Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"Blackout: A Look Inside Wernickes" Sample Part Five

This is part of a book (linked on this blog), and is copyrighted. Please respect the copyright. Thanks!

Click here for part one                                                                                 Click here for part two 

Click here for part three                                                                               Click here for part four

The best part of the day was the last part of the day. Bill and I would sit outside with our backs to the walkway between wings, looking out at the courtyard and the neighbor’s fences. Nurses came out after dark to wait for the city bus to take them home. I stayed there as late as I could. There was comfort in talking to the ladies…the comfort of knowing I was a person, not just a patient. And knowing they were people—regular people—as well as caregivers.
There was a black woman, probably in her late fifties, who sat with us sometimes. I knew her to be a sweet lady. A tough lady, but very sweet. I’m not sure what her title was, but there was no doubt she was in charge of the place at night.
I sat out there with the nurses every night, but only once did I miss the call for lights out. The call for lights out wasn’t really a call unless you were in the building. Apparently I missed the memo that said we were supposed to be in our beds by 11:00 PM for our medication. I was alone when I finished my last cigarette for the day, and the halls were still lit when I wheeled myself to my room. Unlike the previous nights, no one came to give me my meds.
I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to sleep without them, so I headed to the nurses station. That’s the one to the left outside my door. The Head Nurse—my smoking buddy lady from outside—was in the hall, about to lock a cart in a closet. I asked if I could have my meds.
You missed lights out.” She shook her head. “You’ll have to go to bed without them.”
I didn’t know there was a lights out.”
No meds after lights out.”
I recognized the finality in her voice, and I wasn’t going to argue with her. I wasn’t trying to manipulate her with what I said next, but now that I’ve thought about it, I don’t think I could have played it better if I tried.
That’s okay,” I said as I turned my wheelchair toward my room. “This seems like a big place. I’m not even sure where the kitchen is. The food is good, but I’d like to see the kitchen. Take a little tour.” I looked up at the ceiling and around the walls as if seeing them for the first time. “Don’t worry. I won’t touch anything if I don’t know what it is, and I promise I won’t bother the other patients. I’ll explore quietly.”
Mr. Steele, come back here.”
I turned. Her tone of voice didn’t give me much choice. She looked like she couldn’t decide whether to laugh or yank me out of the wheelchair and put me over her knee. I have that effect on people sometimes—I don’t know why, but I’ll confess that I enjoy it.
I’ll give you your pills,” she said, “but next time you have to be in bed at 11:00.”
I didn’t mean to do it, but I think I gave her what my wife calls my “cute little boy” smile. She couldn’t seem to help herself and thawed her face.
She gave me the medication. “Promise me you won’t go exploring.”
I promise.” I kept the promise. No exploring for me. Maybe that’s why I got ice cream…

One night as we sat in the dark I said I missed ice cream. I wasn’t asking for it; just feeling nostalgic. One of the nurses promised to bring some to my room. It would be there when I went in for the night.
I was surprised when I got back to the room. The table was pulled over the bed, and on it were two little white cups of vanilla ice cream and one of those flat wood spoons, the kind with points on both ends. I laughed like a little kid and slid in bed to enjoy my treat. It ceased to be ice cream sometime before I got to it, but I didn’t care. I peeled back the paper lid and stuck the plank in the goo. There might have been one clump in the puddle. The rest was a sticky, white, slightly cool, messy, sweet substance.

They told me I would have a visitor that day. Mike Stone—my boss. He’s a good man.
I was sitting in the courtyard, smoking a cigarette. Bill wasn’t there. I was parked in my wheelchair in the shade. I saw Mike walk through the walkway between the wings. A nurse pointed me out to him. I waved, glad to see him.
I don’t remember much of our conversation. He was on his way to camp. He looked great in his white shirt and tie. He wore the tie loose in anticipation of changing into his uniform. We chatted about small things. I told him I planned to leave the Boy Scouts.
If he hadn’t left me magazines, I might not have remembered his visit. That’s terrible to say, I know. But my memory was patchy at best. He left me two, I think it was two, magazines.
After Mike left, I sat in the room. I wanted to read one of the articles in the magazine. Ironically, it was about some aspect of men’s health. I struggled to read it—the words weren’t hard, but reading wasn’t automatic. I had to think through what each word meant as I read it. I set it aside when they brought dinner. Afterward, I went out to smoke. The magazines were no longer important; forgotten completely until I found them with my stuff after they let me out.

The old guy in the bed across from mine finally spoke. I came in from my last cigarette of the night and he was sitting in a wheelchair at the foot of his bed. A restraint tied him to the bed by one arm. I don’t know why he was restrained. I had a vague recollection of him moaning the night before. Staff came and took him away.
Now I looked at him strapped to the foot of his bed. His face was slack, almost tortured. His thin hair barely covered his shiny scalp. He looked at me and asked for help, raising his arm as far as the binding would allow. “They forgot me. Please help me… I want to go to bed.”
I thought it highly unlikely they forgot him. “Do you want me to call for help?”
He shook his head. “They won’t come. It’s too late at night. They left me here. Please help me.”
I’m pretty sure there’s a rule against one patient untying another patient when the caregivers find it in their hearts to leave a poor old man lashed to his bed. I would have left him there if and only if: 1) they bothered to tell me why he was tied to the bed, and 2) the answer made sense to me. They didn’t tell me why, therefore there was nothing to make sense of. That entitled me to do what I felt was right.
I said, “I’ll untie you, then help you get in bed. Stay there. If you need to get out of bed, wake me up or call for help.” He nodded, but that wasn’t good enough for me. “Promise me.”
I promise.” He made eye contact and gave me a weak smile.
I untied him and lifted him into bed. He felt frail under my hands. Once in bed, he leaned back on the pillow and sighed. The exhausted smile on his face warmed my heart.
Thank you,” he said. It came out a whisper. He asked for his glasses, then picked up a book from the table and pointed to the cover. I didn’t understand everything he said, but he was trying to tell me about the book. It was some sort of Christian book. I don’t remember the title.
In the way of a true evangelist, he demonstrated a complete inability to recognize he was preaching to the choir. The older I get the more that annoys me. I smile as I write this, but I have to admit I felt the very human urge on Christian feels when another Christian tries to convert him to what he already knows. I wanted to haul his scrawny ass off the mattress and strap him to the frame again. Don’t shake your head at me—you know what I’m talking about.
I know Jesus is the Christ,” I said. “I accepted Him and He me.” The memory of the red mountains came back and I tried to suppress a shudder. “Go to sleep. He’ll watch over you.”
Something got through to him. I don’t know if it was my voice or my words, or the lateness of the hour. He nodded and smiled over his thick glasses. I think he was asleep before I crossed the room and crawled in bed for the night.

My nephew Timmy and the Green Goblin both had a hand in saving me and neither one was there. Timmy is my brother’s son—a sweet little blond boy, about three years old at the time.
I was sitting on my bed in the middle of the afternoon. One of the things Mom and Sarah brought me was a small black and white television. The news was on—someone the police thought was a terrorist had been shot in an airport. In other news, there was a subway bombing. I didn’t know where the shooting took place or which subway was bombed. The outside world seemed like a terrible place. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back.
I was half listening to the news and coloring with crayons. The picture was of the Green Goblin of Spiderman fame flying his scooter-thing near the edge of a skyscraper. When I was a kid, I was terrible with coloring books. I couldn’t stay in the lines to save my life, and although I knew what color things were supposed to be, I didn’t always color them that way. Now that I think about it, I think we lose something when we stop coloring the way we want and start coloring according to what we see. Maybe the three-year-old has something when the grass is red and the sky is green. Yeah, I know—I just sent forty-three kindergarten teachers screaming out of the room. It’s okay, though. They probably needed a time out.
I thought of Timmy as I colored the Green Goblin’s armor with the magenta crayon. I could picture us coloring together on a sunny afternoon. I had very little to worry about. Soon someone would come with food on a tray. I would eat dinner and go out to smoke with Bill until darkness fell and we swapped stories with the nurses.
I was about to glide to an epiphany. Self-awareness is the key to sentience. If you choose to say it more poetically, you might say it as Descartes did: Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. I’ve played with the phrase a bit. I think the more accurate way to say it is Cogito, cogito, ergo sum. Translation: I think, I think, therefore I think I am. Or try it this way—perhaps most accurate of all: Cogito cogito ergo cogito sum…cogito. In English: I think I think, therefore I think I am…I think. Play with the phrasing long enough and you’ll get dizzy. It’s a little buzz I call recreational philosophy. There’s probably a 12-step program…
The Green Goblin’s armor looked okay. The magenta wasn’t dark enough, but it conveyed the idea. The skin threw me off. My box of Crayola crayons had several shades of green. I had an internal debate with myself. I think it was with me, maybe not. I didn’t say anything out loud; it wasn’t necessary.
What color is the Green Goblin?
Which green?
I don’t know.
Which green?
I don’t know.
Who says it has to be green?
It’s the Green Goblin.
Is it?
Yes. An enemy of Spiderman. One of many. The Green Goblin.
Who says it has to be green?
Mr. Stan Lee of Marvel Comics.
The Marvel Comics of which you own 400 worthless shares? The Marvel Comics that was bought out by ToyBiz…of which you own no valuable shares?
Ouch. Got me there. Who says the Green Goblin has to be green?
You, tell me
I say the Green Goblin has to be green. It’s my coloring book.
Which Green?
Whichever green I choose, ya bastard.
That ended the discussion. Me, myself and I—a committee of one—decided that the Green Goblin is green. I no longer cared what color the Green Goblin was in film or comic. I cared only about the color green I chose. I selected a light shade of green, one that seemed more powerful against the magenta background than the shade Mr. Stan Lee and his bankrupt editors chose.
That was a crossing moment for me. As pleasant as it was to sit on a bed coloring in a book and chatting with a nephew and comic book villain who weren’t there, I had to pull my mind together or I would remain a man rolling around in a wheelchair, ignoring news of subway bombings and airport shootings while I ate meals from an unseen kitchen and sucked down melted cups of vanilla ice cream.
This time it was my voice.
“…Time to go.”
    1. It was sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas when I remembered the intervention. By that time, the desired results were already in play. I’m sober.

