Asylum

Lane Kareska
Fiction


King's Highway 132 - Ontario

Photo Credit: Doug Kerr/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

5.

After sixty years of driving, this is John’s first accident.

It’s a raccoon or maybe even a bear cub—something dark and huddled—and he considers just plowing straight through it. But maybe it’s a rock. Maybe it’s a small boulder. It’s night, it’s hard to tell. He decides to avoid the thing, but already, he knows, he’s acted too late. He cranks the wheel to the right and feels the impact in his hips. A tire bursts. The car shudders as it swings from the road. One side of the SUV lifts—he’s going over, he knows it—and the car topples and grinds the pavement on the driver’s side. John isn’t scared, just surprised. Huh—5. This is happening—4.

The car drags to a stop in the ditch, and already John scrambles to pull himself from the car. Taped plastic bags heavy with large American bills crinkle within his shirt. He throws open the passenger door and it falls back atop him. He forces it open again, hauls himself from the wreck and, hyperventilating, lowers himself down to the earth. His hands shake more fiercely than usual. He looks at the car, the woods, the road.

Midnight in the middle of nowhere Ontario.

Something hard twists in his stomach and he sits down to let the nausea pass. He wants to look back at whatever it was that caused all this but the muscles in his back are locked and his entire body feels like one giant knot of meat.

After ten minutes of sitting still—no cars pass; he expects none—John smirks to himself. I pulled myself from an overturned SUV. Jumped from it like a man half my age. The realization that he is still a capable man comforts him, and for a moment he forgets that he is freezing.

The revolver. John forces himself to stand. On wobbly legs, he staggers to the hood of the upset vehicle and tries to force it open. Of course it won’t work. He needs to get to the latch inside. But the idea of climbing back into the car seems flat impossible now. Two days ago, while still in America, John had removed the car’s air filter and hidden a .38 revolver in the cavity.

No way you’re getting to that now—5.

Long minutes of just thinking. Ok. Time to walk. It’s almost summer, but the night air is still terribly cold. John, aged 70—though he knows he looks closer to a hundred—walks down the road, hugging himself against the chill. He doesn’t know what’s coming. He just knows he needs to find some safety.

 

4.

Six weeks ago, John Valley was a full professor in the Creative Writing Department at Tacklin, a small college in southern Kentucky. Keeping secrets came naturally to John.

Almost no one knew about his rituals and rules. People suspected something was off, sure. He’d often been spotted whispering to himself. The constant hand washing, the way he lingered a moment too long at doors. But the full globe of his complex remained something he trekked alone.

In the invisible safety of his VW beater, John counted backwards, aloud, between the stop signs as he pulled into the faculty parking lot. He waited a moment in his car, finished the countdown and looked himself over in the mirror. He was shocked to look so old. Women live longer, his father had once told him. Because it’s the men that have to deal with everything. John’s face looked like a fist behind the steel frames of his glasses. His hair shone a brilliant, laughable white. It didn’t even look like real hair, but an outrageous wig.

John walked through the campus courtyard. Some students kicked a soccer ball. It was mid-spring and the air was full of water. John inhaled deeply as he walked. He believed that flooding his system with oxygen helped to slow his heart and relax his mind.

He checked his department mailbox, washed his hands in the men’s room, sat in his office and booted his computer. He read his email from students, coworkers and the Liberal Arts College. “Come,” John said when someone knocked on his door.

A student opened the door cautiously—was it a student?—John didn’t recognize him.

“Hello,” the young man said.

Young. He looked older than most undergraduates. He wore his red hair clipped close to his skull. A gray sweater, jeans and gym shoes. John found himself instantly wondering if this were a student or someone impersonating a student.

“Yes?” John said.

“Professor Valley?”

“That’s right. Would you like to sit down?”

The young man stared at John as if he hadn’t heard him. As if he’d been suddenly struck deaf. The moment held and John searched for something to say. The young man stared at him. Examining him. Memorizing him. Yes, John was sure of it. He was memorizing John’s appearance.

“And you are…?” John finally said.

“I’m sorry. Wrong office.” The young man ducked into the hall and shut the door.

Wrong office my eye. John pushed himself from his chair, his knees popping, and opened the doorway. The young man jogged down the hall and disappeared.

