Lisa was looking out the window, staring at the placid gray lake, at the small boats slowly crisscrossing it.
I was focused on her every movement, or lack of it. We didn’t talk, not about what either of us thought at that moment, or of any moment preceding it or of anything to come. She was motionless except for the occasional blinking of her eyes, the sudden expansion and deflation of her chest, and the slightest shifting of a strand of her red hair, moved by a random breeze.
If she knew I even existed in those moments other than as some distant presence, like a cloud drifting far away in a sky full of clouds, she gave no indication.
When Dora opened the door, it creaking with metallic arthritis on old hinges, Lisa didn’t turn from the window and her glance didn’t avert away from the lake. I smiled at Dora who entered the room in her polished white shoes, and watched as the door closed behind her and shut with a harsh sounding melding of door and frame. I then turned my attention back to Lisa who was no different in position than before Dora’s arrival.
Dora crossed in front of me and sat down in an old wooden chair next to Lisa and she too looked out at the dull body of water, resting her freckled hands in the whiteness of the uniform that stretched across her broad lap, and then she spoke to Lisa.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?’
It was all she seemed interested to know, not how Lisa felt or thought or anything about what was going on currently in that room. Dora was a big woman, in proportions and bearing. As she waited for Lisa to respond, she didn’t look at Lisa, and Lisa didn’t look at her. They sat like two lighthouses scanning a body of water for what lay beneath its surface.
Lisa paid no attention to Dora sitting across from her, the wooden chair squeaking mildly beneath Dora’s weight.
The night before that meeting was not unlike any other night. Sleeping patients in their beds, windows with metal gates covering them closed and locked. The evening shift leaving and Lisa and I, the night shift, arriving, taking our places at the nurse’s station. After reviewing what we had already heard in the evening report, we began going through the patients’ charts and reviewing medications and nursing notes from the day and evening shift. As always, we worked and chatted, accustomed to one another in an intimate yet unromantic way.
The job, the caring for these insane patients was for me only a means to a paycheck, for Lisa it was her life’s work. I revealed nothing but my admiration for her, and she in turn treated me like a sister to a brother, rubbing the top of my head in an affectionate way when I displayed some moment of insight into a patient, or bringing me some ill-tasting sample of some dinner she had prepared for her lover, Rick, a nurse from another wing.
And so the night went, as usual.
In the middle of the night, I was alone in the medication room, checking the vials of medications, flipping from one patient medication record to the next, when the alarm went off. I rushed out of the medication room and saw Lisa standing by the door to the psychiatric unit, her hand on the red button that sounded the alarm. Her eyes were wide like the eyes of a mannequin in a storefront window, frozen in some ridiculous glaze of hopelessness.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?” Dora asked Lisa again.
There was the slightest edge of impatience in Dora’s voice, as if having to ask the question twice was exceeding her limit of patience. For the first time, Lisa glanced away from the lake, not at Dora, but at me, and there I saw it. The pain. I felt it too, like a sudden sharp aching from a cold drink on a raw cavity in a tooth badly in need of filling, and before I was able to speak, Dora stared at me. Her eyes thinned, a warning. There we sat, them looking at me, and me unable to speak in fear of saying the wrong thing, or saying anything at all.
Lisa turned away and faced the lake again, while Dora momentarily held her expression of caution towards me, possibly questioning if she had miscalculated how to go about uncovering what had happened that night. Dora was as unreadable as a book in a dark room. She turned back to Lisa, this time fixing her gaze on Lisa’s pale face, and she asked the same question again with renewed impatience.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?”
Had she asked me first I would have said “I came out of the medication room and found Lisa with her hand on the alarm button as the emergency lights came on and nurses and staff from adjoining units came through the doors.” They hadn’t noticed, but I had, that the unit doors were unlocked when they entered.
And then Lisa burst into tears.“One of the patients got out.”
She explained that she had been overpowered by a patient who stole her keys and got out the door before she could stop him or alert anyone. She gave his name. I knew him by what I had read in his chart. Psychotic, suicidal, a man who had once tried to drown himself in the lake behind the hospital because God had told him it was the right thing to do.
Suddenly there were nurses and psychiatric technicians running down the hallways, looking for a patient, any patient, who was in pajamas and not where he belonged.
Left alone with Lisa, we encouraged the patients awakened by the alarm to return to their beds. She had regained her composure and was in her most professional mode, soothing to those who were upset by the commotion as she guided them back to their beds. We were at the nurses station alone a short time later, her face a mask of stone as I pulled up my chair next to her and asked.
Tall and lean and without grace, like a clumsy basketball player, Lisa’s lover Rick often stood outside the unit door staring in through the small window, tapping on it lightly with a boney finger until Lisa opened the door for him. They would sit at the nurses station while I made the rounds checking patient rooms and busily trying to ignore my irritation with his presence on the unit, or my anger at Lisa for finding him worthy of her attention.