They wheeled me into a small conference room. There was a table and several chairs around it. A window opposite the door let in the sun. Sarah and my mother were there with the physical therapist and a couple other people I had seen before but didn’t know. They pushed my chair next to Sarah. The woman running the show was on my left, at the head of the table. Mom was across the table from me. There was some discussion, perhaps explanation. Details are sketchy. Someone asked me how much I drank.
Four to five beers a night,” I said. That was a lie, and not a lie.
When I was in Chicago, my boss recognized my drinking problem. He sent me through our employee assistance program to an alcohol education program. They did an assessment and put me in a ten-week class. As part of the assessment, they ask you about your drinking habits, etc. I answered the questions honestly and accepted the help willingly—allowing I might need it, but never believing it. It took having my brain explode to make me see the light.
In my research of drug and alcohol counseling—let me back up a bit. When I hear something that doesn’t make sense to me, I research it. I want to know what makes it tick, what causes what, and how to deal with whatever it is. I found that substance abuse counselors are trained to ask the addict about his consumption habits and then multiply by two. When the counselor in my assessment asked me how much I drank, I told him the truth. He then multiplied by two because addicts lie…which meant he thought I drank sixteen to twenty beers a night. The real answer was eight to ten.
When I said four to five, Sarah said, “Stop lying! It’s eight to ten beers a night!”
It wasn’t a long meeting. I listened to what the people in the room had to say, and they were right. I felt loved—exactly as intended. The people in the room were there because they love me and wanted to bring me back from the hell I put around them and me. I’m grateful for that.
Then one of the people around the table—I think it was the physical therapist—wanted to know where I got the beer I consumed on the premises. At first I thought it was a trap to break my spirit by getting me to betray a friend. That thought came from Viper. He was wrong.
I realized they didn’t know where I got the beer. That pissed me off. If part of their job was to make sure I healed and part of that healing was abstinence from alcohol, there was no way I should have been able to get beer in my hands at all—let alone drink it. I had no memory of what put me there. I didn’t know I couldn’t drink, but they knew and didn’t or couldn’t stop me. Now they wanted to know which patient gave me beer right under their noses? I wasn’t gong to tell them. We could sit there for days, and I wasn’t going to tell them.
Mom surprised me. “He’s not going to tell you. I can see it in his eyes.”
I don’t remember the rest of that meeting. Meeting, intervention, whatever you want to call it. Soon it was over. Mom gave me a hug and told me she loves me. Sarah did the same. I was sad when they left, feeling small and guilty. Less than an hour later I was my old self. The intervention was gone from my mind. Blacked out.

Mom came to pick me up the next day. I was surprised and delighted to see her, and even more delighted to find out I was going home. She had some paperwork to do, and I went to my room to pack my stuff: the cell phone, the black and white television, my clothes, and my coloring book.
There was a guy in a white lab coat standing outside my door. I thought he was an orderly, but he might have been a doctor. He gave me a couple cardboard sheets with Propranolol—the medication I took for essential tremor—in plastic bubbles. I asked about the sleeping pills.
He looked confused. “Sleeping pills?”
The little yellow ones.”
Oh, those. You can’t have them when you’re not here. It’s a narcotic. You have to stop taking it before you get addicted.”
I could have slugged him. I thought about dragging him into the room and beating him to death with one of the chairs. What kind of sick bastard gives a drunk narcotics? But I didn’t beat him, or even yell at him. “Can I take melatonin?”
He smiled. “Sure. Melatonin won’t hurt you.” He gave me a discharge form to sign. “The other thing you need is thiamin—Vitamin B1. Take it every day. You should be able to get it at the same place you buy melatonin. If you can’t find thiamin by itself, take a multivitamin. Just make sure it has thiamin.”
How long do I have to take it?” I forgot the answer until much later. I won’t forget it again.
For the rest of your life. Forever.”
I threw my stuff in a bag and walked out the front door. Mom and Bill were waiting for me. It was a beautiful morning. Not early, but still cool before the heat of the day. Mom was driving my car. Her husband Tony was at a hotel, and Sarah was too sick to leave the house.
Bill stood by the car, waiting to say goodbye. He looked sad to see me go, but happy I could go…I think. The big guy actually hugged me. I’m not sure I would have made it through the days in that place without him. I’m glad I didn’t have to try.
Soon I was home. This time I recognized the place.

Bookmarks and Bar Mops
It’s been two years since the Wernickes and life is good. We moved to Sarah’s hometown, a great small town in the thumb of Michigan. She teaches in the middle school she attended, and I’m writing. I haven’t sold anything yet, but I will. I was lucky to survive Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. I had no idea how lucky, until I did some research. Wernickes is an alcoholic’s disease…you won’t get it otherwise unless you happened to be starving to death, and then only maybe.
I found a few statistics regarding Wernickes:
  • 1 in 10-12 alcoholics will get it.
  • Of those who get it, 1 out of 5 will die.
  • 3 of the 4 who don’t die will have permanent brain damage.
I found out the hard way what happens if I stop taking thiamin. There’s no reason not to take it. Vitamin B1 is inexpensive and available at most drug stores. The pills contain 6,667% of the daily-recommended dosage. Sounds like overkill to me, but apparently there’s no such thing as too much of that good thing. I mentioned I forgot what the man said when I asked how long I had to take it. Shortly after the first of the year, I stopped. I’m not cheap, but I didn’t see the sense in paying money for a bottle of pills that has no effect on anything.
One day in March, with the sun shining and a hint of spring in the air, I was alone. Being alone never bothered me before and there was no reason for it to bother me that day, but something clicked the wrong way in my mind in the middle of the afternoon. I crossed the living room to go out for a cigarette. Fear hit me like a cold kick to the chest. My pulse hammered in my ears and my mouth was dry. I felt like I bit a piece of aluminum foil. There was nothing to fear, but I was scared to death. I clocked my pulse at two hundred forty-five beats a minute. Cold sweat beaded on my forehead, the back of my neck, and under my arms.
I forced myself to go outside in spite of an overwhelming feeling that a hostile force was watching me. It took every bit of determination I could muster to smoke the cigarette and I only made it halfway through before stubbing it out. I wanted to hide, but from what I didn’t know. I opened the door and staggered back into the house. I ruled out driving to the hospital. I knew I would drive too fast or pass out at the wheel. I thought about calling 911, but was afraid the operator would laugh at me.
What exactly are you afraid of, sir?” the voice would ask.
Nothing. Please send an ambulance.”
Sir, this line is for emergencies only. What is the nature of your emergency?”
I’m scared shitless.”
Of what, sir?”
I told you. Nothing.”
I didn’t want that conversation to take place. I suppose I could have said I was having a heart attack. For all I know, I was. I didn’t make the call. I went to our room and fished out a thiamin tablet. I took it and lay on the bed, bedspread clenched in my fists, closed my eyes against the terror flowing over me, and forced myself to breathe slowly—counting to ten before each release. The fear lasted twenty minutes.
There were other episodes prior to hat one. It took me a while to figure out the attacks weren’t madness, and not imagined. Forever. That’s how long the guy at the recuperative care facility said I had to take thiamin. At $4.50 a bottle for a two-month supply, I think I’ll keep taking it.
One more thing before I let you go…
I’m not sure the red train is real. It may have been a symbolic conjuration of a damaged brain. The train may not be real, but the destination is. Here the rules of logic fail and faith takes over. I believe there is a Hell. It is a real place, as real as the one you’re in right now. But there’s good news, too. If there is a Hell, there is a Heaven. I hope I’ve seen all I’m going to see of Hell, and plan to spend eternity eventually in Heaven. Next time I’m going to take the white train—no matter how long I have to wait in line.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This isn’t about trains. Not yet, not really. Frankly, I’m not sure what it is about. I only know I had to write it, and thank you for reading it.
We now return you to your regularly scheduled book. Please remember to keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times….