This would, John knew, consume him utterly for the day.

5. 4. 3. 2. 1.

 

I am not being followed I am not being followed I am not being followed.

John’s physician worked out of an upper room in one of the new buildings on the St. Nicholas Hospital property. The check-up went well. Let’s keep an eye on the blood pressure, John. Heart rate elevated but not more so than usual. Lungs sound good. Eyes, ears, nose. And we’re done here.

John buttoned up his shirt and Dr. Smetko (mid-forties, handsome, dry handshake, crisp and healthy blue eyes) said, “How’s that other thing going, John?”

As if he’d almost forgotten to ask. As if he hadn’t been waiting till right now to bring it up.

“What’s that?” John asked.

“The obsessive compulsive thing we talked about. You know. The countdowns and stuff?”

“Oh. Good.”

“You still seeing Dr. Harver? Those pills are working?” Dr. Smetko asked.

“No. I’m between doctors. Scheduling difficulties.”

“John.”

“I’ll keep you updated. Golf soon?” John asked.

“You’ve got my number.”

John left the office and stood at the elevator bank. He thought for a moment and decided he wasn’t ready to leave the hospital. He rode the elevator to the third floor and walked by his daughter’s office. Dr. Valley, MD. Her door was shut.

John stood there, tipped his head against the door and listened. Rachel Valley spoke on the phone. He couldn’t make out the words exactly but he recognized his daughter’s voice. Strong, curt, truth be told sexy. Though he’d never say such a thing out loud.

A hard-faced nurse approached. “What do you need, sir?”

I am not being followed I am not being followed I am not being followed.

“Sir?” she asked.

“Nothing. Wrong office,” John stepped to a hand sanitizer dispenser and massaged the gel into his hands as walked away.

 

Monday. John sat at his desk and read his email. I know who you are.

An email from an unknown address. I know what you did. John’s body released a tide of cold adrenaline as he read. My father. He read the message five times. The asylum. His mind, attempting to process the message, destroyed it. I am watching you. Sitting at his desk, hyperventilating, sentence fragments collected in John’s mind. I am always watching you. Expect me soon. John jumped when someone knocked on the door. “Come,” he said.

A female student. A female student he recognized. “Professor Valley?”

“Yes. Lucy.”

“Laura. Are we having class today?”

“What? I don’t understand your question.”

“It’s ten-thirty. Class was supposed to start twenty minutes ago. We were just wondering if maybe class was cancelled. Professor, are you all right?”

“Yes. No. Class is cancelled. Please tell them.”

Lucy nodded and eased shut the door.

John sat there and his dusty, panicked heart thudded in his chest.

 

3.

Hustling from his office to faculty parking, a soccer ball exploded against John’s temple and felled him. At first he did not know that it was a soccer ball. It could have been anything. John hit the pavement hard. The frames of his glasses broke and tore the skin of his face. A girl tried to help him up. “Sir, are you okay?” she asked.

John sat up, dazed. Blood ran from his cheekbone. A small crowd had gathered around him in the courtyard. A red-haired young man ran off.

“You were hit with a ball,” the girl said. “It was an accident. Are you okay?”

John lifted his finger and pointed at the man. He tried to say Stop him. Stop that man. But no words arrived. His brain was shaken and his tongue seemed not to function. Someone chuckled. The girl helped him to his feet. She bent down to collect the shards of his glasses but he ignored them. He staggered off toward his car.

In his dreams he had heard nurses speaking. His head ached fiercely and his dream-vision was cloudy as though he were underwater. After a disoriented hour of bloated hallucinations, his mind began to return to him. John woke alone in a hospital bed. He knew that he’d been speaking in his sleep. What had he said?

Dr. Smetko knocked on the door as he opened it. He seemed surprised to find John awake. “Hey,” Dr. Smetko said. “It’s Pele.”

“Is that a joke?” John asked.

“Yes. How do you feel?”

“Angry.”

“It was an accident. It happens.”

“How did I get here?”

“They found you on the pavement by your car. Someone almost parked on top of you. After you were hit with the ball you apparently tried to drive yourself home. Not smart. Luckily, you collapsed and hit your head on the pavement.”

“Luckily?”

