Tamed by the Highlander – Heather Walker

Caitlin Anderson surveyed her surroundings with a growing frown. I so have to get out of here, she thought, and not for the first time. The room was clean, but its dust-gray theme made it seem perpetually dirty. The buzzing flicker of fluorescent lights gave everything a nightmarish quality, and the stink of disinfectant was migraineinducing strong. Others in the room sat around small, round tables. They all wore the same stormyday-colored clothes, loose robes and shirts, and pants without buttons or zippers. It was “recreation time” in the recreation room at Silver Oak Psychiatric Facility. The activity of the hour had been given to them by the new head nurse, Rory, whose distinctive tuba voice could be heard no matter where he was in the building. Currently, everyone was drawing a picture of themselves. As each individual patient made progress, they would have a timeline of their improving self-perceptions to look back on. Supposedly, anyway. On one side of Caitlin sat Harmony, smiling beatifically as she colored more red and black flames to join the hellfire engulfing what looked to be a fairly accurate rendition of everyone else at the table. Harmony’s own haloed self hovered above the flames, safe from judgment, of course. Orion, who had a problem with stabbing things, had crafted a troubling portrait of Rory’s moonround face and then impaled it with several markers. When still-relatively-newbie Riff, a heavily-medicated schizophrenic, came over to grab the brown marker away, Caitlin feared there might be some actual stabbing.

The exchange happened without a hitch, fortunately. Riff returned to his own drawing and added layers of brown, further saturating the soggy paper until he broke through and scribbled on the table underneath. Caitlin’s own piece of paper was blank. If Caitlin let herself, she could believe for a few minutes that she was still the woman she’d been before the incident—the twenty-four-year-old driven, level-headed, and optimistic owner of a dogtraining business, who lived in a nice apartment in Ann Arbor with a loving boyfriend and two dogs, his and hers. But that wasn’t who she was anymore. What remained was less sure. These days, she was a listless loser who lay in bed until the absolute last second. She ate whatever was put in front of her with apathy. She did whatever was asked of her, no matter how ridiculous the request. That was the result of being sent here by her Scottish father, after she’d moved from the States to live with him.

She assumed he meant well. One day, in a week that she couldn’t remember, she’d missed her medication. The fog had broken apart around her, giving her a glimpse of reality: This box, with its clutter of sad, broken people, was the last place she needed to be. She couldn’t get the help she needed here. So, she began skipping her medication all the time, hiding the pills under her tongue, dropping them down her sleeve. If only she had known how much worse clarity would be. In the month since then—or months? she’d lost track of time—, insomnia had taken hold of Caitlin, draining her of her last sparks of vitality. She became extremely aware of Minnie, her roommate, whose life mission was to outsmart the nurses so she could vomit up her meals. She never gave up. It was exhausting to witness.

Caitlin gave her head a rapid shake. No more of that now. She’d felt sorry for herself enough. She needed to participate in the activity or else be singled out by Rory as uncooperative. She didn’t want anyone figuring out she wasn’t doped up. I guess I’ll just draw who I used to be. She was no stranger to sketching. She picked up a blue-colored pencil and laid down some linework, then used more appropriate tones to layer in detail. To her face, with its angular jaw, deep blue eyes, button nose, and small, full lips that always curved up at the edges, she added ash-brown hair that framed it and fell arrow-straight to her shoulders. With an additional few quick flicks of her wrist, some askew strands of hair appeared, falling across one eye.

Caitlin put her pencil down and looked at the woman she used to be. She could be that again, couldn’t she? All she had to do was get out of here. She couldn’t wait to go through the normal process of evaluations and tests, as that would be torture, and it might all be for nothing if the doctors decided not to release her. If she was going to get out of here, it had to be under her own power. Someone else had done it, Marissa, and she’d been completely crazy, talking to herself all the time. The nurses had never made a formal announcement about her escape, but the way they’d beefed up security about the place said enough. Marissa had done the unthinkable—escaped, gotten out. She had actually gotten out. Caitlin could get out too. She could fix this mistake.

She just needed to sit, wait, watch, and be ready to take the opportunity when it came. She waited all day, doing whatever she was asked to do to keep her cover. Only when dinner came around did she refuse, not that her refusal was a direct act of mutiny or anything so grand. She just wasn’t eating her dinner. The bowl of noodles and vegetables looked as if Minnie had already done that for her, and then given it back. “Looks like you’re enjoying that,” Riff said. Riff typically came alive around dinnertime. He misused his clarity by sitting beside Caitlin and hitting on her, despite her straight-laced answers to whatever he said. “It’s about chuck-at-the-wall worthy,” she said. “You think?” What was it in his voice that made her uneasy? Maybe it was how unpredictable the guy was.

Only yesterday, he had chewed out the manic-depressive former high school janitor, Charlie. And last week, when Orion’s hand was mid-stab, Riff had caught it and stopped the pencil mid-air. But still. Right now, he isn’t actually considering— Riff pulled back his arm and let his bowl fly. It crashed onto a table far short of the wall, its contents slopping mostly onto Darla, the OCD hand washer. The silence echoed through the room like a ticking bomb. Darla stood up and spread out her arms, her hands shaking like she wanted to wipe off the noodles but couldn’t bear to touch the mess. Her gaze snapped around to Riff’s, terrified and furious. Some nurses noticed the tension in the room and rushed over, but it was too late. “Bastard!” Darla cried.