Section Three – Recovery, Aftermath, Job

I think it’s important to tell you this, and it might be hard to believe, but it’s important to know:
Within a couple of hours after I got home, I had no memory at all of any of the events in the previous section.
Hard to wrap the brain around that idea, isn’t it? It is for me. I spent almost two weeks in neural intensive care, and recuperative care: fought enemies that didn’t exist, met my wife again for the first time, and all the other things you just finished reading about, and I didn’t remember any of it. Not then. Memory came later.

Red Lobster
I walked in the front door of the house, much like anyone would walk into their house after they’ve been gone a few days.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

"Blackout: A look Inside Wernickes" Sample Part Four

 Click this for part one

Click this for part two 

Click this for part three 

This sample is from copyrighted work. Please respect the copyright. Thanks! There is a link to purchase the book on this blog. There is also a link to the smaller book, "Green Goblin", which is contained in the longer book. "Green Goblin" is a good cautionary tale to those in need of caution.

We continue with the sample...

The courtyard was plain. The building bordered it on three sides. One side was the wing I came from. My room was on the end. The opposite side held the door we used to go in and out and a common room with couches, tables, chairs, and vending machines. The other side was a glass enclosed walkway. The open end was a nice grassy rectangle with houses on the other side of privacy fences and hedges.
It was a nice place to sit and smoke. There was a cooler by the door, a plastic thermal cooler with a white spout at the bottom. The water was always cold, even in the afternoon. There were people in the courtyard. Some were in wheelchairs, others used walkers, and still others seemed to need no assistance.
A grizzled old guy in a wheelchair pulled himself toward me, making eye contact every inch of the way. Something about him seemed a bit off…I couldn’t tell what it was, but I paid attention. He wore a dark blue ball cap on his head with a U.S. Navy ship’s name on it, but I don’t remember which ship. His language skills were minimal, but I had no doubt what he wanted. He wanted a cigarette. I know the look.
I was about to give him one with a smile on my face, but a voice stopped me. “Don’t give him one, man! He always wants one but never has one for anyone else.” Before I turned my head to see who spoke, the old man growled something at the guy and gave him the finger.
I never broke eye contact with Captain Ahab. “I’m out,” I said.
The guy in the wheelchair—I call him Captain Ahab and don’t care if anyone else does—pointed at the pack of cigarettes next to my right hip. Pointed at the cigarettes, pointed at his mouth, then back at the cigarettes.
I got the point, smiled, and shook my head.
He half grunted, half growled at me. As if to make his point, he swung his fists in the air. Then he held one up like Jackie Gleason in the Honeymooners. Bang-zoom, Alice! To the moon!
I didn’t laugh at him. For all I knew he was tough as nails and would kill me for a cigarette, but I knew he would never get out of the wheelchair. Could never get out of the wheelchair. I stood up. I could get out of my wheelchair. I wasn’t sure I could walk…but I could get out of the chair.
Now that I was standing, the guy in the wheelchair decided he didn’t want a cigarette after all. At least not from me. He skulked back to his corner. I turned to look at the guy who told me not to give the old man a cigarette and found myself looking at a tall black man, about sixty years old. He had a warm smile and was wearing a Panama-style hat and Hawaiian shirt, and was sitting on a white plastic chair with a walker and a standing ashtray at his side.
I said, “I’m going to get a drink of water. Want one?”
He did. That’s how I met my friend, Bill. People can say what they want about Bill, but he became my friend that day. I needed one in that place, and he was it.

I thought too much that day. By the time I went to bed, I was determined to get out of there. I was pretty sure the place was a nursing home and as far as I could see I was the youngest patient. Thirty-nine years old was too young to be stuck in a nursing home. An orderly came and gave me pills. I tried to hide them in my mouth, but he got me to swallow them. Not through coercion or violence—he just stood there and waited.
It was deep in the night when I forced myself awake. I sat up in bed and tried to blink the cobwebs out of my eyes and skull. The man in the bed on the other side of the room was out cold. I heard him breathing deeply. Dim light filtered in from the hallway and I could see his shape in the bed on the other side of the room. The only other light in the room came from the stars outside the window and the night light in the bathroom.
I walked by the wheelchair waiting for me at the foot of the bed. My gait was unsteady, but I could walk. I was me again—Dave Steele, not Viper—and I was getting the hell out of there. In the hallway, I turned right instead of left. There was an exit at that end of the hall. I was pretty sure there were no security monitors in the hall—I checked when I came in from my last cigarette.
I had to lean against the wall as I studied the exit—an alarmed emergency exit. I was till groggy from the pills.
The plan in my head was vague: walk home and talk Sarah into relocating to South America…hide from whatever force was keeping me prisoner. Invoke Plan Z. Plan Z is for use only when Plans A through Y fall through. I won’t give you the details—there aren’t any—but it doesn’t involve destroying anything. Just a very long walk to a remote town in Peru. You’ll know I’ve invoked it if you ever find a note on my desk after all is lost. The note will say, “Gone to Hot Water.” If anyone figures out what that means, I’ll buy them a Cuba Libra at the Inca baths, but won’t have one myself. Look for an Irishman named Mooch O’Grassyass. That’ll be me.
I stared at the door for what felt like a long time. There was an alarm hard wired to the building. I couldn’t think of a way to disable it without setting it off.
This time the voice in my head wasn’t a fake. It was my voice and represented the clearest thought I had in a long while: What makes you think you can convince Sarah to go with you to Peru? Don’t you think she would move Heaven and earth to get you out of here if she didn’t think you should be here? She loves you! Trust her if you trust no one else. Go back to bed.
I listened to myself. I’d keep track of the days, and if I was still there thirty days from that day, I would break free and walk south.

Bill and I didn’t do much together. There wasn’t much to do but sit in the sun and smoke. Sometimes we talked, and sometimes we didn’t. We went to our rooms for meals and came back to the courtyard when we were ready. I don’t remember how it came up, but he said something about his evening beer. How nice it was to end the day with a couple of beers.
Honest to God, I had no idea why I was there. When Bill said his granddaughter brought him beer and told me I should ask if I could have some brought to me, I planned to do it. I would have asked, but something stopped me. It didn’t seem like the right thing to do.
A tingling feeling that something was wrong didn’t stop me when Bill came to see me one afternoon and told me to follow him. He had a white plastic grocery bag under one arm and led me to the courtyard. There was a pavilion on a concrete slab. It was a hot afternoon and Bill and I were the only people outside. He snuck two cans of Miller Genuine Draft from the bag and slid one over the picnic table to me. “Drink up, quick!”
I wondered why two grown men had to hide beer in the middle of a hot summer day. We were both well over twenty-one years old. If he was allowed to drink in his room, why couldn’t we drink outside? I leaned back in my wheelchair and took a long, slow drink. It tasted fine. Better than fine.
He started his second beer by the time I put the can down from my first few swallows. Something about his demeanor made me feel like I was an eighteen-year-old freshman on my alma mater’s dry campus. I saw the curtain in the break room twitch. Someone saw us drinking the beer, but didn’t want us to know they were watching. It piqued my curiosity—the spying—but we weren’t doing anything wrong.
Bill slugged back his second beer and said, “Drink up, man! Come on!”
I like beer… No question there, but I never liked to hurry through it. I was lightheaded and slightly ill. It had been a long time since one beer did that to me. I took a couple of sips from the second can, but then I had to stop. My head was spinning.
I wheeled myself back into the building, through the door and down the hall, weaving as well as I could through a forest of people. When I got back to my bed, I hauled myself out of the wheelchair and slept until dinner. It was a black, dreamless slumber…