“What if you’d driven, John? What if you’d had a car accident? I wouldn’t be explaining this to you right now.”

“I need help, Steve,” John said.

“I know you do. Talk to me.”

“Can I have a pen and paper, please? And a lighter?”

“A lighter?”

“I need to write something down but then you must destroy it.”

“John, this is a hospital,” Dr. Smetko said.

“Steve.”

“We’ll flush it down the toilet.”

“Things can be found. You must burn it,” John said.

“Okay. Okay. I’ll take it home and burn it. What’s this about?”

“Paper and pen, Steve.”

John wrote down two telephone numbers and two first names. He asked Dr. Smetko to call these men and explain that John was in the hospital and he’d urgently requested them.

Dr. Smetko returned two hours later.

“Well?” John asked.

“Well, what?”

“The numbers!”

“Sorry, John. I’m working, you know? I tried them both twice. Each is disconnected,” Dr. Smetko said.

Rachel, John’s daughter, stood in the doorway. “What numbers?” she asked, entering the room. Rachel was in her mid-thirties. She wore her blonde hair in a short, mannish cut and she wore no makeup. “Dad,” she said. “What numbers?”

“This is doctor–patient privilege,” John said.

“Oh please. What’s going on?”

A heavy weight pressed against John’s chest. I am not being followed I am not being followed.

“Dad,” Rachel said, “now.”

John looked at Rachel and Dr. Smetko both and tried to decide whom he wanted in the room. “Steve,” John said. “Do you mind?”

“The opposite. Feel better. Talk to you tomorrow. Bye, Rachel.” Dr. Smetko touched Rachel’s shoulder and left the room, closing the door behind him.

Touched her shoulder. Were they involved?

“Spill,” Rachel said.

“I’m being followed.”

“By who?”

“I don’t know. The son of an old friend I think. Come closer, please. I need to whisper this.”

Rachel rolled her eyes and approached her father. She sat in the chair beside him and looked him in the eyes. Well?

As John began to speak, he realized he’d never spoken of this to anyone not involved. His first violation of his oath. He whispered for nearly ten minutes. When he’d finished, Rachel stared at him as if she were waiting for a punchline.

“And?” she said.

“And? And what? That’s the truth. That’s what’s happening. His son is coming after me. He knows what I did,” John said.

“Dad,” she said, then inhaled slowly. “You wrote spy novels, but you were never a spy. You were an executive for Kraft Foods. Do you remember this?”

*

John brought himself to a psychologist in an office park and found himself unable to say anything useful or true. She was a pleasant woman, younger than himself, and this deeply embarrassed John. After ten minutes of introduction she asked him, “Mr. Valley, what brings you in here?”

John coughed. “I’m not sure. I’m getting older, I guess.” I engage in rituals. I find myself counting down in my head for no reason.

“How do you feel about that? About getting older?”

“Um, fine. It doesn’t trouble me.” I don’t know why but some part of my mind believes that when I reach the end of the countdown whatever I’m seeing in my mind’s eye is something I will ruin. I don’t know how long I’ve been doing this.

“Are you married?”

“I’m a widower. I have a daughter.” Rachel is the key to this. When I countdown, I believe that if I think of her on the number one, something terrible will happen to her, something blasphemous. I don’t want to think sexual thoughts about my daughter… but these thoughts, they’re jumbled… They’re unwanted.

“Do you have a good relationship with your daughter?”

“Yes. I think so.” Why do I think this way?

*

Panicked weeks at home interrupted only by a few phone calls: The English Department, Dr. Smetko, an empty line. Rough dreams.

On a Saturday afternoon, John sat in his study examining a magnetic tracking device he’d pulled from the undercarriage of his VW. The doorbell rang. He flung open the curtains and found Rachel standing on his porch holding one of his old novels in her hands.

John opened the door and hurried her in.

“Hi,” she said.

It occurred to him that this was her first time in his apartment in months, perhaps more than a year.

“How are you? Has anything developed?” she asked.

John ignored the question. “One of my books?” he pointed at the dog-eared novel in her hand. “I didn’t know you owned any.”

“I’ve read them as well. Dad, I need to talk to you. Can we sit down?”

In the study, John sensed he was in for a lecture. On what subject he unsure.