There she would sit, her mane of hair cascading over her small shoulders, one hand being held by his, the other hand pushing back the black hair that curled around his ears and on his neck. His voice was always too loud and his manner always too forced. If he regarded me one way or another at all I never knew, but in the silence of the unit at night he was an unwelcomed guest. It was a place reserved for me and Lisa, and of course, the patients.
I imagined as Lisa sat looking out the window that he was on her mind. I accepted that while she needed me to be there, she wanted him there. But to have him in the room would have put an abrupt end to any question that Dora may have had regarding what she only knew to be rumor. One of the night shift psychiatric nurses was involved with another nurse. Not a crime of course, but frowned upon. There were concerns stated openly that it might lead to a lack of professionalism and carelessness. I watched them, one staring at the other, the other staring out at the lake, and me repressing the need to scream at them both.
Stop it and stop it now.
There at the nurse’s station, while others were looking for the patient, Lisa told me what had happened. It was rather simple and quick as was Lisa’s telling of it.
Rick had come to the unit and she let him in. She had left the keys in the door and the door unlocked and as Rick and she were seated at the nursing station the patient had made his way past them and went out the door being noticed only as he went out. Before they had even planned what to do, Lisa had taken the keys from the door and pressed them into Rick’s hand and told him to return to his unit and hide the keys and return to his work as if nothing had happened. There at the door she watched Rick walk quickly down the hall, and then she closed the unit door and waited several minutes then pushed the alarm button.
As if I were in a far off room I heard Lisa, still facing the lake, tell Dora what could have been the truth, but wasn’t.
“The patient overpowered me, took the keys from my hand just as I was about to lock the door after opening it briefly because of some noise in the hallway, and made his way out of the unit and disappeared down the hall toward the stairs leading outside.”
There was the briefest of pauses.
“Then I pushed the alarm button,” Lisa said as if she were speaking of some wistful memory.
Dora, hands still in her lap, looked out the window and then at me. Dora was a no-nonsense charge nurse, dedicated and skilled, astute and fair. Her thin lips were pursed and her eyes were half closed as if she were about to fall asleep. But there was nothing in her manner that suggested she was not fully aware of Lisa, of me, of things that didn’t sound rational.
She turned toward me.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?”
If ever I had looked into another person’s eyes and realized that person could see inside me, as I imagined Dora could, I couldn’t recall. I tried to think of anything but the events of the night before.
I thought back to the days before I entered nursing school, when I had no direction and seemingly little purpose to my life. I suddenly longed for those days again.
“I came out of the medication room when I heard the emergency alarm go off,” I said.
It was the truth of course, and after those few words I felt myself sigh in an unexpected way, as if I had been filled with air during the night and now it escaped quietly from deep in my throat, like a slow leak from a punctured bicycle tire. I placed my hand over my mouth and out of nervousness yawned.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I’m a bit tired.”
We were all tired, though no one had expressed it because it would have been a thoughtless remark given that probably in the bottom of the lake was a patient who felt his final resting place should be the cold waters outside the back doors of the hospital. He was a patient who would never again be able to complain of being a bit tired. To be tired was a privilege, a sign of being alive. Sitting on hard chairs in a cheerless room was better than being dead by a long shot.
“What next?” Dora asked.
“The others from the other units came in and Lisa told them a patient had escaped and then everyone went looking for him.”
I said this quickly, rattling it off like the rehearsed words that had played over and over in my head in preparation for this moment. I added nothing more and she asked nothing else, but turned her head to the window, to the view of the boats skimming the water. I looked at her hands still in her lap, fingers motionless, interlocked. I noticed then how red her hands were, as if she had just scrubbed them for surgery before putting on the rubber gloves. It was a small thing, her red hands, but for a moment it provided a distraction, something I could think about without feeling anything at all except curiosity. I noticed too that she wore no fingernail polish and they shone white framed in the scarlet color of her fingers. I wondered if these were the things others thought about when in the midst of a possible tragedy?
I looked up and saw that Dora was now looking at Lisa. The intentness of Dora’s stare made my stomach tighten and I pondered briefly if Dora had the power to divine the truth in a person’s profile. Then she asked Lisa the same question, worded a little differently.
“Do you now want to tell me what happened?”
Lisa turned her face slowly toward Dora and then I saw it. A tear. It was stalled on Lisa’s cheek like a single transparent jewel glued to her cheek I don’t know what alarmed me more, Lisa’s tear or Dora’s repetition of the same question. Lisa’s tear could mean the unraveling of lies and untold truths that had trapped me with Lisa in what could prove to be both of our professional downfalls. I assumed Dora repeating the question meant that she had not believed anything that had been said to her before and that she was aware that I was not telling everything I knew.
