When Jesus walked into the nuthouse, I knew things were going to get interesting. Our savior wore a muddy gray t-shirt, ripped jeans my mother would never allow past her seasonal welcome mat, and a pair of neon orange converse. An angry red sore oozed over his fat, brown lips, and he had the tell-tale bruising of a black eye almost healed. He smiled, bounced on the balls of his feet, and hummed what sounded a bit like Jingle Bells. I guess he knew something we didn’t.
No one else paid Jesus much attention. It was close to lunchtime, and meals were a serious business in the nuthouse. I was bringing up the caboose of unit B2’s lunch line, picking at my yellow, overgrown nails, when I heard it:
“Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almiiighty!”
Jesus’ crisp tenor pierced through arguments about the legalities of Connect Four and whether there would be pie today or just more pudding. Everyone stopped short at our savior’s sudden serenade. Silence. Jesus smiled at us: his teeth a rancid, smoker’s saffron.
“Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah! Praise ye the Looord!”
Jesus wasn’t a very good singer.
Pete let out a bark of laughter and turned his crooked grin toward Jo and I.
“Wow, this one’s even better than Crazy Katie! Someone screwed up downstairs.” He rolled his eyes in that Pete way and sniffed.
A stiff, brunette woman wearing coffee-stained scrubs came by with her clipboard and began counting us off by twos for lunch. A line of dark lipstick smeared beyond the left of her smile. I couldn’t stop staring at it. She called my number–forty–and I shuffled forward, sucking my lips. She narrowed her eyes, but I cast my gaze to the ground. I didn’t like being last. My favorite number was nine, but I wasn’t always fast enough to count eight places and wedge myself in. It was easier to be number forty.
Jesus was all but forgotten during our meal. Hunger has a way of taking over your brain until all the mashed potatoes are gone. Pete, Jo, and I always sat together at lunch. We weren’t really crazy, not like the others. The doctors couldn’t keep us for too long when they had actual psychos like Katie to deal with. It was important to have allies in the nuthouse. Crazy’s contagious, you know?
Fluorescent cafeteria lighting illuminated dark circles under everyone’s eyes. Light chatter and occasional laughter masked a minefield of gossip and hierarchy. Even among society’s outcasts, a pecking order of popularity existed. I had to remind myself this wasn’t high school: no one was handing out grades, only medication. And no one was going to throw tater tots at my back and call me a freak. Not today, not anymore.
Jo grabbed my hand. “Hey! Stop being a slowpoke! You’re going to miss your butterscotch pudding!”
“No touching!” shouted a short-haired nurse.
“We weren’t touching,” said Jo. Spit flew from her mouth. “Not like, touching, touching. Jesus!” She let go of my hand with a huff, and I followed her purple and orange hair into line behind Pete. He handed me a tray; it was green. I hated green, but I loved butterscotch pudding.
We found our seats at the far end of the cafeteria. I ripped open the pudding lid and listened to Pete explain why peas were the devil’s vegetable. Jo’s eyes kept flitting toward mine as she maneuvered a slimy lump of meatloaf onto my tray. I shook my head and stuck to the safety of beige gelatin. Everyone knew meatloaf was really ground-up Golden Retriever, but everyone ate it anyway. Well, everyone except me. They recorded what you ate. My chart would only say one thing over and over again: butterscotch pudding.
“They won’t let you out if you don’t eat something,” whispered Jo. I shrugged.
“Stop being everyone’s Mom, Jo.” Pete piled six peas onto his spoon. “Duck!” He launched the wrath of the devil’s vegetable onto unit C3’s lunch table. An older man with a tattoo of a naked woman on his neck screamed and brushed the peas off his shoulder, scattering his table’s lunch trays to the ground. A woman with squeaky, white sneakers and a silver clipboard investigated the commotion. We snorted into our trays as the tattooed man pushed her away, flipped the table, and ran out of the lunchroom.
“Now you have time for another pudding.” Pete passed me his butterscotch. “I’ve stared at his calves every day. He’s fast. They won’t catch him for at least ten minutes.”
“You’re insane,” said Jo.
“That’s what my Dad always told me.” Pete stuffed a forkful of peas in his mouth and swallowed.
Sugar, pudding, and peas fueled our slog back to unit B2. I trailed my fingers across the concrete walls avoiding each dipping crack and seam.
“So, I just took aim, spread my fat lips, and pissed on them,” said Jo. My finger snagged on the wall and tore off the tip of my nail.
