I'm on the third floor of the Harris County Psychiatric Center and I'm fairly certain I'm starving to death. The ward smells like disinfectant, bleach, and other smells, warm and human, the sharp tang of sweat and the cabbage-like odor of human gas. The orderlies want to force a tube in me because I won’t eat. I won’t eat because they refuse to bring lunch into my room and I won’t leave my bed, not even for food. I can hear the pained squeak of the food cart as it rolls into the day room and it sounds exactly like the noise a mouse must make when it’s being crushed under a boot.
They don't bring lunch into my room, but it would be so easy if they did. It would only mean a few more steps for one of those sad-eyed nurses. They could slip one the thick, plastic trays off the food cart rack and bring it to me in bed. I might be more willing if they did that. I might make more of an effort.
I won't eat in the day room. I think I'd rather die than try that ever again. I can’t be around the other patients. I don't give a damn what anyone says, madness is contagious. I didn't exactly end up here on a winning streak, but I had at least some marbles left rolling around in my head. Now I don't even know what day it is or how long I've been here. A week? Two? I'm as fucked up as I've ever been and that's really saying something.
The one time I tried to eat in the day room was a complete disaster. I sat down next to a young kid with ashy skin and hair the color of creosote. He had these scars all over his body. They rose a half inch from the dark skin on his arms, pink as worms and just as thick. He told me he was being kept there against his will because they wanted to download his consciousness into some enormous mainframe computer that was kept under the city and guarded by government spooks. He said we weren't really in a mental hospital. It was actually a factory. We weren't crazy, none of us were. He explained how we’d each been specially selected. We patients, each of us, had a particular brain pattern that was enormously valuable for reasons he would not, or could not, go into. I nodded my head as he talked, tried my best to be polite. On one level I recognized that he was nuttier than squirrel shit. On another, deeper level, I felt a muffled panic flash through my medicated blood, the half-submerged fear that what he was saying might actually be true.
We tucked into our meal and were eating in silence when he suddenly dropped his plastic spork and spit out a mouthful of partially chewed muck. He pushed his tray away, turned to me, and whispered: "Don't eat the food today. It's in the food. That's how they're doing it."
I chewed slowly, his face hovered in my field of vision like the vestiges of a nightmare after waking. I was unsure how to answer him, unsure I should even bother. He pulled a strange little smile across his face, a kind of aw shucks sheepish grin that one might expect to see on a child caught stealing from the cookie jar. It was an odd smile, incongruent with everything he’d just said to me, but it felt nice to be smiled at, so I instinctively smiled back and his grin disappeared, replaced by a serious look.
"Don't eat the food," he said again, then jammed two scarred fingers down his own throat, bringing up a geyser of carton milk and macaroni that shot across my own food tray. My hands and arms were bathed in his warm, sticky vomit. The smell was something between a compost heap and rotting cheese. I got up from the table without saying a word and walked to the shower. I haven’t eaten in the day room again. Honestly, I don't think I've eaten anything since. Not a thing. Nothing has entered my stomach besides decaf coffee (the only kind they allow us) and apple juice that they bring for us at night in little wax paper cups.
I can still smell the acidic tang of his puke. It lingers under my nails and in my hair. I wash and wash but there's no getting rid of his stink. The shampoo here comes in little single-serving plastic packets like the kind you squirt ketchup out of at burger joints. It would take me about a hundred of them to take a proper shower and we only get two packets a day.
I only leave my room when it’s time for meds. We have to take them if we ever hope to get out of here. I don't know what they’re giving me but there's about six different pills in the little white Dixie cup the nurse hands me, all oval-shaped and brightly colored like trick-or-treat candy.
My room here is like any hospital room only without the machines. Nothing hisses or whirrs in the night. At night the ward is quiet. Quiet, besides the sound of blood running through my skull and Andre’s snoring. Andre is the young guy they've put in here as my roommate. I like Andre alright because he doesn't talk. He just sleeps and snores. Every now and then he rips a thunderclap fart that sounds like linoleum cracking, but at least he doesn't talk.
The thing of it is, I really am getting pretty damn hungry. Last night that hard-faced nurse with hair like scorched brillo told me that if I didn't eat she'd put the tube in me. They would make me eat. They could do that, she explained, as a last resort. She was trying to scare me, but I don't scare easy. She told me she’s giving me one more day to get out of bed and eat something. She's on Andre's case too since he won't eat or get out of bed either and it's clear she blames me. She tells me he isn't eating because I've set a bad example. I tell her no, Andre's alright. He doesn't talk. I like Andre.
They've taken the shoelaces out of my oxblood red Doc Martens. Suicide risk. There is something humorous about the way they yawn open at the foot of my bed, like funny little mouths with great lolling tongues sticking out, mocking me for all my failures. They took my belt too, but of course I expected that. Then they took my clothes, even my silver hoop earring, anything that could be used to cause harm, and replaced them with pale blue scrubs that feel like sandpaper against my skin. They seem to be made out of the same material as those bibs they give you at the dentist's office. I can feel the fabric rubbing me raw, scraping away everything that once was.
The days crawl through me like undigested food. They enter and escape, only slightly changed, their rough edges smoothed by the acid burn of lunatic laughter and incessant screaming. Despite that, there’s something almost peaceful about the passing of time in this place. It moves in all directions, if I let it. I've seen things here that no one would believe, things like men whose faces are just the same as the back of their heads and whose arms are snakes that sing with the most beautiful voices, like a church choir. I have come to understand that these are the many voices of God.
When I wake up I can feel it inside of me. It's like an arm has been pushed down my throat. My jaw aches from being forced open. My lips kiss the feeding tube, dry and cracked as the vinyl seats on the day room couch. The pain throbs in time with my heartbeat. I feel a fist close inside my stomach, filling me up. I'm in a different room now, larger than my room in the ward and cold as a razor. The air smells clean. This room does hiss and whirr. It breathes and it chitters. The hard-faced nurse with the brillo hair is sitting next to me, but she doesn't seem quite so hard anymore. There is a softness glowing over her. I can't turn my head to fully look, but I know that if I could I would see tears rolling down her cheeks. I feel her hand on mine and it is warm and slightly moist. I close my fingers around hers. Maybe I'll cry too. Maybe that would be worth a try.
Christopher Miguel Flakus is a poet and writer living in Houston, Texas. He has published work in The Huffington Post, Akashic Books: Mondays are Murder Noir Series, Outlaw Poetry, Glass Mountain Magazine, In Recovery Magazine, Glass Poetry, Black Heart Magazine, and elsewhere. In 2017 he was awarded the Fabian Worsham Prize for fiction. He was one of the editors responsible for The University of Houston-Downtown’s literary magazine, The Bayou Review, during their special prison issue which focused on the writings of authors serving sentences in Texas prisons. He is the author of the chapbooks Bear Down Into Hell With Me (As Only a True Friend Would), and Thirst, and Other Poems through Iron Lung Press, as well as the chapbooks Christiana, and Dialogos: Mexico City Poems from Analog Submission Press. Christopher was the recipient of an Inprint C. Glenn Cambor Fellowship in August 2019. He is the co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Defunkt Magazine, a literary magazine focused on outsider writing and art. Christopher is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Houston. He grew up in Mexico City and writes in both English and Spanish.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.