There was a storm. It was mid-afternoon and I was sitting on the bed, just finished with lunch. Clouds rolled in thick and dark over the courtyard. I watched the leaves blow crazily on the trees. The sky had the pale amber look of a severe storm, the kind that precedes a tornado. Wind whipped the air as if cued by my thoughts. Silver drops the size of quarters beat against the windows. Lightning flashed. The lights dimmed. Then the storm was gone as quickly as it rolled in.
I got in the wheelchair and was about to go out for a cigarette when I saw Bill. He stood in the doorway to my room, panting as if he’d just finished a marathon. He was wearing a nylon practice jersey. God help me, please don’t ever make me look at another middle aged man’s nipples!
He stuttered sometimes, but that time it was bad. “There’s…the…there’s…”
Slow down, Bill. What is it? Take a breath.”
“…Big dog! Wa…woulda…
Where?” I looked out the window. The sun was shining through the remaining clouds. There was no dog in the courtyard. Not that I could see.
Out there. It came from behind a fence. Big dog!”
I told Bill I was going out for a cigarette and wasn’t going to let a dog stop me. Not a big dog, not a little dog. I’d take care of it if it was still out there. I’m glad he didn’t ask me how I was going to take care of it. By the look in his eyes—a little fear, a little respect, and more than a little trust—I could see he didn’t want to know.
I wasn’t going to hurt it, but I’m pretty sure the animal rights activists wouldn’t approve of my method if I needed to drive it off. The plan running through my head was to hop out of my wheelchair and chase it off with Bill’s walker. Eyewitnesses wouldn’t have sufficient credibility. Who would believe their story that the little guy jumped out of his wheelchair and ran off the dog, swinging the walker owned by the big guy on the ground?

I think the physical therapy sessions started the day I was allowed to eat breakfast in the dining room. I say I think because time did strange things to me—okay, my perception of time did strange things to me in that place. Someone told me I had an appointment for physical therapy at 1:00 PM that day, where in the building to go, and told me to be on time.
I was getting annoyed at people asking me to be on time. I’m punctual to an extreme: never more than three minutes early, and if your watch says I’m a minute late, it’s probably fast. It could have stopped eleven hours and fifty-nine minutes ago. I’m open to possibilities.
Breakfast was good. I rolled to the dining room and took a seat with three other wheelchair bound men. There was a menu—half a sheet of paper with choices for eggs, cereal, fruit, toast, and juice. We were encouraged to order something from each group. Someone brought coffee. I circled my choices and the food came quickly.
At precisely 1:00 (I waited for five minutes around the corner in the hall,) I rolled into the physical therapy room. It was about the size of two patient rooms combined. As I came in the door, I saw a computer attached to some kind of gizmo that helped patients with their grip. An older woman sat in front of it, squeezing a handle at random intervals. To my right was a set of parallel bars. In front of the door, about seven feet away were wrestling mats. A man in sweats was lying on one. The therapist was on the floor next to him, encouraging him to squeeze an inflatable ball between his thighs as hard as he could. I tried not to think about why a man needed to be able to squeeze hard with his thighs… It’s probably best if you don’t either.
The therapist smiled up at me. I don’t remember all the exercises he had me do, but he wanted me to concentrate on a set of four wood stairs in the corner. He said my ability to use stairs was important because I lived in a split-level house. The term brought back a memory—just those two little words. We didn’t live in the house at 1326 Townsend anymore. We lived in a split-level house at…somewhere in…Cleveland? Yeah—Cleveland.
I climbed the stairs easily in spite of having been in a wheelchair for a while. In fact, I got a little bored going up and down them with and without using the banister. Then I got tired. Fatigue hit me like a wave. I thought age was catching up with me. Not long ago I could have taken stairs two at a time without much thought. There was no way I could have done it that day.
At the end of the session, the therapist gave me permission to walk. There was caveat—I was to keep the wheelchair with me at all times. He said to push it in front of me and sit if I got tired.
First breakfast in the dining room, then walking behind the wheelchair. Considering I still didn’t know I was sick, (I know, how could he not know?) it felt like things were looking up.

Dad and Sarah were my first visitors. That morning, one of the staff told me I would have visitors. I didn’t have to be in my room; someone would tell them where to find me.
I was sitting in the morning sun, smoking. I’m not sure who saw who first, but I was very glad to see them. We had a nice chat. I don’t remember the topics—it was just a pleasant afternoon. Loving hugs were exchanged, then they left.
I was in a great mood for the rest of the day. I couldn’t remember why…

The occupational therapist was a small woman. Dark hair and a bright smile. She was all business.
The session didn’t last long. She walked behind me to the bathroom—her idea, not mine—and held me with a strap around my chest in case I fell. I could have saved her the time and worry. I knew damn well I could walk to the bathroom and take care of things without a babysitter. Thank God she didn’t need proof of that. She wanted to see if I could walk, unbutton my shirt, put on my watch, etc. I could and did.
Questions formed in my mind. The nightmares that disturbed my sleep invoked hospital images too many times. Had I been in one? Was I in a coma? Why the hell couldn’t I remember things I knew happened? Pieces and feelings, clips and snippets, were all I had.
She and I sat near the counter in the hall. I asked her if I was in a coma and her answer surprised me. “We don’t call it that anymore,” she said. “It freaks out the family.”
Highly technical medical term, freaks out. I’m not qualified to use it. “So I wasn’t in a coma?”
We prefer to call it a non-responsive state.”
Sounds like a coma to me.”
She shook her head and smiled. “Non-responsive.”
You can call a rose a cheeseburger if you want, but it still won’t taste good with a pickle. Non-responsive. She was pissing on my boots and trying to tell me it was raining.
She asked me how much I drank and I told her the truth. Yes, the actual truth. It didn’t surprise her. She said I might have to go to another facility when I was done in the current one—a rehabilitation facility. Given my progress, she didn’t think I would have to do that and would recommend against it. I would, however, need physical therapy. My insurance would pay for in-home visits.
Then she asked if I wanted to go on long-term disability. At first I didn’t understand the question. Why would I want to do that? I was physically able to work…still had all my fingers and toes. Heck, I could walk, and pee, and everything. I asked her why I would go on disability.
Most people who suffer what you suffer aren’t able to go back to work.” She leaned closer and said, “When you go back to work if you find it too difficult or can’t function like you used to, don’t quit. I can’t do anything to help you if you quit.”
That conversation went to the dead memory bank until roughly thirty days after my resignation took effect. Sometimes I regret not taking disability, but not for long. Disability would have killed me. It would have meant I gave up. Sure, there would be more money than I make now, but I don’t know that I would have worked to bring my mind back if I collected a disability check twice a month. It was no easy task to bring my mind back.
Sometimes it’s hard not to regret forsaking disability. Those moments tend to come when I’m scraping stuff—let’s call it stuff—from a toilet seat at four o’clock in the morning. The moment doesn’t last long. I flush the regret and the stuff down the toilet and move on. In fact, I often smile when I do it; life is better now, post Wernickes.

The best part of the day was the last part of the day.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Blackout: A look Inside Wernickes" Sample Part Three

Click this for Part One

Click this for Part Two

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Green Goblin

Werknicke-Korsakoff Syndrome: A disorder of the central nervous system characterized by abnormal eye movements, incoordination, confusion, and impaired memory and learning functions.

Wernicke’s Aphasia: A type of aphasia caused by a lesion in the Wernicke’s Area of the brain and characterized by grammatical but more or less meaningless speech and an apparent inability to comprehend speech.
Part I
Bed Sheets and Brimstone
The journey I was about to take was both long in coming and a surprise. Recently I read description after description of the illness I suffered. I’ll tell you what it is at the end of this story. If I remember. If there is an end to this story.
It began with a dream.
The Klingons were blowing up the Enterprise and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. No one responded to my orders to fire the phasers and I have no idea how to run a starship. The deck shook. I turned to Worf and ordered him, again, to fire. He wasn’t there—no one was.
My pulse hammered in my neck. I was scared but determined to go out fighting. Then I saw her: my wife Sarah, dressed in Deanna Troi’s uniform. She was crying and giving me a strange look. I wanted to hug her and tell her it would be okay. We’d beat the bastards but I needed her to fire the photon torpedoes and do it now.
Don’t stand there and cry! We’re going to die if you don’t fire the torpedoes!” I hated myself for shouting at her. I don’t shout. It’s not my style. Of course, getting killed by Klingons isn’t my style either.
Then I woke up. I was lying on the floor on her side of the bed, pulling myself up with the quilt. “It’s okay,” I said. “I’m awake now.”
She looked scared. Sarah doesn’t looked scared any more often than I shout. She told me to get dressed. We were going to the hospital.
    1. 2

I stood on the driveway on her side of the garage. Sarah was behind the wheel and we were waiting for the light to turn green. I was in the passenger seat looking at First Baptist Church through the window. I was an executive with the Boy Scouts of America at the time and we had several meetings a month at that church.
I don’t think I can go to a meeting tonight,” I said. “I’m not in uniform.”
Sarah sounded calm. “We’re going to the hospital.”
She had been fighting colitis for more than two years and her symptoms led her to the hospital only a couple of weeks before.
Why are you driving?” It didn’t make sense for her to drive herself to the hospital.
You’re drunk.”
She had me there. I was drunk. I drank too much anyway, but for the couple of weeks prior to the Klingon invasion, drinking large amounts of beer was the only way I could find to get rid of the double vision.
I saw double for at least two weeks before I went nuts. I should have gone to the doctor in early June, but it was a busy time of year for us. I felt fine physically so I didn’t see double vision as a high priority symptom. Instead of going to the doctor like I knew I should, I got new glasses. I still saw double, but I saw double clearly. I kept an empty foam cup in my car for the random bits of puking I experienced. There was a lot of random puking, but it was okay. There wasn’t much to throw up. It’s hard to eat when you see double and puke every now and again.
But I didn’t need to go to a hospital. I was fine. She was the sick one.