“I did! Really,” Jo continued, “what else what I supposed to do? I’d been up in that tree holding in four energy drinks and a pint of vodka for six hours!”
I stared at Jo. When did she start telling this story?
“Um, hello?” Jo knocked her knuckles on my forehead. “Are you in there? I’m talking about the cops? After they chased me up the tree?” She placed her hands on her hips as we stopped in front of our unit and waited for the nurses to open the doors.
“Did you fall asleep?” asked Pete. He raised one big, bushy eyebrow.
“God, I didn’t realize I was so boring!” Jo laughed. The doors clicked opened and everyone filed inside.
“Maybe it’s her meds,” said Pete. I tugged the sleeves of my sweatshirt over my hands and shuffled past them both into unit B2.
Jesus was there. I’d forgotten him.
He carried a paper cone cup filled to the brim with cold water from the cooler. His face broke into a wide smile that crinkled his golden-brown eyes. I stopped walking.
“Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God, Almightyyy,” he sang. The lunch crowd parted around him: the novelty of Jesus had worn off. He frowned, and lowered his arms. Pete and Joe passed on either side of me, and I followed my only friends in the whole world. As we passed Jesus, he sang again:
“Praise ye the Lord!”
Pete turned, his mouth half-open a stinging comment on the tip of his tongue, but Jesus tossed the cup of water into Pete’s face and clapped his hands. The water cascaded across Pete’s forehead, dripped down each cheek, and soaked the front of his shirt. His nipples popped erect with shock. One of them was pierced.
“What the fuck?” Pete wiped ice water from his eyes. ‘What the actual fuck?”
“Praise ye the Lord!” sang Jesus. He stepped on the empty paper cup.
“Haha! It’s like he baptized you, Pete!” Jo snickered and slipped on the wet floor.
“What the Hell do you think you’re doing?” said Pete. He pushed Jesus away.
“Hey!” A bearing bald man in scrubs a size too small rushed over with a roll of one-ply paper towels. “Respect our unit’s personal rule, okay? It was an accident.”
“An accident? What?” Pete’s face turned purple.
“Let it go, Peter.” The nurse handed Pete the roll of paper towels and turned to Jesus. “You – come with me.”
Jesus skated across the puddle toward the nurse’s station. I helped Jo off the ground as Pete mopped his face with the paper towels. We escaped further wet blessing and made our way to the East Lounge.
“Freak,” muttered Jo. She smoothed her bright hair. “Seriously, they should 303 that guy if he’s gonna be trying to baptize everyone all the time.” She put air quotes around the word baptize and looked at Pete. He sneered at her and ripped off another sheet from the roll.
I plopped onto the gray couch by the barred window. It was raining, again, not that it mattered. I don’t know why I cared. I don’t care. Jo sat opposite me and started picking at her old, neon green nail polish. It was almost gone. What would she chip away at tomorrow?
Pete finished drying his head and tossed the expired roll into the overflowing garbage can. He settled between us before spying the remote resting on a magazine by one of the faded armchairs. There was only one remote for the three TVs in unit B2, and it was rare to find it unstuck from Kathy’s fat fingers. Pete sprang up, grabbed it, and mashed through the channels until he found Jerry Springer.
“That new guy is psycho,” grumbled Pete as he leaned against Jo’s bruised legs on the floor. “If he touches me again, I’m going to kill him.”
“Don’t let them hear you say that; they’ll drug you again,” said Jo.
“I don’t care. I’m serious. They should, like, separate those people.”
“Those people?” asked Jo.
“You know, the crazy people from the normal people,” said Pete. Jo and I laughed.
“Are we the normal people, Pete?” asked Jo. “Because I’m pretty sure we can’t just walk right out those doors if we wanted. I mean, they’re giving me three different medications right now just so I can get some flippin’ sleep.” Pete rolled his eyes and turned back toward the TV.
“And how many do you swallow, huh?” asked Jo, her voice rising. “I think I counted four? I don’t know what they give you for being bipolar.”
“I’m not bipolar!” said Pete, getting up from the ground. His hair was still dripping from earlier. “I told you, the doctor I got is– is stupid. I’ve got some anxiety, and that’s it. I’m getting a doctor change on Monday, or I’m calling my father.”
“Isn’t your dad the one who–”
“Fuck you. I’m gonna go get some graham crackers.” Pete stomped toward the hall.
“Could you bring me some too?” asked Jo. She turned back to the TV.
