The windows of the psychiatric unit, Ward B, are covered with black mesh screens. Looking through them in the middle of the night, the lights from the city of Norfolk can be seen reflected on the Elizabeth River. Ward B is an open unit, meaning there are no dividers or barriers between the ten beds that line each side of the aisle that separates them, the right side from the left side. Ward B houses acutely psychotic male patients on a temporary basis, kept on the unit until the right combinations of medications and therapy allows them to be returned to their homes, or just as often, the streets. While a patient is on Ward B, their only access to the outside world is what they see through the black mesh screens or through their contact with the Ward B staff.
I’m a psychiatric technician on Ward B. Other than to assure the safety and well-being of the patients maintained on Ward B, my job is to observe them. The job suits my personality. I’ve always been an observer of the world and of the events and people that surround me, with little emotional reaction. It’s not that I don’t feel emotions, it’s just that they are buried deep inside me and are seldom put on display. As an observer, I write down in the patients’ charts what I observe them do during the night, which is mostly that they slept. It’s an important part of my job.
There is a desk at the front of the unit that serves as a barrier to the unit door and is where the psychiatric technicians sit for most of the night unless we are the one doing what we call “parading.” This is basically one of us walking up and down the aisle, observing the patients while they are sleeping. We take turns parading. The unit lights are out during the night and with the exception of the lamp on the desk being on, most of the unit is dark except for the ambient light that shines through the windows. When seated at the desk we can see the length of the rows of beds, but just barely. Beyond the rows of the beds are the two isolation rooms where patients who are violent or disruptive are kept, usually in a bed in some form of restraints, and beyond that the restroom, showers, and the medication room that is generally kept closed and locked during the night.
I shared the nighttime shift on Ward B with two other psychiatric technicians, Marcus and Cliff, who were also my best friends.
It was the middle of the night, just hours before Marcus, Cliff and I were to begin a three-day weekend off and planned to leave as soon as we got off work for a camping trip to Oregon Inlet, North Carolina. Oregon Inlet was about an hour’s drive from Cape Hatteras, the location of a lighthouse I was anxious to see. Marcus had been parading and had gone into one of the isolation rooms to change the sheets on a bed when Clarence, the patient who slept in the bed at the far end of the row on the left side, walked up to the desk where Cliff and I sat absorbed in reading patients charts. He stared at us for several moments, and before I could ask him why he was out of bed, said in the slightly slurred monotone voice common for patients on heavy doses of psychotropic medications, “Marcus grabbed my private parts.”
I looked toward the back of the unit and in the darkness saw that the door to the isolation room was open and the light in it was on.
“You just had a dream, Clarence,” I replied. “Marcus hasn’t been near your bed all night.”
“He did it a few nights ago,” he said. “While I was in the restroom.”
I looked at Cliff who glanced up from the chart he was reading and shook his head disbelievingly, shrugged, and then returned to the chart.
“You just imagined it,” I said to Clarence. I got up and led him back to his bed. As he settled back in I stared out the window, seeing the lights of a barge on the river.
Marcus came out of the isolation room, and seeing me standing by Clarence’s bed, asked, “What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” I replied.
Neither Cliff or I made a note of what Clarence said in his chart or reported it to the charge nurse.
In the rear view mirror I could see Cliff in the back seat with his boombox on his shoulder, his ear against one of the speakers. It was turned down low and barely audible from where I sat in the driver’s seat. The boombox was a gift from his mother that she gave him shortly before she died in an automobile accident. His eyes were closed and he was grinning contentedly, a look on his face I recognized when he was zoning out.
“Listening to my boombox gets me into ‘the zone’ and keeps me there better than anything else,” he once explained to me.
I attributed it to the connection between the boombox and his deceased mother, but I said nothing. It was an unspoken rule that as friends who were also psychiatric technicians we didn’t analyze one another.
Highway 158 en route to Oregon Inlet quickly changed from city to suburbs to beach communities. Not surprisingly given that it was a Friday, the traffic going south was heavy. Along the way we didn’t discuss work. What Clarence said wasn’t mentioned.
Marcus was in the passenger seat. We were about five miles from the campsite when Marcus began rifling through his backpack that was sitting on the floor and held between his legs. He was searching for a bag of cashews he was certain he had packed but couldn’t find. I shared an apartment with him and knew from experience – that also included sharing an apartment for two years while were in college in Boston – that he was disorganized and could be absent-minded. He was responsible for my getting the job as a psychiatric technician on Ward B. He had moved to Norfolk right out of college and we kept in touch during that time. I hated the marketing job I had and was glad to leave it for a position that he told me was available working with psychiatric patients, even if it was the night shift.
He found the bag of cashews, quickly tore it open, and poured the nuts into his mouth without offering any to Cliff or I.
I had packed a three-man tent in the trunk of my car along with our sleeping bags and a cooler. It didn’t occur to any of us that the campground would be full until we drove in and were promptly turned away. We drove up and down the Oregon Inlet coastline looking for other camping sites, finally deciding that we would risk the ire of law enforcement and park alongside some dunes that separated the beach from the highway. We planned to roll out our sleeping bags on the beach at night and sleep under the stars. Once we picked a spot where we would park during the weekend, we drove back up the highway to a small grocery store to get provisions and to stock the cooler with ice, beers and sodas. Cliff stayed in the car while Marcus and I went into the store.
While putting chips and cookies in a grocery basket that I carried, Marcus said, “I wish we could have made this trip without Cliff tagging along. He drives me insane with that boombox.”
I was surprised, not having heard from Marcus before then that he had a problem with Cliff. The three of us hung out together so often that I wondered how I couldn’t have noticed it before.
“Why didn’t you say something?” I replied.