In that instant I stopped thinking about Lisa, Dora or even the missing patient, but my thoughts turned to Rick. I wondered where he had disappeared to after fleeing our unit. The sudden intensity of my dislike of him was like a fire ablaze inside my chest. No one but Lisa and I knew that he had been on the unit when the events of the night began, and now he was somewhere away from Dora’s scrutiny, out of danger of being implicated in a tragic event unless Lisa told everything.
Disliking someone immediately on first meeting is hard to describe or explain. It was the feeling I had upon meeting him even though he had given me no cause to dislike him, so I chalked it up to a strange type of jealousy regarding Lisa. He wasn’t stealing her romantic affections from me, because they never existed. But the events of the night proved what inkling of concerning I had about him. He held little regard for anyone but himself. My mind was screaming out, “How could he leave Lisa in such a predicament?” And then it struck me, how could Lisa put me in the same predicament and not show any remorse?
“The water looks so cold,” Lisa said, the word cold catching in her throat before being uttered with a stutter. She was now looking at Dora and wiped the tear from her cheek like one does to a bothersome insect perched on the skin. “I hope everyone is wrong and that he isn’t in there,” she continued, her voice quivering. She didn’t mention the patient’s name, nor had any of us in that room.
His name was Daryl.
Daryl would come to the nurse’s station late at night when everything was quiet and in his psychotropic stupor he would look at either Lisa or I and simply say, “I have no soul.”
I tried to imagine Daryl dead on the muddy bottom of the lake as his body settled there like a stone, devoid of a soul, lying there like a sea creature to decay and become part of the lake, giving nothing to heaven or hell, not even the spirit he had been born with. The thought made me shudder. Dying in the lake had been the single focus of Daryl’s existence it seemed, so often dwelling on it that we almost ignored it as time wore on.
If Daryl was dead at the bottom of the lake it was Lisa’s fault, and Rick’s. I couldn’t be blamed for the events of that night, but it didn’t matter. I felt guilty. Whatever Lisa decided to say to Dora, or not say, I was part of a conspiracy to keep the truth from being known. I could only look at Lisa with sadness, knowing her feelings for the patients were always much stronger than mine, and more real. When Daryl would say he had no soul, she would comfort him by talking to him soothingly, reassuring him that he did have soul and that if he went back to bed in the morning when the sun rose he would feel differently.
I simply told him to go back to bed.
Maybe it was Lisa’s single tear that Dora was reacting to, or the fact that Daryl was still out there somewhere, possibly alive, but she suddenly stood up and with her arms crossed over her ample bosom she looked at us both and simply said, “I’ve heard enough. Don’t leave this room”
She left but the sense of dread remained.
I changed seats, and sat where Dora had been and looked at Lisa’s bowed head and at the way she played with a single button on her uniform. I hesitated before I said anything. “Where’s Rick?” I whispered.
Her head rose and with her face in front of mine I saw a blankness, a flatness of her affect that alarmed me. “He’s safe from harm,” she answered.
The door opened and the detective entered who had talked with us in the hospital earlier in the night soon after Daryl’s escape. He was tall and thin and didn’t look like a detective, but more like an accountant, pale and stooped, inclined to spending long hours laboring over numbers in some office cubicle. He said nothing and went to the window and from behind Lisa’s chair looked out.
“If he’s in the lake his body will surface sooner or later if it’s not weighted down,” he said. “Making a mistake can’t get you in trouble in this case,” he said, “but lying about it can.”
I thought about that. If he surfaced a day or two or even later his body would be bloated with him still probably in his hospital pajamas. The medical examiner would find nothing unusual about him except the absence of a soul. Was that possible? If a person had no soul could you tell it when they were lying dead in a coffin or in a hospital bed, or when freshly retrieved from the cold water of a small body of water?
I knew nothing about souls.
If one can telepathically know what another person is going to do before they do it, then before the moment Lisa spoke up, I knew. She looked at me then turned and looked at the detective standing behind her then back at me, accusingly.
“He left the keys in the door when he had gone out earlier and that is how the patient got out. It’s his fault,” Lisa said, pointing at me and staring icily. “He threatened my life if I said anything.”
Then she paused briefly as if to decide what final nail she needed to put into my coffin. “He should never have become a nurse.”
Steve Carr, who lives in Richmond, Virginia, has had over 340 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies since June, 2016. Five collections of his short stories, Sand, Rain, Heat, The Tales of Talker Knock and 50 Short Stories: The Very Best of Steve Carr, have been published. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. His Twitter is @carrsteven960. His website is https://www.stevecarr960.com/ He is on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/steven.carr.35977
Previously published once, in 2017, in Furtive Dalliance Magazine