After today’s events, I’m unsure whether I should continue my investigation.

I resolved to speak personally to patients, rather than just read files; I had the notion that, if there was some agency working against me - possibly involving the chief of medicine - I should find patients without written or oral accounts. Only those furthest gone have refused to give statements… but I will be the only one to know their stories, and that will put me a step ahead.

I decided to start with the most heartbreaking patient we have. For several months, he has been unresponsive to any attempts to help him. I can’t imagine being in his situation… but I have seen him recently responding to the nurse that takes care of him.

“Oh hey, I haven’t seen you. I meant to say, thanks for handling the mail for me when I was out,” she greeted me, smiling warmly.

Caught off guard, I only managed a weak reply. “Sure thing.” I was always slightly flustered around her. For anonymity’s sake, I’ll call her… Claire. She was one of the prettiest nurses on staff, and I could see how our most unfortunate patient might open up to her. “You know, this might sound weird, but I have a favor to ask you…”

She seemed skeptical, and a little wary, but she relented.

She was also quite successful.

She and Mabel, a much older career nurse, both set up the room for the recording session. It’s not that the patient was dangerous - in fact, quite the opposite - but his special condition merited extra observers, just in case.

Claire even brought us coffee - and handed a cup to me personally. “It’s nice that you’re taking a personal interest. The other doctors couldn’t care less.”

I gave a sheepish smile, and turned slightly red, I’m sure. “Thanks!”

I immediately grimaced when she turned away. I felt like an idiot schoolboy all over again.

The coffee mug paused before my lips, and I looked down at the swirling cream in brown, recalling certain unpleasant connotations from another patient’s story. Overcome with a slight wave of disgust, I put the mug down, unable to drink it.

I shook it off and focused on the task at hand.

He lay in bed, unmoving, giving no indication that he was aware of me.

“Whenever you’re ready…” I said, hesitant.

Mabel stood by with the recorder.

“Go ahead, honey,” Claire told him.

He immediately began speaking. It amazed me - he wasn’t catatonic at all. His voice came out clear and articulate, with a strange undertone of grim mockery, as if he knew some vast dark inside joke which he’d been keeping all to himself…

You want to know my tale? I’m not quite sure that you do. It’s far closer to you than you realize.

Ok, but remember, you asked for it…

As all stories eventually do, mine involves a girl.

Oh, she was so pretty. Beautiful, even. I watched her from afar quite often. She didn’t know I even existed, and probably didn’t want to.

I’m no slouch… [mocking laughter]… I wasn’t without girlfriends. It just seems that I always wanted the ones I couldn’t have. I was starting to feel out of place in my old haunts, nearer thirty than twenty, and time just seemed to darken… and then, this light came around - her.

I wasn’t obsessed. I want to make that clear. I just thought she was pretty. I didn’t actually think I had a chance, and I didn’t try to make a move.

I’m glad things happened the way they did, though.

One night I was sitting at my regular bar, alone, and all the other tables were taken. She and her friends came in, three girls in total, and sat right down at my table. Like a deer in headlights, I stumbled through introductions to each of them.

“I’ve seen you around, staring at me,” she said, laughing. “You a creep, or just a misunderstood nice guy?”

She was speaking to me!

“Nice guy!” I insisted. “You girls want a round? I’ll buy.”

And of course they accepted.

One of her friends seemed rather interested in me, but I had eyes only for her. The friend invited me to a party with them later, and I tagged along, high on excitement and possibility.

Once at the party, I dodged the amorous friend, and found her chatting up some guy. No matter - he was just some asshole, and I knew I would win out in the end even if he took her home that night. While I stumbled through small talk, I became aware that I was quite the third wheel in that little corner of the room.

“Go get me a drink,” she said, laughing awkwardly.

“Sure thing,” I immediately agreed.

I stumbled through the crowded rooms to the keg and filled up a cup like she asked, returning it to her quickly.

“Thanks,” she said with a smile.

I… felt rather stupid, for awhile there. I was just a guy, blundering around, looking for affection in all the wrong ways…

…until the party ended, and she ended up by herself on the couch. I listened to her complain about assholes and creeps for nearly two hours. That guy she’d been talking to had left her high and dry, running off with some skank. I nodded, gleeful at how right I’d been… and here she was, confiding in me.

That’s when she said it.

“You are a nice guy. Do you… want to hang out tomorrow?”

Stunned, it was all I could do to say yes.

I met her at the mall, and we spent the day together as she tried on clothes and showed them to me. I even bought her a few, saying “yes dear” jokingly… but she just smiled, and didn’t correct me.

I was high on cloud nine.

We spent almost every day together, after that. I have to admit, sometimes it got painful. I wanted her so badly, but she never seemed emotionally available for real intimacy… asshole guys came and went, and I managed to secretly sabotage most of them.

Most of them.

I was in a fight for her heart, so I don’t feel bad about it.

Oh, no, you misunderstand me - I didn’t do anything criminal. Just little snide comments - or lies about her, when she wasn’t listening… or lies about him, when she was.

