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Fresh Air

As Reese descended the staircase from the Psychiatric Ward, she attempted to shake off the memory of whatever it was that had happened in Room 26. But with each step, she felt her mind spiraling further down the proverbial rabbit hole. Did what she see really happened – or was it just all in her head? It felt impossible to decide.

Stepping into the outside, the balmy autumn air enveloped her like a wet blanket. She looked around to get her bearings. So rarely did she go outside in the middle of her shift, she felt a tad disoriented. Looking to her left, she saw the specialized dumpsters marked for medical waste. To her right she saw a man smoking. He seemed to be alone. But at this moment, Reese felt skeptical of the seeming of everything.

She smiled at him and he made eye contact as he pulled a deep drag off his cigarette.

“Oh, hello there,” said the man sheepishly. “Sorry, I know there is no smoking allowed on the grounds, but…”

“You don’t have to worry about me telling,” Reese said with a sigh of relief. He seemed more real now that he had spoken. “Do you happen to have one of those for me,” she asked gesturing at his cigarrette.”

“Oh, yeah – sure,” he stated, sounding equally relieved that he would not be reported.

Reaching into his inside coat pocket, he pulled out a pack of cigarettes. With an air of ease, he opened the pack sliding a single cigarette and handed it to Reese.

“Got a light,” she said with a smile.

“Oh, right,” the man said smiling back.

He fumbled in his pockets and pulled out a blue lighter, struck the igniter with his thumb, and held the flame up to Reese. She placed the cigarette between her lips, closed them around the filter, and inhaled deeply – pulling the flame into the cigarette.

Everything about that first pull was sensational. She didn’t just see, hear, and smell – she experienced it all from the sight and sound of the flame creeping up the paper to the heaviness of the smoke as she breathed it in. It had been awhile since she has smoke anything and could acutely taste the formaldehyde through the filter. The taste of it made her brow furrow as she exhaled that first drag.

“Rough morning,” he asked her.

“You could say that,” she said with a nod.

“Yeah, me too,” he said.

As they stood there in a silent moment, the emptiness between them felt comfortable enough.

“How so,” Reese asked the man.

“Oh, just had a Manpower Call this morning,” he said shaking his head. “I really hate those things. Yeah, it was a very intense situation and to me it was like one of those – I hate it when we get those Manpower Calls up there – because there was nothing wrong with what the guy was saying if that’s his beliefs. There is some paranoia out there if he thinks there is some group out to get him – so that can point to some kind of mental illness. But the other stuff – I mean if you believe that Satan is good. There’s other people that believe that and it’s fine. There’s whole churches for that. It’s that he was violent and he was a danger to other patients and, ya know he’s a danger to staff there. Yeah, I hated having to go up there and be a part of that but I also at that point ya know, when someone’s becoming dangerous to other people I understand the necessity. Does that make me a bad person?”

Reese looked back at him blankly. Never before had she gotten such a thorough answer to such a simple question.

“You’re a little insecure, aren’t you,” Reese anwered him with another question.

“I dunno – I feel like that’s an honest question,” he replied. “I think in general, I think it’s wrong the way people are often, or ya know, alot of the people are held. Especially the way they run the Unit here. It’s wrong. There’s no reason for it and it creates bad situations.”

“What sort of bad situations,” Reese inquired, her curiosity sufficiently piqued.

“That is a thing that if they have a patient that gets aggressive and violent once. After that, like everytime it’s time for that patint to get their meds they are going to call in Security. All of a suddent they have this huge rush of people and get triggered again. And that would be scary for anyone, but especially for somebody who’s been locked up against their will.”

Reese could hear the empathy in his voice as he continued.

“It is interesting the number of very strongly-convicted religious people in the Psych Ward. Like, almost everytime you go up there and work on anything. Some patient will approach you to talk to you about Jesus. Very very common.”

“So you were involved with the Manpower Call this morning in Room 26,” Reese asked.

“Yeah, that’s the one,” he said shaking slightly.

“Do you happen to know why he was committed in the first place,” she inquired in earnest.

“I never got that information. I think it would be different if it was a place like where it’s an acutal treatment center. But all that place is – it’s just a holding facility. I think it’s disgusting, but it’s part of my job.”

By now Reese had come to recognize the smoking stranger as being part of the Maintenance Staff.

“So how long have you worked here,” she asked.

“Too long,” he said emphatically. “I’ve been trying to find a different job for a month or two now.”

“Why is that,” Reese pried.

“Oh, I just – ya know,” he started. “It really is those Manpower Calls that get to me. I’ll be shaking like this all week just from that one thing this morning.”

“I can understand that,” she replied assuringly.

“So what about you uh, you a CNA,” he asked.

“Yep,” she answerd. “In the Psych Ward. I heard you guys wrestling with the fellow in Room 26 when he came in. It sounded very unpleasant.”

“Oh yeah,” he said. “Very unpleasant.”

“Were you able to make out what he was saying or talking about,” Reese asked. “The only thing I could understand were the letters B and F along with the number Twenty-Six.”

“Oh yeah, he kept screaming that Christ was a lie, and Christianity was a lie, and that Satan was the true good. And that the Church was decieving everybody. He was paranoid that there was some kind of Gestapo group that was run by some branch of the church that was out to stop him from telling people the Truth as he saw it. He was very aggressive. Punched one of the security guards in the face – like seriously, there was blood. Yeah, he was a big big – I mean, it literally 12 or 15 guys to subdue one person.”

Reese’s eyes widened at his telling of the ordeal. That didn’t sound like the Christopher she new, but then again what she had experienced just a few minutes ago didn’t seem real either.

“When I checked on him during rounds, he told me that BF stands for Blind Faith and then he launched into some diatribe about how too many people have blind faith in the system,” Reese explained. “I thought he was referring to the Mental Health System, but he could have been raving about the Church, I suppose.”

“Maybe,” said the man thoughtfully.

“I never was able to ask him what was important about the number Twenty Six,” Reese recalled quizzically.

“Oh, I can answer that question,” said the man confidently. “He was ranting about how the number Twenty Six is the true Mark of the Beast. Six hundred and sixty-six was another thing the church made up to hid the truth of Christ’s evil.”

“Wow,” all Reese could think to say.

“Yep,” he said back in solidarity.

For a moment, they just stood there together – each thankful to have their own sense of sanity and what they each thought to be a firm enough grip on reality.

“Well, thanks for the smoke,” Reese said gratefully.

“Yeah,” he said smiling. “Ya know, anytime.”

“Sure,” she said walking towards the door.

“I’m Lee,” he called out to her.

“Huh,” she said confused, turning back to face him.

“My name,” he clarified. “My name is Lee.”

“Oh,” Reese answered with understanding. “I’m Reese.”

“Nice,” said the man. “Sweet, like the candy.”

“Uh, sure,” Reese said as that uncanny sensation settled back into her body.

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