I was in a hospital trauma center waiting room very late at night. I didn’t know how I got there. Sarah was filling out paperwork at the counter. I wanted a cigarette. I reached in the left pocket of my jeans, but for some reason I didn’t have my cigarettes.
I started to walk to the car. It was the first of July and a nice night—warm but not hot. The parking lot was almost empty. They usually are at 2:00 in the morning. I turned around and went back thorough the emergency room entrance. I thought Sarah would be admitted soon and didn’t want to bother her for her keys. My plan was to walk home, get my cigarettes and drive our other car back.
On my way back from the lobby I saw three or four wheelchairs and decided to take one home instead of walking. I heard Sarah shout and try to catch up with me, and thought, she doesn’t have to worry about me. They’ll help her soon.
Wait!” she shouted.
I waved over my shoulder. “See you at home dear!”
So there I was, rolling my wheelchair toward Mayfield Road at two o’clock in the morning, going home to get my cigarettes and my car. I stopped before I turned left on Mayfield. Even at that hour, there were cars on the road. Safety first!
I’m a good driver and try to be polite. I intended to use my turn signal, but couldn’t find it on the wheelchair. It seemed like a bad idea to get killed in the center lane while driving a wheelchair. It didn’t take long to figure out wheelchairs don’t have turn signals. I started to roll out in the road anyway when I heard someone running behind me.
I turned. Two men were gaining on me. One was bearded and big. He was in front of a short, stocky guy. They grabbed the wheelchair just as I threw caution to the winds and went for the road. I struggled, but one held the wheelchair while the other grabbed me.
I told myself not to hurt them. They weren’t hurting me; they were restraining me. It sounds funny, I know. I’m a little guy—five foot six and a hundred twenty pounds—but size doesn’t make any difference in some situations. What matters is who walks away and who doesn’t.
I stopped struggling when I realized I couldn’t get away without hurting them. Better to wait and see what happens.
They rolled me back through the doors. Sarah hugged me just before they took me into the patient storage area—you know, where they put patients until they get around to fixing them. She was crying, I was confused.
So ended July 1, or so I thought. It was actually the wee hours of July 4th—I’d been unconscious at home for at least thirty-six hours since leaving work for vacation on the first.

I opened my eyes and found myself looking at a woman’s face. She was a blond gal, neither ugly nor pretty. She was talking to me, but I didn’t understand what she was trying to say. It’s funny, but I was more curious about why I was sleeping sitting up in bed than why I was there.
You have to sign this.” She put a clipboard on my lap.
I looked at the piece of paper on the clipboard. It was broken in block paragraphs. There were a couple of lines at the bottom for signatures. I tried to read the document. I don’t sign anything without knowing what it is I’m signing.
I tried to read it. I couldn’t.
Don’t you have one of these in English?” I laughed but I wasn’t kidding. Not one word made sense.
It’s in English.” She looked worried.
I looked at it again. I’m pretty good with languages. I can read some French and Spanish. I recognize German, Russian, and Hebrew when I hear them. I didn’t recognize the language on the paper in my lap.
She didn’t know what was holding me back. She sounded desperate when she said, “You have to sign it! Your wife has been calling me every day! She’s very worried about you. She loves you very, very much.”
I looked at the form, then at the nurse. I wanted to sign the document…but I didn’t know how.
We can’t tell her you’re here if you don’t sign it. It breaks my heart to hear her cry. Please sign it so we can tell her you’re here.”
I looked at the document again. It was hard to think, but I found the words I was looking for. “How do I sign it?”
She looked surprised, then more worried. For the first time I noticed a man standing behind her. I didn’t see his face. I remembered Sarah took me to a hospital. If these people couldn’t or wouldn’t tell her where I was, that meant I’d been taken from the hospital. That meant I was a hostage.
Kidnapped? Me? If they wanted a big ransom for little old me, they could forget it. We didn’t have money to pay a ransom. I decided to get out of there, but first I had to sign the form. Play along and watch for an opportunity to escape. “I don’t know how to sign it.”
She talked me through it. I formed the letters as she said them. By the time I wrote “David J. Steele” in childish cursive letters, I remembered how to write. I tried to hand the clipboard back to her, but she pushed it toward me. “Please date it.”
I nodded and stared at the blank. “What’s the date?” What she said didn’t make sense to me, but I wrote it anyway.
Seventh floor,” she said.
It’s a four-story building.”
She looked at me an enunciated every syllable. “Sev…en. …Four.”
That made less sense than seventh floor. So I wrote seventh floor hoping she would accept it and let me go back to sleep. I had an escape to plot and needed to rest before I executed whatever I came up with.
I heard her say to the man behind her, “I think that’s as good as we’re going to get.”

I felt a sharp pain in my arm and opened my eyes. There were two men holding my left arm. The shorter one, the one at my shoulder said, “He’s awake!”
I yanked my arm free by pulling it toward my chest. They let go. I bent my elbow and thrust for the throat of the man closest to my wrist. His face changed as my hand got closer to his neck. He looked happy, then surprised. I pushed my hand closer. My first thought was to crush his windpipe. Push the hand; push it toward his neck. Squeeze—crush, don’t choke—crumple his esophagus like a beer can.
That scared him. He tried to force my hand back, but I wouldn’t let him. We struggled. He couldn’t push my hand away and I wouldn’t stop reaching for his neck.
I didn’t want to kill him. I only wanted to injure him, severely if I had to, and hoped his partner would care more about saving a coworker than the little prisoner in the bed. I intended to pluck his adams apple from his neck and hold it up for the other guy to see.
It doesn’t take long to recognize a bad plan. I couldn’t get to the man’s neck. I gave up on the idea of ripping his throat apart and switched to escape mode. I lashed out with my right arm to grab the rail on the other side of the bed. Grab the rail, pull hard, and vault out of bed. Then run for the door and get the hell out of Dodge.
My hand slammed on a woman’s wrist resting on the rail. I heard a choked cry and looked up. She was wearing a white coat. I didn’t look at her face; I looked at her hand.
Think! I needed time to think, but didn’t have it. Stalemate. The men had me and I had the woman. I didn’t want to take a woman hostage, and I didn’t want to hurt her, but I hated the idea of getting killed more. Since when did the bastards in the Protectors Guild use women? There were no female guildsmen the last time I was in this world.
I had to do something. It went against the grain for me—hurting a woman. I didn’t want to do it, but I knew she would slide a dagger between my ribs with none of the hesitation I felt toward hurting her. I wanted to tell the men I would let go of her if they let go of me. The words wouldn’t come. I couldn’t say anything…I didn’t know how.
I squeezed her wrist. In my mind’s eye I could see her bones just above my curled fingers, the twin, not quite parallel bones in her forearm. My fingers were clenched. Squeeze. Tighter. Pop the hand off her wrist like the flower from a dandelion! I locked eyes with the man holding my left wrist. I wanted him to look in my eyes and see I would rather kill him ten times than lie in that bed as their prisoner. As I did that, I squeezed the woman’s arm harder. She would tell them to let me go any second. I smiled at the Guildsman to intimidate him.
David! Stop it!” the woman shouted. “David! You’re hurting me! Please…stop!”
That was the last thing I expected her to say. She sounds like my Mom! No one but my mother calls me David. Guild bastards. How was I supposed to hurt someone who sounds like my mom?
I couldn’t.
I let go of her arm and waited for them to kill me. The last thing I heard was a man’s voice. “The little fucker smiled at me! Did you see that? He tried to kill me and he fucking smiled!”