While my life began to constrict into a cage of pain and negativity, this constant war to keep her isolated draining everything I had, she seemed to be on her own dark path. She started to get into drugs, no matter how much I argued against it - I’d tell her, “I’m your best friend, I’m worried about you, don’t do this…” but that only seemed to encourage her.

At least she kept herself away from the real dangerous stuff; she only used the drugs that wouldn’t ruin her appearance or social standing.

One day, I couldn’t take it anymore. I cornered her in her apartment and confessed - spilled - poured out my infinite love for her. “I’d do anything for you,” I told her, feeling incredible.

She didn’t seem very happy about it. She actually seemed a little angry… but, after a few minutes, she came back into the room and asked: “Anything?”

All I had to do was prove it, she said, and she might learn to love me back.

Anything, I promised.

I spent the next several months running around doing her errands, buying her things, and taking on a second job to support her spending habits. Always, she promised, she was about to return my feelings. Meanwhile, she got into some sort of graduate school, something she was always vague about. I gladly paid for as much of it as I could.

She seemed to get worse, growing darker and angrier as time went on. Often, I found her stoked out on something, or passed out on something, and if I complained, she… began to hit me. I thought, I’m a man, I can take it, it’s fine.

One day, when I told her I was broke and couldn’t afford another massive tuition payment, she… cut me.

We separated then, for a time, and I felt my whole world collapsing. She’d been just about to love me, she’d shouted in anger, we were so close…

I went to her with roses, and a check. I’d taken out a huge loan to pay for her school.

She took me back with open arms, even kissed me on the lips for the first time.

“Anything,” she ordered. “Anything!”

I agreed. I’d do anything for her. She was my whole world. As long as she validated me, I’d be on cloud nine!

Her violence and anger didn’t stop… in fact, she began enjoying it. I could tell. She had a scalpel now, and often cut me with it. The shoulder, the leg, just a little bit… but more, each time. If I cried out in pain or refused, she’d threaten to dump me. I let her do it… and you know, I began to enjoy it a little myself. After each act of increasing violence, we got a little more close… we even made out once, as I bled profusely from a gash down my arm.

We were so, so close… she had an idea, she said she’d been thinking about for quite some time…

I know you think this is insane, but I wanted it. The tradeoff was worth it. What would you do for love? It was all finally working out.

I let her do it, and… we finally made love.

Everything finally seemed worth it. All the heartbreak and pain and weaseling and sabotaging asshole guys… it was all worth it. I adjusted to life without my left hand fairly well, too. It’s surprising how many laws there are to help disabled people out.

Of course, things broke down again after that. Without my left hand, I lost one of my jobs. She dumped me again for a bit, screaming and raving that she was halfway done with graduate school. I promised her I loved her, that I’d do anything, and she told me to prove it.

She took my entire left arm this time, amputated at the shoulder.

It turned her on enough that we were sexual together for almost a month. Best month of my life, I’m telling you.

And then, you know how things go… relationships go up and down… and I figured, I was far too invested to quit now. I was terrified of losing her after literally putting an arm and a leg into the relationship.


But no, I really was horrified of losing her. She told me that nobody else would ever love someone like me, not with those mutilations. I knew she was right.

Eventually, I gave up my other arm and leg to prove my love. Our bond was permanent by that point. I knew she would always take care of me, now that I had permanent, large disability payments to give her.

I couldn’t help but scream when she sewed up my eyes. That’s what the neighbors heard, why they called the police. Those bastards… I have the perfect relationship, the way I always wanted it, and she loves me, and they tried to ruin that!

I stared at him, dumbfounded. I’d always wondered how he got that way - blind, just a torso, a head, and a mouth - but the true story was beyond comprehension. This… this was insanity. I could see it, feel it tangibly, for a few scant moments. Not some affliction, not some chemical imbalance - but humanity - wants, needs, gone too far…

“Wait,” I insisted, heart pounding. “You never told anyone that someone did this to you. What’s her name?”

On his blank face, his mouth curled up into a grin.

I leaned forward. “Come on, she’s abandoned you, she needs to be taken into custody and treated. She’s dangerous! She could still hurt somebody! Why would you protect her now?”

He began laughing, a harsh, ironic sound. “She hasn’t abandoned me…”

I looked to my right, intending to look to Mabel for suggestions - but she was passed out, coffee dribbling down her shirt.

My body seemed to react before I consciously had any notion of my true level of danger.

It was the high squeal that alerted me, a split second before. I turned and stumbled back in one swift motion, avoiding the electroshock clamps that had been about to hit my head from behind. They sparked lethally as they touched where I had just been.

She came for me, and I shoved a food tray and stand at her, knocking the charged clamps from her hands. They snapped on the ground. She came again.

A flash of silver barely missed me, and I pushed out hard. Falling on the floor, I scrambled away as Claire lunged at me, her scalpel sticking through the middle of my left hand.

“Jesus Christ!” I remember screaming, suddenly rushing with adrenaline and red rage.