I knew why Pete was upset. It had less to do with Jesus and more to do with his father. Pete’s father was sure he was going through a phase, afflicted by a strange, medical malady. He demanded Pete “straighten up” before he could come home. I didn’t think Pete was ever going to go home.
“Pete’s right though,” said Jo, her eyes still on the screen. “There’s something seriously cracked about that guy.” She glanced down the hall. “I hope Pete remembered to grab me milk for my crackers.” She cupped her hands over her mouth and shouted, “Hey Pete! Grab a milk thing! Okay?”
A woman in a white skirt peeked into the room.
“You guys doing okay?” she asked. We nodded. “Well, keep the noise to an indoor level alright? Oh!” She gasped as she spotted the TV. Two women in neon spandex were busy getting their Jerry Beads. “You guys are not allowed to watch this, um, particular program. It’s the hospital’s policy, not mine. Where’s the remote?”
“I don’t know,” said Jo with a small shrug. “I think Kathy has it. This was on when we came in here.”
“Fine. Hold on,” she said. She stomped out of the room in the direction of the West Lounge where Kathy was, undoubtedly, watching the same thing.
“We should probably move our party somewhere else,” said Jo, and she jumped up from the sunken couch. Her thick frame left deep imprints in the sagging cushions. “It should be time for Group soon anyway.”
I got up too as Jo bounced ahead toward Pete who was returning with crackers and milk. My head spun and my eyes unfocused; I hadn’t eaten enough today. I fell flat on the hard tile as a dark figure moved toward me.
Making it to my knees, I took a deep breath and looked up. It was Jesus. He didn’t say anything. His hooded eyes were dark, his face wrinkled with concern. I noticed for the first time how thin he was: bone thin, like a corpse. Was he okay? Was he dying?
Jesus held out a hand for me. I took it.
“Glory, Glory, Glory! Lord God Almighty!”
But that thinking had landed me here in the first place. So, I let him pull me up. His hands were soft and warm, and for a moment, I thought about hugging him. He looked like he needed a hug. I watched his face as his eyes traveled to our embrace and then up my arm. I yanked my hand away. He opened his mouth, but I was already gone, my sleeves pulled down to my knuckles.
I took my place next to Pete and Jo, who were munching on graham crackers, on the couch in the West Lounge. I watched our overstuffed unit shuffle into place, creating an oblong circle of pajamas and hospital scrubs. Jesus was there. He grabbed a metal chair from the stack and scraped it across the room until it was next to our couch. I leaned toward my friends, away from Jesus, but I could feel he was watching me.
“Alright folks, let’s begin,” said Linda, our group therapy leader. She was a short, round woman with black hair. She never sat down. “I’m passing around the sign-in sheet. Make sure you write your name down so you get credit for being at tonight’s meeting.” She handed the clipboard to Pete who drew a giant penis on it and passed it to his right. “Today, we will be discussing how to manage feelings of rage and anger.” Her eyes scanned the room before settling on Kathy. “Kathy, what makes you angry?”
Kathy was a large, balding woman plastered into her usual, weathered arm chair. She wore a look of rampant contempt at having the TV turned off and was making a low gurgling sound in her throat.
“People who do dumb shit and don’ let me watch my shows,” she muttered.
“Okay,” said Linda, her voice a cheerful steel. “What sort of things do these people do?”
“Uh,” said Kathy, “people bitch about what’s on the TV. They take my seat when I get up to piss and steal my fucking remote.”
I felt Pete twitch at the mention of the remote. I wondered if he still had it. I suppressed a smile and turned away to catch Jesus staring at me, like he was expecting something. I gasped and glanced down at my thighs. What was his problem? I felt my heart rate jump. I hated these group meetings.
“So, when people do these things, what do you feel?” asked Linda. She took the sign-in sheet as it came back around, ignoring Pete’s artwork.
“Right,” said Linda, “but what–”
“AMAZING GRACE! HOW SWEET THE SOUND THAT SAVED A WRETCH, LIKE MEEEEE!”
Voice cracking as he held out the high note, his hands raised toward the industrial lights, Jesus stood atop his metal, folding chair and sang. I tried not to laugh as I glanced at Jo and saw her roll her eyes. Pete snickered, his earlier baptism forgotten.
Linda ignored the interruption. “What physical feelings do you have, Kathy? Does your gut clench up? Does your vision get cloudy? Does it feel like you have no control–”
“I ONCE WAS LOST, BUT NOW I’M FOUND. WAS BLIND BUT NOW I SEE!”