“You treat him like he’s your kid brother. I didn’t want to create waves. Besides, pointing out something you’re doing that anybody disagrees with is like kicking a puppy. You’re too sensitive.”
I had met Cliff a few nights after starting the job on Ward B the year before and we immediately became friends when we discovered we shared an interest in the same kinds of music. Cliff was two years younger than me, but our age difference never presented a problem.
Marcus and I finished shopping in silence. The entire time I was thinking about what he said and wondering, Am I really like that?
After we returned to the location we had picked to spend the weekend, we each selected a spot on the beach and spent the remainder of the afternoon sleeping. Cliff had the volume on his boombox turned up high. After waking, we splashed around in the water, ate, and then tossed a Frisbee around for a while. At dusk swarms of mosquitoes descended on us. The swarms were so thick and persistent that it was like being visited by a Biblical plague. Without the benefit of mosquito repellent – it wasn’t something we gave any thought would be needed – each of us was bitten to the point of feeling crazed. We retreated to the car where we spent the remainder of the night discussing sports, music and women. Marcus sat in the back and Cliff and I sat up front.
It was Cliff who during a lull in the conversation brought up what Clarence had said, saying to Marcus, “Clarence accused you of groping him.”
“What do you expect?” Marcus replied. “He’s a paranoid schizophrenic.”
“It’s an odd accusation to make against you specifically,” Cliff said.
Marcus chuckled dismissively. “It’s only his homophobic fear that I’d follow him into the restroom and feel him up.”
At dawn we returned to the beach, swam for a while, and then Cliff and I decided to visit the lighthouse on Cape Hatteras. It had been a few years since Cliff had been there and I had never seen it. Cliff consented to Marcus’s request that he leave his boombox behind so that he could listen to music while lying on the beach.
“Don’t let it out of your sight,” Cliff told him.
“I’ll guard it with my life,” Marcus replied.
The ride from Oregon Inlet to Cape Hatteras took about an hour. We spotted the lighthouse long before we reached it. It looked like a gigantic black and white version of a barber’s pole.
“Its beacon reaches twenty miles out,” Cliff told me.
I parked the car in the parking lot. We bought tickets to climb the nearly three hundred steps to the top of the lighthouse and then slowly climbed them, following behind an older man who kept stopping to catch his breath. At the top, on the outside platform that circled the light, I stood at the iron railing and peered out at the choppy ocean currents, imagining that I was the beacon guiding ships that were in harms way. I stood still for several minutes, transfixed. I was thinking about Marcus.
My last girlfriend had told me when she broke up with me that I “saw everything except what was right in front of my face.” She never liked Marcus and said he couldn’t be trusted, although she had nothing but her feelings to support what she thought of him. Marcus’s words, “ . . . follow him into the restroom . . . ,” spun around in my head like the stripes on the lighthouse.
“Are you okay?” Cliff asked me.
I shook my head as if to clear thoughts of Marcus from my brain. “Yeah, I’m fine,” I answered.
It was late afternoon when we arrived back at our camping spot. Marcus was lying on his towel on the beach, sound asleep. It took only moments for Cliff to notice that his boombox was nowhere in sight. He kicked Marcus in the side and yelled, “Where’s my boombox?”
Marcus stood up, casually rubbed the sleep from his eyes, and then looked around. “Someone must have taken it,” he said flatly.
Cliff’s face reddened as if on fire. “You said you would guard it with your life.”
“It’s just a lousy boombox,” Marcus replied.
Cliff punched Marcus in the jaw, knocking him to the ground. Cliff stood positioned with his feet firmly planted in the sand and his fists raised, ready for a fight. When Marcus didn’t move, Cliff turned and stomped off, going over the dune and headed toward the car.
Marcus stood up and gathered up his towel.
I saw his footprints in the sand leading from where he had been lying to the edge of the water and had no doubt about what he had done with Cliff’s boombox. I grabbed him by the arm, ready to confront him about an even bigger lie than what he had just told to Cliff.
“Clarence was telling the truth. Cliff and I didn’t mention that Clarence said it happened in the restroom, but you knew what he said because it was the truth. You did grope him.”
He pulled his arm away. “You’re as crazy as Clarence. I don’t grope other guys. I’m not gay.”
“This isn’t about your sexuality. What you did was an act of violence. A sick way to demonstrate your power over a helpless patient.”
“That’s your opinion,” he replied icily and then walked away.
I returned to the car where Cliff was sitting in the front passenger seat, staring out the window as if we were already on the highway and returning home. Marcus had the trunk lid up and was changing his clothes.
I got behind the steering wheel. “I’m sorry,” I said to Cliff, knowing those two words were meaningless. They wouldn’t get his boombox back.
When Marcus got into the back seat no one needed to say that we were ending the camping trip early and returning home. We rode the entire way back not saying a word to one another.
I convinced Cliff to join me Monday morning to see the charge nurse and tell her what Clarence had reported. We didn’t accuse Marcus of doing what Clarence had claimed, although by the end of the discussion with the charge nurse there was no doubt that Clarence was telling the truth. We were reprimanded and put on probation for not reporting it earlier and not making a note of it in Clarence’s chart.
The next day Marcus was fired. That evening he moved out of our apartment without saying a word to me and we haven’t spoken to one another since then. Cliff and I don’t hang out together as much anymore. The events involving Marcus put an unspoken strain on our friendship that at times feels palpable, but we don’t talk about it, or about Marcus.
About Steve Carr
Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 400 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories, Sand, Rain, Heat, The Tales of Talker Knock and 50 Short Stories: The Very Best of Steve Carr, and LGBTQ: 33 Stories, and The Theory of Existence: 50 Short Stories, published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. 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