“Dad, do you remember what you told me in the hospital? About your old friend?” she asked.

“Of course I do, Rachel. It’s the truth. The son of the man I imprisoned is following me. To what end, I don’t know. But I assure you—”

“Dad. The story you told me, it’s from your book. It wasn’t real.”

John felt as if he’d been struck in the head again. Book? She held up the novel. Asylum by John Valley. 1985. She handed him the book, a page was paper-clipped and a passage highlighted.

“Read,” she said.

He read the first few lines and understood his daughter’s point. Asylum had been one of his first (he felt) serious spy novels. It had failed to find an audience and was not a remembered book. Set in the early seventies, a crusty CIA officer named Jack Allain uncovers a spy in the US government—his best friend. Rachel had highlighted the passage when Allain confronts his friend’s family.

He held the book out to her and said, “Rachel—”

“Read it,” she said.

 

Jack rang the bell and waited. After a moment, Charlene opened the door to her home.

She stood there, silent and sad.

“Jack,” she said. “Where’s my husband?”

Jack removed his hat. “That’s what I’ve come to discuss, Charlene. May I come in?”

Charlene Felter led Jack into the parlor and sat him on a loveseat. She took a seat across from him and offered neither drink nor pleasantry. She wanted the news about Simon and, clearly, she wanted the truth.

“Your husband has had a breakdown,” Jack lied. “The doctors are certain.”

The skin on the knob of her chin spasmed. “A breakdown?”

“He’s a patriot, Charlene. A hero.” Lies. Simon was a traitor, a spy, a Soviet. “The work he’s done… this country owes him more than we can ever repay. I’m afraid the cost of the work has finally hit him. His mental faculties have collapsed.”

“How long until he’s better? What do the doctors say?”

“They’re going to keep him in the asylum, Charlene. You can visit him on Sundays. You and the children both. The government is going to pay the bill. You’ll bear no financial strain. You’ll want for nothing, I promise you. As your friend, I promise you.”

Tears welled in her wide eyes. “I’ll want for my husband, Jack. I’ll want for Simon!”

Jack’s heart broke for her. He thought of Simon, his one-time friend and partner. Now Simon was a drugged maniac with half a mind, rotting in an asylum somewhere. There was no mental collapse, none that was natural anyway. Jack knew what fate awaited his friend: regular druggings until his mind broke and a suicide could be convincingly faked.

The front door opened, Simon’s two school-aged sons ran into the room toting their schoolbooks. They saw Jack and stopped. Both of the boys smiled. “Uncle Jack!” they exclaimed.

 

John handed the book back. “Fiction,” he said.

“I agree,” Rachel said.

“No, Rachel. You’re wrong. I remember what happened. I remember my life. There’s a lot I’ve kept from you.”

“That I also believe.”

“What’s that mean? Have you been talking to Dr. Smetko?” John asked.

Rachel sighed. “Dad, Steven cares about you. So do I. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is nothing to be ashamed about. And it’s manageable, but let’s get you checked out and make sure it’s just that and not the onset of Alzheimer’s or…”

John stopped listening the moment he realized his daughter was suggesting hospitalization.

 

2.

A local Appleby’s restaurant.

John had never actually been inside, and as such, it was one of the only suitable places to meet in town. John sat huddled over a newspaper in a booth. He blew five (5, 4, 3, 2, 1) times on a bowl of beer cheese soup and sucked from a straw on a glass of ice water. A heavy black man entered and looked around. Mr. Banes.

John looked up and that was enough for the man. Mr. Banes walked over to the booth without so much as a nod or a lift of the eyebrows. Good man. He sat down across from John. He wore a shaved head and a shiny earring in his left earlobe.

“John Valley,” John said.

Mr. Banes nodded and shook his hand. “How can I help you?”

John said, “You’ll find a GPS locator and a set of keys on the bench beside you.”

Mr. Banes pocketed the items without looking at them.

“This is what you found on your car?”

“Right. Now, I’ve rented a vehicle and I’m going to leave town for a few days. You’ve now got the key to my house and the key to my Volkswagen. I need them each swept for bugs, locators, any other devices. Thoroughly.”

Mr. Banes nodded.

“And I need to know about a Samuel Clark Fine.”