I woke up when I heard someone walk in the room. I opened my eyes to a woman standing between the bed I was in and an empty bed next to it.
You’re awake!” she said. “How do you feel?”
I felt fine and said so. I didn’t know where I was or why I was there, but the bed was comfortable and I just woke up.
You look terrible,” I said. “You should sit down.
She sat on the other bed and gave me a warm smile. I was looking at a woman in her mid-fifties. Slender, attractive. She had dark hair with a few strands of gray. I liked it when she smiled; it was a nice smile. She looked me over from her perch on the other bed. Her expression held curiosity and surprise. She seemed very relieved about something, but I couldn’t tell what. “You are a nice man. You’re a very nice man.” She smiled again. “I told them you were, but they said you were dangerous. They said you tried to kill them.”
I almost figured out what was going on. Almost. It slipped my mind’s grasp before I could stop it. The person she was talking to, the patient in the bed, was somewhere between Dave Steele and Tom Benton.
Tom Benton is the protagonist in a novel. I’m the author. Benton is an American who went to a world called Sexton. He was trained to be a killer/cop in a world of swords and sorcery. Rather than serve in a force he grew to recognize as evil—the protectors guild—he became an outlaw. He took the name ‘Viper’ and is merciless in his defense of freedom.
She locked eyes with me. “You are a nice man,” she said again. I’m not sure if she was trying to convince herself or me. “Every time you started to hurt me, all I had to do was tell you to let me go and you let go right away.”
Hurt her? Kill? I was shocked. “I can’t hurt anybody. I’m a little guy.”
She shook her head, lips pressed together. “You’re a strong little guy. Very strong! Don’t play weak little man with me. You’re strong!”
I knew that—I just didn’t want anyone else to know it. Then I saw the brace on her left arm and almost remembered. I didn’t remember what happened, but there was no doubt in my mind I was the one who hurt her arm. I was devastated.
I think I was crying. “I didn’t mean to hurt anyone.”
She tried to calm me. “Of course you didn’t, you’re a nice man. You were scared, that’s all. Absolutely terrified.” She stood up and moved closer. “You are forgetting things. You must remember this, even if you remember nothing else. You can never drink again.”
I don’t drink.” It’s true—Viper doesn’t. Not much. It would get him killed. She didn’t know who she was talking to. She was talking to Tom Benton, AKA Viper. I was gone. Dave? There’s no Dave here, man.
Yes you do!” Her anger was genuine. “You were drunk when they brought you in here! You were almost dead. We saved you this time, but you’re not safe yet. We can’t do it again. If you drink again, you will die. Remember this…you can never drink again.”
I didn’t remember that. Not for a long time.

Time to go!”
I thought someone shouted that very close to my ear, but when I opened my eyes I was alone. Alone in a bed in a hospital room. I remembered being tired, but I couldn’t remember picking a bed and going to sleep. I had to get out of there before someone found me.
I tried to get out of bed, but my left arm was strapped to the rail. Idiot! Fell asleep in the open and let the guild tie me down. There wasn’t time to wonder why they didn’t kill me. The voice I heard in my head might have been imaginary but it wasn’t wrong. It was time to go.
There must have been a little of myself left. I looked at the table next to the bed to see if there was a note from someone, maybe Sarah, telling me to stay put or run like hell. When I found no note, I almost called for help.
Viper answered that one. If you call for help, who do you think will come? Those friendly people who strapped you to this bed, that’s who!
That was all the answer I needed. I stared at the binding. I rubbed my forehead…and laughed. “Stupid guild bastards! You forgot I have two hands.”
Now that I had an assessment of the problem, all I had to do was untie myself… I lost a few minutes while I tried to decide what to do after I freed myself. Should I wait there and kill my captors, or leave and recruit an army to come back and kill them?
I decided to leave and let the chips fall as they may.
Untying myself proved more difficult than I thought. The restraint didn’t buckle or lace. There were two straps holding it to the bed. I reached over my body and the lower rail with my right hand and followed them down as far as I could reach. The end of the straps was beyond me. I tried another way: tight over my chest, reaching down between the top of the mattress and the bottom rail. I rolled to my left as far as I could.
My hand hit the end of the straps. They were wrapped around the bed frame and looped through a double d-ring. I could picture it—two straps going under both rings, then around and between the curved part of the ‘D’.
I’m left-handed. It was more difficult to untie the straps with my right hand than it would have been with my left, but I could do it. In a strange way it was almost refreshing. I found no ambiguity: I was a prisoner against my will; I had no higher priority than freedom. It didn’t take long to untie the thing, even right-handed. That’s when I noticed the needles in my left arm. They led to IV bags on a stand above my shoulder.
The needles worried me. I hate them. I was afraid I would pass out when I pulled them out, but then I chuckled. I was already in bed. If I was going to pass out, what better place to do it?
I was pleasantly surprised to find it doesn’t hurt to pull the needles out. It only hurts when they stick you. When the first needle dangled over the floor, I thought about the mess it would make when the fluid dripped out. I laughed at myself again—what kind of prisoner cleans up after himself when he escapes? The empty restraint would tell them I was gone whether there was a mess on the floor or not. I pulled the other needles out one at a time, jumped over the bed rail, and headed out the door.
No one seemed to notice me in the hall. It was daylight and there were staff and patients around. As I approached the door to the stairs I realized I was wearing only a hospital gown. That was fine in the hospital, but would look mighty strange on the streets.
Our buddy Tom Benton is a resourceful guy. The plan was to go down the stairs and find someone of similar build, knock him out, drag him to a closet, and steal his clothes. Then walk home taking back streets.
I was foiled at the door to the stairs. It was locked. The lock was old, a combination lock with small buttons and Roman numerals engraved in the brass above them. I stared at it and tried to remember what little I knew about the type. I didn’t think the combinations on them were changed easily, and therefore weren’t changed often. That meant the buttons involved in the combination would be more worn than the buttons not involved. Of the seven buttons on the lock, I could narrow the possibilities to three or four. Good idea, right? It would have been if they gave me time.
I heard a shout from behind. I turned to look over my shoulder at the door I left only a few minutes before. A big redheaded guy came out. He saw me and shouted “You! What are you doing out of bed?”
I wasn’t going to stand there and take his pop quiz. I turned to run in the other direction, but couldn’t. There were patients in wheelchairs by the window. They blocked my way. I thought about jumping over them, but ruled it out as an option. Good guys don’t risk hurting the injured and infirm trying to escape. I had to go through the guy I’ve come to call “Big Red.”
I gave myself up. Before I knew what was going on, there were several people around Big Red. He stood behind a wheelchair, waiting for me. I sat in the chair and wondered if they were going to kill me. The other people gathered around us. The thought of springing from the wheelchair and doing as much damage as I could crossed my mind. I discarded the idea. Live to fight again, I thought. Can’t win if you’re dead.
Much later it occurred to me that the people surrounding the wheelchair—the people who formed a wall between the patients in the hall and the lunatic in the wheelchair—were all women.
They knew I wouldn’t hurt the women.

I woke up in artificial light, not torchlight or candlelight. It was America, not Sexton. Something went wrong with the crossing this time. I was in a straitjacket in a hospital bed. My arms were crossed over my chest under the jacket. A shake of my shoulders told me I wasn’t going to fight my way out. The restraint was tied to the bed at the shoulders. I couldn’t reach anything with my arms bound like that.
I closed my eyes and tried to remember everything I knew about straitjackets. It didn’t take long to figure out I wasn’t in one—not a straitjacket, but something else. There was no buckle or strap under my back. I had seen a straitjacket at some point in my life and hadn’t forgotten the fear I felt when I saw it. I studied it for that reason—I tend to study things that scare me in case I ever need to play to win.
I concentrated on my legs, particularly around the groin. Straitjackets strap between the legs so the patient can’t worm out the bottom. That thing had no such strap. And the guild bastards actually did me a favor by lashing the thing to the bed at the shoulders. If the restraint wasn’t strapped to the bed at the top, there would be nothing holding it in place. Holding in place prevents the prisoner from getting out of bed, but that was a two-edged sword. Holding it to the bed gave me something to pull against on my way out the bottom.
I anchored my feet to the bottom of the mattress and pulled myself out with my legs. When I messed up my air dragging it over the canvas, I wished I had a comb. Not because I worried about what I looked like, but because it would be easy to spot the escapee by his messed-up hair. I shouldn’t have worried. Have you seen the typical haircut in Cleveland?
I made it out of the room and found myself lost in a sea of blue-green curtains. It was a house of mirrors with no mirrors, only curtains.

