They Don’t Catch Colds in Texas
by Kyle Hemmings
part 1 of 2
In the TV room of H-3, Wendell Pikes paced, sometimes stopping to peer out the window, trying to measure the height, the thickness, of the walls of MacKendree Springs. Sometimes he tried to calculate the exact distance the hospital was from his home. About thirty miles from Satchel, North Dakota. The hospital was secluded from towns that stretched out in ever widening circumferences. He could picture vast spaces of plains and savannahs.
He perused the high stucco and brick walls that might have once housed a fortress in the wilderness, protection from Cheyenne, Arapaho. Where the walls stopped, there were yards of wires twisted and a gate that closed after 8 pm with locks and locks and locks. Bolt, chain, key, electronic.
He turned around. Several patients, seated on the sofa, wore dazed looks or stiff smiles, so slight, hinting at secrets, or a power so destructive that even naming it would unleash its fury. Some stared out at a TV as if mesmerized by it — others, as if oblivious to it. Wendell shifted his head back to the window.
So fruitless to escape, he thought. If anyone dared, they would soon offer themselves up to the fields of high corn stalks or wheat, fields of alfalfa, sweet clover. And there were bees swarming in summer that would make you postpone your plans until winter and by winter you might have been sent to sea. In those fields, thought Wendell, no one could remember who they were.
* * *
His appointment with Dr. Li was in twenty minutes. He glanced at his watch, the way he would often glance at it in his first semester at junior college before being taken out in second year. He gave up on the idea of looking at watches because it was an act without consequences. It always made you feel guilty about staying in one spot and breathless if you thought of moving.
For a time, he wore no watches. But his father had bought him one and the act of wearing one did not incur censure, meant nothing to no one on any particular point on the grid. You might as well tell time by watching hot air balloons over the ocean. He did it to please his father. He hated that look of hurt on his face, that look of a lifetime of hurt, hurt, hurt.
“Hello, Wendell. I’m sorry I’m late. Let’s go into my office. Have you eaten lunch yet? Anything good?” It was Dr. Li, mid-fifties and petite, always wearing her pant suits in low key colors. “Yes. I had lunch. It wasn’t bad... Breaded chicken, French fries, peas with corn. There were more corn than peas. Not an exact count.”
“Well... Sounds better than the lunch I had. I had more peas than corn.”
She led him down the burgundy carpeted hallway of her third floor office across H-3, speaking with a slight trace of a motherland Mandarin accent. She cleared part of her desk and sat down.
He eyed rows of textbooks, perhaps full of case studies like his. He squinted to get a better look at one book. Her name was listed with three others on a very fat hardbound. She adjusted her wire thin glasses. “So, Wendell. How are you feeling since we last met? Any side effects from the new medications? Anything?”
“No. It’s been alright.” He gazed at a computer with flat screen and ergonomic keyboard. Approximately 20 inches top to bottom. 16 inches side to side. Why didn’t they make it a perfect square?
“Well, it’s good to hear. And I understand you’ve been doing well on the floor. Any problems?”
“Well... Dr. Li, why is it that men and women here are segregated?”
She threw him a blank stare. She recited the hospital’s code of conduct regarding the safety and privacy of the patients, that it was best to prevent incidents before they happen.
He shrugged his shoulders and returned his gaze to the cherry wood bookcase, then back to her desk.
“Is there anything else you would like to discuss?”
“No. Not really.”
“And the Voices? When was the last time you heard these Voices?”
She took a sip of coffee, placed the plastic cup to one side of a phone.
“Over a week ago.”
“A week ago? Really? That’s great.” He scratched his ear and perused her features, not settling on any particular one.
“I haven’t heard them in eight days.”
“You remember what happened before you came here?”
“They pulled me out of class because they didn’t like my answer.”
“You gave the instructor an answer unrelated to his question. He tried to humiliate you and the rest of the class joined in. You froze in your seat and started punching your face until your nose bled. Remember?”