“The mental patient you told me about. Have you remembered the name of the facility?”

John shook his head. “No. I can’t remember it. I’ve tried, but I just can’t.”

“It’s okay. I’ll find what you need.”

“And his family as well. Sons especially.”

“Mr. Valley,” Mr. Banes said. “Whatever this is about, it’s private, that’s fine. But is there anything you can tell me that might make it easier to know what I’m looking for?”

“For instance?”

“For instance, is your life in danger? Have you been threatened, do you have enemies, is this a social, professional or extramarital connection? That kind of thing.”

“No. That’s all the information I can give you.”

“Okay then,” Mr. Banes said.

John nodded. That’s all.

Mr. Banes stood and left just as the waitress arrived to take his order.

*

No longer a drinker, Professor John Valley sat in a southern Illinois motel hot tub and drank his fourth bottle of Bud Light. Head lolling, he examined the stars and thought about his daughter and Dr. Smetko. He was now certain they were seeing one another.

He wondered what, exactly, about that bothered him so deeply.

He dismissed sexual and professional envy from his mind and settled on Imbalance. His daughter and his doctor knew far more about him than he knew about either of them. Anyone knowing anything about him made John uncomfortable. That had always been the case, had always been a constant stressor.

John fell asleep in the hot tub. Foam gathered in his chest hair. The cool, night wind eased against his sweaty flesh.

He dreamed about his daughter and Dr. Smetko.

He dreamed of them nude in bed. They were a powerful pair of lovers. His daughter screamed. Dr. Smetko grunted. The bedroom scene fell away and he saw them again, this time sitting alone in John’s study. John was the topic of discussion.

He’s losing his mind, Dr. Smetko said. The things he does when he thinks no one is looking. The numbers, the repetition. The ‘If This Than That’, the ‘If Not This Not That’.

Rachel said, And the spying? The CIA story?

Absurd, absurd. You know those headlines you sometimes read? ‘Prize-winning Scholar Found Wandering in Traffic’. Do you ever wonder how that happens? This is how that happens. Warning signs go ignored. This will be our failure if something happens to him. We must act responsibly. He needs help. Medication! An asylum! Something!

John woke to a woman tapping his shoulder.

He had a fierce erection.

“Sir? Are you all right?” she sat back against the far rim of the hot tub. Her handsome partner—a husband?—draped his hairy arm across the woman’s shoulders and eyed John suspiciously.

An erection while dreaming of his own daughter. Had he spoken in his sleep?

“I’m fine. Fine.”

“Thought maybe you had a heart attack,” the man said, staring at the empty beer bottles.

John sat in the hot tub, looked at the water and waited for his excitement to wilt.

 

The phone rang in his motel room. He woke in the dark and lifted the receiver. “Hello?”

No answer. Steady breathing. A male.

Hello?” John snapped. “Who is this? Answer me!”

“Professor Valley?”

“Who is this!”

“I think we have a bad connection. This is Marc Banes. Your investigator.”

John exhaled, and coughed. His pulse marched in his ears. “Sorry, Mr. Banes. My heart rate… What have you found?”

“Well, very little. Your house and car were negative for electrical surveillance. No sound, no visual. And no transmitters, except, of course, the one you found.”

“Were you able to trace the purchaser?”

“Not exactly. The serial number was removed, as you know.”

“And Fine?” John asked.

“Five Samuel Clark Feinsteins. None in mental facilities. None that have ever been. Does this surprise you?”

It didn’t surprise him.

“Two things though, Professor Valley,” Mr. Banes said. “A transmitter identical to the one you found was purchased recently in your area. By you.”

“Yes. That was me. I wanted to confirm what it was. I’ve never used one before.” John thought for a moment. “What was the other thing? You said there were ‘two things’?”

“You’re missing.”

“I’m missing?” John asked.

“Your daughter has called the police and reported you missing. Did you not tell her you were leaving town?”

John drove through the night and decided to leave his job. He gave it little more thought than that.

His daughter though, the dreams, those lingered.

He passed a mile marker. 5, 4, 3, 2, Rachel—1. Again. Cannot end on her. 5, 4, 3, 2, Rachel—1. He counted down again and again, trying not to see her as he thought one. It wouldn’t work.