I was in a wheelchair looking down a set of metal stairs at a machine with a tube-shaped entrance. A woman stood next to me and was explaining something, but I didn’t understand her. My attention was on the tube. It looked like a tight fit even for a little guy like me.
I’m claustrophobic,” I said. I’m not, really. I just didn’t want to go in the tube.
It’s okay.” She was trying to reassure me and it worked. I sensed no lie in her face or voice. “If you get scared, just bang on the side. Or say you’re scared. We’ll let you out.”
Sure they would let me out. She was one of those friendly people who strapped my ass to the bed. “You can hear me in there?”
Yes. We’ll be able to see you and hear you.”

I don’t know what went wrong in the MRI chamber. Something did. It wasn’t the test, I’m sure of that. Magnetic resonance imaging is a great tool. Expensive as hell—I saw the bill later—but a great tool.
Speaking of Hell…that’s where I went next.
I was on my back in the tube. It made me think I was in a Dreamsicle. There were bands of orange and white light, like the vanilla ice cream in those frozen orange treats.
That’s what I remember. They tell me I’m wrong, but that’s what I remember. Orange bands with beams of white light.

I opened my eyes and saw a white ceiling. I was myself at that point and thought I finally got to be the guy in the bed in the bed races. My dad took me to see them when I was a kid and I thought it would be fun to be the guy in the bed, riding right down the middle of the street as we raced to the cheers of the crowd.
The lights in the ceiling were the only clue I had that we were moving. They passed quickly overhead, one every few seconds. Flash, slide-slide, flash, slide-slide, flash, slide. I tried to sit up but a hand pushed me back.
Lie down,” someone said. “Don’t move.”
The bed race that wasn’t a bed race was a lot more fun than the ride on the train that wasn’t a train.

My pulse speeds up when I think about what happened next. It still scares me. I was on a bed in a big room and there were other beds around mine with no curtains separating them. There were three or four men lying on similar beds. The room was big and had a curved white ceiling like an airplane hangar where the roof and walls are one, stretching from the floor in an arc from side to side.
I heard the men talking to each other in low tones. It seemed like we were waiting for something, but I didn’t know what or who. I asked them what we were waiting for. They didn’t know. It felt like a scene in Waiting for Godot.
Why don’t we get up and look?” I pointed at the curtain separating us from the rest of the room.
You can get out of bed?” one of them asked. “If you can, you should.”
The next thing I knew, I was standing in front of a row of vending machines. I was hungry so I thought I’d grab a bag of chips while we waited for whatever train we were waiting for. The place looked like a gleaming white version of a subway station.
I reached in my pocket for change and discovered I didn’t have pockets. Hell, I didn’t even have pants! I was wearing a hospital gown and it was chilly in that place. I like pants—they’re one of man’s greatest inventions. Never underestimate the importance of pants.
Not long after that, I found myself underground on a walkway between two sets of railroad tracks. There were two trains and they looked ready to leave the station. The train on my right was white. It was no cleaner than a normal passenger train. Lines of people of all ages waited to get on. They were quiet and didn’t seem to be in a hurry. I didn’t think much of it, but because I had no destination in mind and don’t like to wait in line if I don’t have to, I looked at the train on my left.
It looked older, like something out of the 1950’s. Its sides were orange and beat up. The windows were tinted. I couldn’t see much through them, only vague shapes of people moving around. I heard laughter and the sound of music—good rock ‘n’ roll music—pump through the walls. Party train.
I didn’t get on one train or the other. My Spidey-sense was tingling.
The next thing I knew, I was outside the station between the two trains. Orange-white halogen lights burned the darkness. It was cold. Frigid, wicked, bite-ass cold.

I was hiding behind some equipment, down low and out of sight. I could see the bed I came from. I wasn’t sure why I was hiding—was it to escape, or had I set a trap?
A woman walked in, alone. I watched her look at the empty bed and around the room. I could see she wasn’t there to hurt me, but she was afraid of something. I hoped it wasn’t me.
She saw me and suddenly I was afraid. I wasn’t afraid of her or anything else I could name. I was just afraid.
She came to me murmuring gently and took me by the hand. Convinced me I belonged in the bed. I climbed up and was on the train again before my head hit the pillow.

I sat in a row of three seats. I was on the window side of a passenger railway car. There wasn’t anything to see out the window but darkness. I was alone. Not for long. In a blink I was in a bed…but still on the train. There were other people in beds on the same car, but this time no one said a word. I heard the rattle of the train and felt side to side rocking as we made our way wherever we were going.
It was boring, riding like that. I wished I was back in Peru, riding on the roof of the train like I did in 1987.
Then I was. I still wasn’t wearing pants, but I had a wool poncho to wear against the cold. I knelt on top of the train as it cruised down the side of a mountain in darkness.
As long as I’m at it… When all is said and done for me in this world, when it’s time to shelve this little body of mine, somebody do me a favor. Please? Open the coffin and make sure I’m wearing pants. I understand the soul leaves the body, but is it too much to ask to be buried with my pants on? Boots are optional. Please, for the love of God…gimme my drawers.

Yea though I walk through the

Valley of the Shadow of Death 

I will fear no evil 

For the Lord is my shepherd

And I’m wearing pants!

Dave Steele’s proposed epitaph
We were going down the side of a mountain in darkness. Cars stretched ahead as far as I could see. The train bent around the side of the mountain in the distance ahead. I couldn’t see the engine. Behind me, up the mountain, I saw only more cars.
The light on the mountain was red. No sun ever lit those mountains. The sky was an umber, orange and black blend of smoky color. Looking at the jagged mountains was like looking at the tip of a cigarette smoked too quickly—gray ash on sharp orange points.
I was in a lifeless land and the journey was only going to get worse when we reached our destination. I wondered if I should jump off and take my chances living off the land. I looked at the charcoal ground passing along the tracks below. Nothing lived there, at least nothing recognizable. If I jumped I might be able to find small animals to eat…but I was pretty sure I wouldn’t want to eat them.
Then it struck me that I was dead. And if I was dead, this wasn’t what I was expecting. It wasn’t what I was promised. This was… No! This wasn’t Hell. This was on the way to Hell. En route. I’m going to Hell, I thought. Not tomorrow, not next year, not maybe. I’m going to Hell…RIGHT NOW!
I was terrified and pissed off. I knew if I was still on that train when it reached the bottom of the mountain, I would be in Hell forever. And it pissed me off.
The first time I remembered this and remembered yelling, I thought I was yelling at God. Now I know it for what it was: the prayer of a believer in fear for his immortal soul.
I turned my face to what passed for sky. “Where are you guys? Where is God? Where is Jesus? I believe in you! I’m human and I fail. I’ve sinned. I haven’t always believed, but I do now. And this is what I get? No hearing? No chance to hear the charges against me? You send me to Hell without a fucking word? I demand a hearing! Dear God, give me a chance to hear the charges against me and let me defend myself!”
I shouted until I ran out of breath. Then I waited. I wondered what I would say if I got the hearing I requested. I didn’t have to wait long.
A hole opened in the orange sky. I was on my back, looking up at the face of a woman. Not an angel, though she might as well have been. It was a woman, a living woman, and I was glad to see her. She said something, but not to me. I couldn’t understand her words, but I didn’t care what she said. I was more relieved to know I wasn’t going to Hell. At least not that day.
I wanted to take proof with me. Something to prove there is a literal Hell. Ironically, the knowledge brings comfort of a sort. Seeing Hell did something for me its ruler desperately doesn’t want—it proved to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is a God and that Jesus is the Christ.
Relax. I’m not going to preach to you. I’m telling you what I saw. This is a report, not an epistle. Now there’s a word I don’t use every day!

I lay on a bed on my back, comfortable under a sheet. I heard a human rustle, like someone trying to be quiet and not doing a very good job. I opened my eyes. There was a man in the room with me. He was wearing scrubs but I don’t think he was a doctor. I tried to say something to him but nothing came out.
He came close and stared at me for a second, then smiled. I don’t remember what he looked like, but I was glad to see him smile. “You’re back,” he said. He said it as if greeting a visitor he’d hoped to see but wasn’t really expecting. “We didn’t think you were going to make it.”
I have to tell you—when you find yourself back in this land after seeing the place you least want to spend eternity, after praying as you’ve never prayed before—the last thing you want to hear is “We didn’t think you were going to make it.”
It would have been much better to say, “It’s about time you woke up.” Then we could all pretend it was a dream.
It wasn’t.