“So it’s important to be honest. I’ve been honest with you. What did the Voices say a week ago?”
“They told me to go by the window. The girls were coming out of that building.” He pointed with his finger. Dr. Li turned around and pointed also.
“That building? The Cortland Building?”
“One of their numbers was up. No 22, I think. I was instructed to watch the girl walk through the lake.”
“And then what? Did she drown?”
“No. Evens don’t drown. The Voices say they keep walking along a central meridian until they find their husbands, lovers, whose ships were destroyed... Doctor, do you know what happens if you walk along the same meridian until you reach the opposite side of the equator?”
“No. Tell me.”
“Your shadow would face in exactly the opposite direction.”
She tapped her pencil on the pad and leaned back in her leather seat. She smiled, smiled often, showing two perfectly aligned regiments of tiny teeth.
“What does that mean, Wendell? About the shadows?”
“It means that if you keep walking along the same meridian long enough, you can find anyone who was once a part of you.”
“Last time you mentioned a head mistress. What is it she always says to make you freeze?”
“Xyec. She can make the whole world freeze.”
“Xyec. Right. What does it mean?”
“The Voices forbid divulging secrets of the 7th dimension of T. What I can say is that she will count the number of revolutions of a windmill during a storm until it stops on an even number. That will be the number of the girl who will leave that day. She will look for the missing partner of her unit. Boys and girls were not meant to be segregated.”
“Have you been given a number yet, Wendell?”
He looked down at his knees and cleared his throat. He met her curious gaze, head-on.
“No. But we all will have numbers. The head mistress leaves out no one. It’s only a matter of time.”
Dr. Li’s phone rang. Wendell folded his hands and pretended not to listen. She hung up and reached for her white pocketbook. She apologized for cutting their session short. An emergency, she declared while rising from her desk.
“But I have good news for you. I was thinking of calling your family and arranging a weekend visit. Would you like that?”
“Yes. But will my mother answer?”
“I don’t know. Would it be alright if I made arrangements with your father if she doesn‘t?”
“I was hoping my mother would answer. But yeah. You mean home for good?”
“No. One step at a time. I will get back to you about the visit. Okay, Wendell?”
“Thank you, Doctor.”
They stood and shook hands. Wendell returned to H-3 just in time to catch Bart Simpson receive a stern lecture about procrastination from his father on the dayroom TV. A patient with a bad case of the devil’s tattoo tapped his foot annoyingly against a leg of the couch.
* * *
Next evening, shortly before the patients of S-wing would line up for 8:00 meds, there was a buzzing, an echoing in Wendell’s head that was growing louder all afternoon. But now it caused him to pace up and down the circular hall that lined the front of patients’ rooms. Some stood outside their rooms and smiled at him. A woman asked him for a cigarette. The part time floor counselor, Harold, whom Wendell saw only two evenings a week, remarked that he was wearing out the carpet. He wore a baseball cap, was tall and lithe like Wendell, always made up nicknames for some of the patients. He called Wendell “Carrot Top.”
Wendell pressed his back against a wall and his arms and legs stiffened. It was a part of the wall where a schedule of patient activities was posted for the month. For minutes — if minutes could be an accurate measurement of that false dimension of time, a dimension impervious to latitudes — no other staff member took note of him. From the corner of his eye, Wendell spotted Harold striding towards him from the last room on that side.
The Voices struck in full force, struck like hammers. They instructed Wendell to stand still and listen. A storm had swallowed No. 28’s brother. He saw the ship toss and tumble on the waves until its masts skinned across the white peaks of waves, waves in the form of claws.
Harold shook Wendell several times, looking into his eyes which Wendell felt were glued motionless in their sockets. “Carrot Top. C’mon. What’s wrong?” Wendell said nothing. The counselor ran to the nurse’s station. A nurse with heavy calves covered with diaphanous white came out running.
“Wendell! Wendell! What’s wrong, honey? Talk to me. Talk to me.” She was a stout woman with thick glasses, never wore make-up, somewhere in her early sixties. She swept back a flurry of whitish hair.