That was the beginning of the end. Every time Linda or Kathy began to speak, Jesus would continue another verse of Amazing Grace. Jo and Pete’s laughter grew louder with every refrain, and even I began to giggle. Linda was doing her best to ignore him, but she was losing this battle. Everyone was staring at Jesus, laughing, as his sermon swelled. He stepped down from his chair and walked toward Linda. Taking a deep breath, he began an encore.
“Peter!” cried Linda, shaking the three of us out of our laughter. She walked around Jesus and stood in front of our couch. “Is there a person in your life that you’re angry at?” Her blue eyes bore into Pete’s, and I saw him shrink.
“Oh, well um, my dad… I guess,” mumbled Pete, kicking his feet against the carpet.
“HOW SWEET THE SOUND!”
“Why are you angry at him, Peter?” asked Linda. Her hands clasped over her clipboard, she squared her shoulders against the chaos in the room. Others had begun to join in as the encore reached its climax. Jesus was conducting them with grand flourishes of his robed arms.
“Well, uh, I suppose it’s because he doesn’t like me,” said Pete. I stopped giggling. Pete’s mischievous face had creased into a deep frown.
“I ONCE WAS LOST, BUT NOW I’M FOUND!”
“Why would you think he doesn’t like you?” continued Linda.
“WAS BLIND BUT NOW I SEE!”
“Well,” said Pete, taking a deep breath, “I’m gay.”
Jesus was silent. The room was silent. The song was over. Everyone was looking at Pete, and it was too much. Pete broke. There was a loud crack, and Jo screamed. Jesus was on the floor, blood pooling from the side of his head. Pete stood over him, shaking, his hands balled into fists. I hadn’t even seen him move. Linda sprang away, and I heard her radio for help. Pete’s eyes were darting around the room, tears falling from his eyes.
“Fuck you!” he screamed. Jo was trying to get him to sit down, but he shook her off and kicked Jesus in the side. I stood up. Jesus was vomiting, and Pete was still screaming.
“It’s bullshit. It’s all bullshit! Who the fuck are you? You’re a nobody!” He made a sudden rush at the shaking body on the ground, but a woman in white grabbed him.
“Let go,” said a voice close to my ear. Heavy arms pressed against me, and white, gloved hands grabbed my own. I tried to scream that Jesus was dying, but my mouth felt soft. “Let go,” the voice repeated, but I couldn’t. My fingers were digging into his crimson robes, because he was dying. Jesus was dying. I was dying.
And I didn’t want to die anymore.
Kathy had already taken over the couch in front of the TV in the East Lounge when I stumbled in on Sunday morning. The remote was still missing, so Jerry Springer was back on the TV. No one was talking.
I took a spot on the floor and leaned against the wall, the cool concrete calming against my back. A few moments later, I felt Jo slide down next to me.
“I’m glad you’re okay. You went a little crazy, you know? It was a lot of blood though. I thought for sure he was dead.” She handed me a graham cracker. I took it. “I don’t think Pete’s coming back,” she looked at me. “I heard – I heard his Dad came.”
I took a bite of the graham cracker and blinked at her.
“I’m going to miss him, ya know?” she said.
I realized we might never see Pete again, and when I got out of here, I might never see Jo again either. Was that sad? Was Jo my friend? Was Pete? Did we even know who Pete was?
I watched a tear run down Jo’s face. She brushed it away and took a big gulp of milk. The sleeve on her arm slipped down, and I saw fresh fingernail marks on her wrist. I tugged at my own sleeves. I hated this place; it made you look at your demons. Every single person walked through those double-locked doors exposed, ugly, and a little hungry. Unit B2 was rock-fucking-bottom.
I think we knew Pete better than anyone.
I felt Jo nudge me. I looked up, and she pointed. I followed her gaze toward Jesus. He was shuffling down the hallway supported by a woman in white. Bandages covered his hands, and he was holding his left side. They sat him in a chair by the door, facing away from the TV.
“I can’t believe they let him back in here. He should be locked up!” Jo grunted and rose to her knees, brushing graham cracker crumbs to the floor. “Let’s get out of here,” she muttered. I got up to leave too. Jo walked right passed Jesus’ small frame. She scrunched up her nose and refused to meet his gaze, but I couldn’t help it. I looked, and I found he was looking at me.
“Jesus…” I whispered.
“Forgives,” he said.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
© 2017/2020 Elle Michael River