A voice disturbed my sleep. I kept my eyes closed, careful not to move while I assessed the situation. My hands were at my sides as I lay on grass in a valley. I moved my right index finger slightly and tried to find my sword. I almost opened my eyes when it wasn’t there. It’s never far from my side when I sleep. You don’t take chances in Sexton.
What’s your name?”
If I tell them I’m Viper, they’ll kill me.
I opened my eyes and saw a hospital curtain and a young woman with a clipboard in her hand. She looked at me and said, “What’s your name? Do you know where you are? Do you know what day it is?”
Tom Benton.” My voice cracked when I said the name. I was surprised when she got mad.
That’s not your name! There is no Tom Benton! We checked!”
As I slipped back to sleep I thought, I ought to know who I am, lady. If you’re so damn sure I’m not Tom Benton, why don’t you tell me who I am instead of wasting my time and yours?

What’s your name? Do you know where you are? Do you know what day it is?”
Damn. Here we go again. Don’t tell her you’re Tom Benton. Make up a new name. I thought for a moment and opened my eyes. Same gal, same clipboard. Different answer. “David Steele.” I liked the name, but it didn’t sound right.
She smiled. “That’s right.”
Right? I’m the author? “Author” rang through my mind as if it meant some kind of god. Not with a capital ‘G’ but a little ‘g.’ Creator (small ‘c’ intended, but sentence structure doesn’t allow) of the world of Sexton.
Do you know where you are?”
Hillcrest Hospital.” I thought I was making up the answer. Actually, I was making it up.
That’s right!” Her smile could have lit Manhattan. “Do you know what day it is?”
Feeling confident, I said, “July first.”
Her face changed just enough to let me know I missed. She forced a smile. “Well… Two out of three is good.”
Which one did I miss?”
She thought for a second, debating whether to answer my question or not. “It’s July 5th.”

There was someone near me, closer than usual. I wasn’t afraid when I opened my eyes.
A pretty girl was next to the bed. She had brown hair and smiled with lips I wanted to kiss. She was dressed like a civilian, but I don’t remember what she was wearing. I looked at her face; I could have looked at it for a long time. She talked to me, but I couldn’t understand what she was saying. It didn’t matter. If I can be with her, I thought, everything will be alright. We can face anything. I saw she was crying and wondered why.
I was getting sleepy again. She kissed me! Lightly and lovingly. I was smitten with her. Guilt hit me like a wave. You’re married to a wonderful woman! Don’t fall in love with this one! I turned my head away from the pretty girl. I love my wife very much, and as wonderful as the pretty girl was, I won’t cheat on my wife. I knew I was fading again. My last thought was…
Why does the pretty girl cry?

Later—almost a week later—as I got ready for bed in the recuperative care facility, I wondered again, why does the pretty girl cry? The answer hit me. It’s a good thing I was alone in the room then because I thought it through out loud. Well, half out loud.
Why does the pretty girl cry?”
Because her husband was lying half dead in the ICU.
Sarah was the pretty girl? …Of course she was!” I laughed and cried at the same time. Who else could make me feel that way? You can’t cheat on your wife with your wife.
I went to sleep happy.

I opened my eyes. The ceiling was different: squares with holes in them rather than the usual rectangular tiles. I was resting comfortably on a bed, no restraints on my arms or chest. The curtains around the bed were white, not blue-green. I heard two women talking somewhere close.
Dave Steele is your husband?” one asked.
I think I met him somewhere before.”
He works for the Boy Scouts.”
The first woman said something nice about me, but I don’t remember what it was. It didn’t matter. The other woman’s voice was Sarah’s! I climbed out of bed over the railing and staggered when I hit the floor. The landing was good but my balance wasn’t. I stood at the foot of the bed, head hung low and whispered to myself. “Dangerous. They said I’m dangerous. Oh God…I didn’t kill anyone, did I?”
I was sure I would remember if I had. I thought I might black out again and I didn’t want that to happen. I told myself to stay in control, remember who I am and stay in control. I sucked in my breath and clenched the metal rail. “You’re not in Sexton. This is America. Kill in Sexton when you have to, but never here. Never kill in America.”
I turned and peeked through the curtain. I saw Sarah’s back. She was pressed against a counter, talking to the woman behind it. She was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. I checked out her legs…always loved ‘em. Then, like a good little patient for a change, I crawled back in bed to wait.

I was in a wheelchair being pushed out the front door of the hospital. It was a beautiful summer day. Sarah’s car was waiting. I waved to people I didn’t recognize because it seemed like they were saying goodbye. Whether they were happy to get me the hell out of there or happy I was better, I can’t say. I hope it was the latter and not the former.
Big Red was there. He was smiling, and for the first time I didn’t see him as an enemy. I think he was a little sad to see me go. I don’t know why I think that, but I do. Someday I’ll meet him and learn his name. I’ll shake his hand and thank him. I owe him an apology. I haven’t written the scene in here—I don’t know where it fits in the time line. Frankly, I’m not sure where anything fits in the time line. I’ve assembled this in the order that makes sense to me now.
Big red came to see me when I was conscious. He told me that if I kept getting out of bed I was going to get hurt. That didn’t faze me. Then he told me that if I got out of bed someone else would get hurt. I took that the wrong way. I know now that he meant that I might hurt someone. I thought he was threatening Sarah and told him that if anything—anything—ever happened to her, I would destroy his life by taking out everyone who ever meant anything to him and we would go to Hell together with me on his back.
I won’t apologize for the threat. That’s what I would do if someone were to harm Sarah. I apologize to Big Red for not trusting him when he tried to help me.
Part II 
Which Green?

I was surprised when Sarah got me home. It wasn’t the house I expected. I expected the gray and pink colonial we owned in Chicago. This house was smaller and older, but looked pretty cool.
It seemed like a nice house. I liked the furnishings and was very interested in the china cabinet. It made me feel comfortable. I was sure there were stories behind some of the nick-knacks in there. I heard a noise down the hall and wandered toward it. I found Sarah in a bedroom putting things in a bag. I don’t remember what she said or what I said. I wanted to stay and couldn’t—that was the bottom line. I’m pretty sure we were both crying when we left the house to go…wherever it was I had to go.

I was in a room. It wasn’t a hospital room, but it resembled one. I was just sitting there looking at the night through the windows. I didn’t know enough to be either lonely or afraid. For all I knew, I’d been there forever. Sitting in front of the dark windows wasn’t the culmination of events. It was all there was.
Mr. Steele, you have a phone call. I think it’s your boss.”
I was led down the hall to a high counter. There was an empty chair behind it. Someone left a phone on the counter for me. The handset was off the hook. “Hello?”
Dave! It’s Mike Stone.” The voice sounded vaguely familiar and it made me smile. “How are you man? We were worried about you! You okay? Are you better?”
Sure. I’m fine. How are you?”
We didn’t talk long. I’m pretty sure that conversation wasn’t my best. I hung up and walked back down the hall to my dark windows. The personnel in that place did a good job pretending to give me privacy.
Was it a good call?” a woman asked from somewhere behind me.
I think so.”
Who was it?”
Some guy.” I didn’t turn around to look at her. “Seemed like a nice guy.”
Do you know who he is?”
I had trouble falling asleep that night. There was a bed in the room. It was comfortable enough, but I tossed and turned for a while. Finally the light came on and a man said, “It’s time for your meds. Take these.”

Wake up!” a female voice shouted. “Breakfast will be here in ten minutes!”
I opened my eyes. I was on my back in a hospital bed. The room was different than any hospital I remembered. It was bigger and the curtains between the beds were pulled back. There were windows on my right. I was on the ground floor. Outside it was sunny and bright. I could see blue sky over the other side of the building—evidently it wrapped around a courtyard.
There was a bed on the opposite side of the room. The patient in the bed was an Asian man of late middle age. He didn’t acknowledge me and I didn’t blame him. He was eating. I heard a woman tell him he had to finish everything on his plate or he would be in trouble. That worried me. I almost never ate everything on my plate as an adult. I was never as hungry as most people.
I didn’t have to worry. The food was hot and good. I felt like I hadn’t eaten in a week. As I shoveled sausage and scrambled eggs into my mouth, I tried to remember the last time I ate. I couldn’t.
When I finished the meal I felt the tugging of a nicotine fit. I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. I felt the pockets for my cigarettes and lighter. They weren’t there, but I saw them on the windowsill. I couldn’t remember the last time I had a cigarette, and I wanted one.
The woman who took my plate told me where I could go to smoke. She helped me out of bed and into a wheelchair, then she gave me the rules: no walking anywhere—not even to the bathroom—without permission from the doctors; the smoking area was in the courtyard; lunch would be served in my room, and if I wanted to eat, I’d better be on time.
I rolled down the hall, around a corner and out a door. Sunlight in the courtyard, wheelchair under me. Pulled out the pack of Marlboro Lights, lit one, sucked in the smoke and let it out slowly. The cigarette, like the breakfast, was good and gone before I knew it.

The courtyard was plain. The building bordered it on three sides. One side was the wing I came from. My room was on the end.