“I have to talk to Dr. Li. Where is Dr. Li? They’re sending for No. 28. The Head Mistress is saying it’s her turn because her brother drowned.”
The nurse held Wendell’s arms and crouched before him.
“Wendell, Dr. Li is on a two week leave. She had a family emergency. Dr. Benson is covering for her. I can call Dr. Benson. In the meantime, I’m giving you your meds.”
“I’m not taking any meds until I talk to Dr. Li! Dr. Benson is not my doctor. He doesn’t understand the meridian. No. 57 is dead. No. 28 will be called. I have to talk to Dr. Li!”
Wendell watched the charge nurse run to the medication cart and pull out several drawers. She instructed a clerk to call the supervisor, stat, that they might have a Code Strong on Pikes soon. She yanked out more drawers, saying she couldn’t find his damn Haldol. She placed a palm to her forehead. She berated herself, announced that Li changed Haldol to a newer drug.
The supervisor arrived on the floor, spoke briefly with the charge nurse and walked over to Wendell. “Wendell, can you hear me? Can you hear me?” she said. He said nothing. He felt his eyes were marbles sinking in the ocean.
“Get me Li’s private number,” said the supervisor.
“It’s in the rolodex. I have to give him his meds,” said the charge nurse, holding a paper cup of pills.
Wendell refused the meds.
The supervisor walked away from Wendell, then returned, walking cautiously towards him. “Wendell, I have Dr. Li on the phone. She wants to speak with you. But you have to take your meds first.”
“I’ll take them after I speak to her. I don’t know you. What you’re up to.” The supervisor guided Wendell by the arm towards the nursing station. She pointed to a chair where he could sit and handed him the phone. For a few moments, he said nothing.
“Hello? Dr. Li?”
“Wendell, what happened?”
“They can’t seem to understand down here. No. 28’s brother drowned today. They’re going to call No. 28 next. Do you know who 28 is? It’s my sister. She’s my sister!”
He cleared his throat over the phone while one hand shook.
“Wendell, listen to me. They won’t call your sister. You know why? You know why, Wendell? Because you’re not dead and your sister is only 14. She’s too young for the Argus. They said 38, not 28. I heard them say it.”
“I knew I would find you on the meridian, Doctor. They don’t seem to understand anything down here. So, I‘m not really dead?”
“No. I already took care of it. I cleared it with the Head Mistress. She said you may live.”
“You’re not lying to me, are you? It isn’t funny... I have to go home this weekend. I have to go home! Have to check on things. Her. If I don’t go home, you know what I’ll do!”
“Wendell,” she spoke in soothing tones, “I’ll do something for you, if you do something for me. I will try to arrange a home visit this weekend and you may call home tonight. But you must take your medications. And if you hear the Voices again, you must promise me you’ll inform the nurse on duty to call me immediately. I can contact the Voices. They listen to me. A deal?”
For a few seconds, there was silence on either line.
“Do you feel better now?”
“I think so... Doctor, I hope they never call your number. It’s almost winter and you have to be careful. And never look into the eyes of the Head Mistress; it’s bad luck. If you do, someone you love will drown and your number will be called.”
“Okay, Wendell. I promise. Now put me back on with the supervisor.”
Wendell handed the phone back to the supervisor and washed his pills down with a Dixie cup of water. He walked around the station to where patients lined up for meds and heard the supervisor tell Dr. Li that they were extremely short to post a 24-hour watch in Wendell’s room. “They don’t like S-wing around here. Okay. I’ll try. It’ll be like trying to find dollar bills in the rain.”
Wendell returned to his room and sat on his bed with both knees drawn to his chest, arms encircling them. He hadn’t turned on the light switch.
Well past change of shift, Wendell rose from his bed and poked his head out of the door kept ajar. Wendell’s male attendant in the room was snoring.
* * *
Copyright © 2007 by Kyle Hemmings