She snatched up a plate off the table and launched it back at Riff. Her aim was even worse than his. Nurses dove out of the way as the plate veered, frisbee-like, in their direction. Chaos erupted. Everyone leaped up, yelling and throwing whatever food or plates they had on hand. Noodles torpedoed every which way by the handfuls. Broccoli zinged through the air like bullets. Unbreakable cutlery stabbed into flesh, harpoons meeting their mark. Orion was doing all the stabbing, supplementing his ammo with stolen pencils. Harmony looked like Revelations was finally at hand, her arms pinwheeling as she launched whatever came into her grasp.

At the same time, Minnie was slinging a half-eaten cookie at an oncoming nurse. Charlie was laughing, shaking his head. And Caitlin was just watching, while time ran down and more nurses arrived to help. Security swiftly followed up and a battle for control ensued. But still, it was mostly chaos, beautiful chaos full of possibilities. Caitlin retreated, a step at a time, to the doorway, then backed through it and around the corner. She walked slowly, casually, as if she had every right to be in the hallway at that time. Security guards and doctors sprinted past, paying no attention to her, their focus solely on the recreation room. She made it to her room and broke into a dash, bounding across the floor to get to the cubby with her belongings. She threw clothes and books aside until she saw the clear, crinkled surface of a plastic baggie.

She yanked it out and ripped the baggie open, and a necklace dropped into her hand. She had been allowed to keep the heirloom with her, as it was too delicate and fine to be turned into a weapon against herself or others. She hadn’t worn it anyway, afraid of someone acting out toward her and breaking it. At least I don’t have to worry about that anymore. Caitlin put on the necklace. The round charm, the size and shape of a single jingle bell, nestled between her breasts. There wasn’t anything else that she wanted to take with her, so she walked out of the room without looking back and followed signs meant for visitors to get to the front door. Soon enough, she was sauntering out the now unguarded front doors, cool as a cucumber, hardly daring to believe what she was doing. Almost there. Almost free.

But the secretary behind the reception desk must not have been able to believe it either as she yelled, “Hey! You can’t leave!” Caitlin stilled for a second, before it occurred to her that this was her cue to run. Go! Run she did, flinging out her legs as fast as they would take her. Her inhales and exhales were hasty, though still enough for that unmistakable grassy freshness of the outdoors to reach her, bringing her back to her runs with her dog, Bailey. Caitlin shook her head. She had to focus—especially since noticing that there were now two beefy nurses following her at a clip. But she was running straight into the Scottish Highlands, and that wasn’t going to cut it. She needed an actual plan. But what plan was she supposed to come up with? Ahead of her, there were only hills, hills, and more hills. The road to civilization was in the opposite direction, and it wasn’t like she could turn back now. C’mon, you can do this.

Think! Telltale pains shot up her calves, letting her know she wouldn’t be able to keep this up for much longer. Her months in Silver Oak hadn’t been spent keeping herself in shape, funnily enough. The river came upon her suddenly. One minute Caitlin was racing down another hill, and the next, she was two steps away from a wide, deep snake of water. Caitlin paused. “Shit.” Shit was right. It wasn’t like she could just turn around or run along the riverbank. A quick look back confirmed it. The nurses were at the top of the hill, descending upon her.

One fiddled with something while running, and she was pretty sure it was a syringe. No way are they sticking me with that. Over my dead body. Steeling herself, Caitlin threw herself into the water. All the breath flew out of her lungs at the shock of the coldness. She froze up, her muscles cramping. Icy water splashed into her open mouth. She coughed and choked, and her arms thrashed out of their own accord. The current was strong, but so was she. Finally, her lifeguard qualification was doing its job.

She could get to the other side, and the nurses wouldn’t dare try to follow her. She kicked out, swimming at a gradual slant toward the opposite bank. The current did most of the work. All she had to do was keep her head above water. The cries of the nurses behind her were drowned out by the roar of the river, and then they faded out entirely as she left them far behind. Caitlin’s hopes soared. She struck out, laughing between gulping rasps of breath… Until a swift swirl of water swept around her, like the tentacle of some underwater monster. A wave struck her in the face, and then it knocked her over, sent her spinning. She screamed. Another wave hit her.

A surging current took hold of her legs, dragged her down. She thrashed, struggled her way back up to the surface. Her strength waned. She went under again. She opened her eyes, saw a world of ripples, silver, and black. She hit the bottom of the riverbed and thrust against it. Breaking the surface again, she sucked in a breath, and that was when she saw the boulder jutting out of the middle of the river. She didn’t have time to react. She hit it with her shoulder, and the current sent her spinning, before she cracked the side of her head against a jagged protrusion of stone. The impact was complete.

Blackness swamped over her, devouring her. In the middle of the darkness was a glow, and it was golden, and it reminded her of Bailey, from a time when everything had been better. The glow spread, mingled with the dark. She fell sideways into it, and then she was gone.

.

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