Possessed by the strength of sheer survival instinct, I pushed against the knife and her, slamming her back against the opposite wall.

I pulled back to hit her in the head - but she was already out.

I tied her up, wrapped up my hand - thankfully, not horribly injured, due to the scalpel’s sharpness - and checked on Mabel. She was alive, but drugged.

The room was in chaos, littered with blood and medical instruments.

Lying in the bed, limbless, blind, he kept crying, asking for his Claire.

I’ll admit, my lip quivered, I shook, and I couldn’t help but let some tears slide. Overwhelmed… I didn’t know what else to think or do. She’d just tried to kill me… and I couldn’t even imagine what she would have done to Mabel and I if she’d managed to drug us both and tie us up…

The coffee. She’d drugged the coffee… and I’d only avoided it because of that girl’s story…

The next hour was a blur.

I ended up in the chief of medicine’s office, filled with righteous anger.

“I want to know what’s going on here,” I demanded. “How the hell could we have missed this? How did Claire serve on this staff so long without anyone realizing? Even I…”

“What?” the chief asked, turning his head slightly. “Even you… what?”

“I’m going to call the police,” I responded, changing the topic.

He raised his lips in a subtle smile, and swept a hand over the phone. “Go ahead.”

I reached for it.

“You’re not going to call the police,” he continued. “And how do I know that?”

He waited.

“…how?” I asked.

He continued immediately, almost interrupting my single word. “Because you yourself have been engaging in obsessive behavior exactly the same as any of our patients. You stay up all night reading files, you’re convinced there’s a pattern or a conspiracy, and you’re starting to take their stories seriously without any evidence.”

I felt a pit grow in my stomach.

“The only difference between you and them,” he finished softly. “Is a label. One word - crazy - and absolutely nothing you do will be taken seriously. You will never leave here.”

His words almost got to me - almost. “That’s ridiculous. I can talk my way out of that.”

He turned in his chair halfway, looking away - contemplating. “Maybe so. You’re quite smart, I’ll give you that. But let’s take another tack - you call the police, they shut this place down, we all lose our jobs, and you never work in this industry again.”

I slammed my right fist on his desk. “I don’t care about that!”

He sighed, and then resumed smiling. “I believe you. You’re a man of principle. And you’re smart. Instead of threatening you, let me offer you something instead: if you shut this place down, you won’t have access to anymore files or patients. You’ll never figure out this pattern you’re… concerned with.”

I withdrew my bandaged hand from above the phone, drawing in an angry breath.

His smile widened. “Good boy.”

I hated him with a passion, but he was right. I wasn't about to abandon these people to whatever was going on.

Some time later, I stood outside Claire’s solitary confinement, gazing in the window. It felt surreal, seeing one of our staff now in a straightjacket herself… she begged and pleaded from the other side of the glass, promising that she would love me if I just let her out… she'd seen me looking, knew I was interested...

“It’s a strange thing, insanity,” my mentor said. Older than me, but not as old as the chief of medicine, I was his direct report - and he’d become someone I could rely on.

“What’s going on here?” I asked, feeling at the end of my rope. “Is there anything you’ve seen, noticed, suspected?”

He kept his gaze on the window into the cell. “I’ve always liked you, so I will give you some advice. I hope you take it to heart.” He turned and looked at me. “The world has nearly eight billion people in it now. On the sheer math of the thing, the math of outliers, the number of… the afflicted… is bound to increase. They’re each inventing new and more horrible ways to lose their minds as they each become outliers further and further into the black…”

He began walking, and I followed beside him.

“Meanwhile, as resources grow more scarce,” he continued. “The amount of money society is willing to dedicate to taking care of the sick shrinks. The number of sick increase, the money to take care of them decreases… you can see the problem.”

I narrowed my eyes, not entirely certain, but I let him continue speaking.

“Now, if I were a shrewd person in charge… well, let’s put it this way. Some patients are dangerous or non-functional. Some… based purely on the math of random distribution, again... some patient’s delusions are carefully stable and balanced, so much so that they are harmless… or, one could even say… helpful. I would put these patients in charge of the others.”

My sense of unease grew pronounced - my mentor rarely spoke so darkly, or so vaguely. “What are you saying? Are you saying the chief knew that Claire…?”

He held up a hand. “I’m not saying anything.”

He moved away quickly, leaving me standing there. He paused about ten feet away, but did not turn around.

“And it’s quite possible,” he added. “Just on probability, I remind you… that some patients could develop delusions that, like random molecules, could form in such a way as to be…”

“Contagious?” I asked, thinking of a virus, carefully shaped and constructed by randomness to be infectious and deadly.

“Just conjecture,” he said. “Just probability. More patients, less care, worse and worse issues… I’m just saying, be careful with how you regard the patients’ stories. There is no defense against an idea.”

I stared after him as he continued to the rest of his duties, more confused than before - but absolutely certain that something very bad was going on. Like a body left to rot and fester with untold viruses, this hospital was… what? Containment?... or… an incubator?

Either way, it was time to reconsider just how far I wanted to take this investigation…

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