip_hem off on the pea gravel and then dry them on my boxer shorts, then hug th_himney and lean forward. It gives, slowly, slightly, and springs back. I giv_t a harder push, really give it my weight, but it won’t budge. Belatedly, _ealize that I’m standing on its apron, trying to lift myself along with th_himney.
I take a step back and lean way forward, try again. It’s awkward, but I’_aking progress, bent like an ell, pushing with my legs and lower back. I fee_omething pop around my sacrum, know that I’ll regret this deeply when my bac_acks out completely, but it’ll be all for naught if I don’t keep! on!
Then, suddenly, the chimney gives, its apron swinging up and hitting me in th_nees so that I topple forward with it, smashing my chin on its hood. For _oment, I lie down atop it, like a stupefied lover, awestruck by my ow_nanity. The smell of blood rouses me. I tentatively reach my hand to my chi_nd feel the ragged edge of a cut there, opened from the tip and along m_awbone almost to my ear. The cut is too fresh to hurt, but it’s bleedin_reely and I know it’ll sting like a bastard soon enough. I go to my knees an_cream, then scream again as I rend open my chin further.
My knees and shins are grooved with deep, parallel cuts, gritted with grave_nd grime. Standing hurts so much that I go back to my knees, holler again a_he pain in my legs as I grind more gravel into my cuts, and again as I tea_y face open some more. I end up fetal on my side, sticky with blood an_eeping softly with an exquisite self-pity that is more than the cuts an_ruises, more than the betrayal, more than the foreknowledge of punishment. _m weeping for myself, and my identity, and my smarts over happiness and th_hought that I would indeed choose happiness over smarts any day.