Case o' the Crazies
There are people coughing and I figure that even though I'm here for some sleeping pills, maybe a set of handcuffs if the doc thinks they're necessary, I'm going to leave with a lot more than that—like at least one cold, maybe more.
Gotta love coughing strangers in a confined space, no windows, no aeration.
But I figure as long as I don't catch crazy, I'll be fine.
Yeah, there's one of those sitting beside me—I always attract his type; I think I'm a magnet for them—babbling on about hiding places and being smelled. I have no trouble imagining people smelling him from a mile away—as far as him and baths go, let's just say it's been a while between meet-ups.
His words wash over me, an incomprehensible melding of slurred words and 'sh' sounds. I don't want to look, but I make myself look, and confirm what I suspected—he's got a few teeth missing. Strike that, he's got a few teeth left in his mouth. The rest have gone walkabout. Part of me wonders if he misses them. Then I realise I'm in a waiting room, surrounding by coughing sneezing hunched-over people…and with a bona fide crazy for company.
He's the only one who doesn't have a cold. Or if he has one, he's hiding it well.
He's got plenty else to be thinking about, though. Like the holes in the walls and the way you flatten yourself against brick and stop breathing—for minutes at a time, even; he claims he was the best out of anyone at keeping his lungs full. He's got stories to tell, ohhhh does he ever. And lucky me is here to listen.
Doc's running late again. As usual. She's coming up on a record this time—forty-seven minutes so far. Longest I ever waited was an hour and two minutes, but I'm hoping I won't be outdoing myself this time. Fifteen more minutes of sitting here with Bozo the Dirty Clown doesn't really float my boat, I've gotta say.
For the most part, his words wash over me. But then he says something that gets my attention.
"…Sleep-walkin', they call it. But I didn't feel sleepy, I'm tellin' you. All I know is, I woke up halfway to Merton City, no idea what I was doin'. Train station. Got this distinct feelin' I'd been…with company, I guess. Saw shoe prints in wet stuff—prolly good ole H20, I don't know. But I could see 'em clearly down there on the ground. Right beside me. Not my shoe size, 'fore you ask. Different size, by a long shot. Looked around, but no sign of anyone. I just got a sense of…having been with at least one other person. Not sure they're a friend, know what I mean? And I remembered a really white light. And I don't mean no 'Call to the Heavens' type deal. Nuh uh. More like 'M'gonna shine this in your eye and see how you like it.' Or, like, they're tryin' to see how I react to it. Like…experiments. Know what I mean?"
He's looking at me, mouth twisted in a sort of grimace, eyebrows furry with dust and grime, skin wrinkled but not with age—more with hardship. One of his eyes is fixed on me—the other's kind of scrunched shut, as if it's remembering the white light. Why don't both his eyes remember? And don't try and tell me maybe he's got no second eye at all—I can see it moving around under his lid. It's there. So what I wanna know is, what's up with the scrunching.
More to the point, I want to know why the hell a chill just rippled through me as I listened to more and more of his words. And why it's not going away.
"You should be careful," the crazy says. "I wasn't careful. Now look at me. Wouldn't want the same thing to happen to you."
What, I wind up on the streets with dusty eyebrows? I want to ask him. But I stay quiet as he rises to his feet.
"You might think you're safe, lady, but you ain't safe. Not anywhere. Not anyhow. Just telling you to be careful. Watch yourself. Watch your back. 'Cause nobody else is gonna."
"What's that even mean?" I ask, turning to face the crazy.
He's not there.
And suddenly, coughing waiting people are staring at me. They're looking wary, like I'm the damn crazy in this place.
I swallow a sick feeling and clear my throat. I reach out through my body with my mind, seeking discomfort. Nothing, except maybe the dullest ache in the back of my head—something I just put down to sleep deprivation. Walking in one's sleep will do that to a person, at least that's what I had figured. But maybe it's an ache that's a sign of more than just lost sleep. Maybe it's a symbol of something lost.
Like sanity, for instance.
I stare down at my hands trying not to grimace.
Doctor Osbourne checks out my eyes. She shines a light into them. Goosebumps break out over my skin as I remember the crazy and his strange tale. Hell, I heard a lot of strange tales while I sat beside him, but I didn't pay attention to most of them. The only one I remember is the one about sleepwalking, about train stations at night and company you don't remember. About white shining lights, not the kind that welcomes you to heaven.
Heaven, I think bitterly. She shall never be mine, for I am damned. Some old poem, but it fits. Not that I'm damned. I just feel that way sometimes. It's like a subconscious thing. Something I can't put my finger on, but it's a feeling and it's there.
Sticking to me like dandelion dust.
"Everything seems fine," Osbourne tells me, clicking her miniature flashlight off and tucking it into a voluminous white pocket. "Have you been having the headaches?"
Something tells me to lie. So I do. "No, I just woke up last night… In my hallway. I mean, it's not that scary. I just thought…"
The doctor nods. "You've seen the ads on TV?" I don't answer, just incline my head. "I wouldn't worry. Those cases are…extreme. And those victims have been exposed to…well, let's just say it's not something we need to worry about here. Not yet."
Don't we? I say in my head. What about the crazy I talked to? What about what happened to him? Only, I'm not sure he ever existed, except in my own troubled head. I refrain from asking the question. From incriminating myself further.
All this goes on record, I realise. Every visit I make here. Every inquiry where I identify myself. It's all on record for anyone in the right position of power to see.
I haven't been careful. I haven't been watching my back.
I'd better start. Because if I don't, who's gonna?
"There are places you can hide," the hobo tells me, "if you just know where to look. The trick, though, is to disguise your smell."
I stare at him, wondering how many hobos I'm going to have to talk to before I understand what they're telling me.
"Why do you think I'm dressed like this?" he adds.
And finally I get it.
I go down to City Park and find myself a nice muddy puddle. Some of them have too much water, but I finally stumble upon one that is sufficient percentage clay. I peer left and right, up and down, making sure I'm alone. Then I dive into the puddle and roll around, making sure to get as much dirt in my hair as I can.
This isn't going to be enough. It's just mud, clay, what have you. I need to smell really bad. I need to smell worse than I ever imagined I could.
I need to complete my disguise.
Then I need a hiding place.
Somewhere they can't smell me anymore.