He tried to compensate with pain. He withdrew his left hand from the steering wheel and formed a fist. He curled his fingers and dug his sharp nails into his palm. Focus there. That one point of pain. That—5, one—4, point—3, right—2, there—1. He thought of the red-haired young Fine on the ‘one’—looking into John’s office, memorizing his ridiculous face. I am not being followed.

I am being followed.

A shadow leapt into the road before him and John turned the wheel—saw there was no threat, the wind and trees casting strange shapes—and corrected. The car, alone on the road, squeaked and continued.

 

At noon, John drove past his house. Smetko’s red SUV sat parked in his driveway. John did not stop his car. He broke into a cold sweat. So that was it. Smetko was waiting for him in there—ready to make his announcement: John, Rachel and I’ve had a talk, we need you to see someone. We need you to come with us. But how did he get in? Rachel had a key. Rachel would let him in. Smetko and Rachel, waiting there, together. Probably sitting in his study—hadn’t he dreamed this?—discussing him. Discussing their options. And there was only one option, so far as they saw it.

But why just one car? Where was Rachel’s—of course, they’d driven together. Smetko had driven Rachel. Casual. She was probably used to being in his car. She had her own key.

He tapped the brake at a stop sign and continued. 5, 4, 3, 2, Rachel—1. No!

He counted again. And again. He thought of Fine between the numbers. What terrible moments of clarity he must have had between his injections. I am here—5. Alone—4. Broken minded—3. Defecating in my gown—2. Where are my children—1?

He ran the concert of images and numbers all throughout his drive. The gas light illuminated.

John stopped at an Amoco and filled the tank. He counted down in his head continuously. Why could he not get out of the countdown? Just do it right. Just don’t end on your fucking daughter.

Get some water. Clear your head.

Inside, he enjoyed the sigh of refrigerated air when he opened the cooler. He drew a plastic bottle of water—one use, cancerous chemicals—and stood in the line.

John bumped into the young man ahead of him and the young man turned around.

Fine’s son stood there before him.

Enough.

John placed the palms of his hands on the young man’s chest and pressed forward, saying, “I’m sorry! I wish it hadn’t happened. But your father deserved it!”

A woman in line screamed. The young man pushed back.

“You don’t know what he did!” John screamed. “I’m defending his memory, you ingrate. You child.”

The young man—smiling—pushed John to the ground.

When did I start counting?—2. Rachel—1.

“I’m calling the police!” someone shouted.

On all fours now, John moaned, “You don’t know what he did.”

Was he crying now? Am I crying? Sobbing, he jogged out to his car.

John drove by his own house. Smetko’s SUV sat in his driveway. John glanced in his rearview. Fine’s son followed two cars behind in a gray sedan.

John circled once more. Smetko’s car—5. Fine’s son—4. Still—3. Following me—2. Rachel—1.

Smetko’s SUV. I should get a car like that. I could empty my account and buy that car. Buy exactly what I need and drive the hell out of town. John pulled onto the highway and thought about his daughter. What would she say? He accosted a customer in a gas station—5. He drove to different bank branches—4. One branch a day—3. Made gigantic withdrawals—2. Tried to buy a gun off a private investigator he’d hired—1.

But if they knew. If they knew. John wasn’t done yet. John still had friends in the world.

This wasn’t over.

 

1.

Rachel walks the halls of the Tacklin English Department. A police officer and a woman from the department wait by a door. Her father’s office. Former office.

“Sorry, I’m late,” Rachel says. “They sent me to the wrong office.”

“Did they send you to Professor Rhonda Valley? In Foreign Languages?”

“Yes.”

“That happens a lot.” The woman smiles.

Rachel looks at the woman, then the officer. “Well, then.”

The woman smiles and opens the door to John’s office. “Okay,” she says, “let’s see what we can find.”

“Yes. Let’s,” says Rachel.

pencilLane Kareska’s work has previously been published in Berkeley Fiction Review, Sheepshead Review, Flashquake and elsewhere. Sirens Call Publications recently published his novella North Dark. HIs undergraduate degree in Fiction Writing is from Columbia College Chicago and his MFA is from Southern Illinois University. Email: Lane.Kareska[at]Gmail.com