School: Divide County High School, Crosby ND
Educator: Richard Norton
AWARD: Silver Key, Flash Fiction
Norman awoke to a dank, musty smell that invaded his nostrils. His arms and chest felt overly warm and he could hardly move them, as if he were bundled tightly under several sheets. It was no pile of blankets, however. He could tell that without having to open his eyes. Whatever it was that held him so tightly was not nearly soft enough, or comforting enough, to be blankets. And his bedroom, his apartment, had never smelled so repugnant.
Questions raced through his head at break-neck speed.
Why had he been sleeping sitting up? What was so hard and cold against the back and side of hishead? Why was everything so unnervingly and absolutely dead silent? Where was the tick-tock-tick-ing of that annoying wall clock that hung above the stove in his kitchen? Where were the loud, obnoxious sounds of the traffic that rose from the busy streets below his apartment building? Where was the dripping of water into porcelain sink from the old, broken faucet in his bathroom? Why wasn’t his elderly neighbor’s mangy, old cat sitting outside on the living room windowsill, pawing and scratching and meowing that god-awful racket it called a meow as it tried to get in?
He tried to calm himself. He couldn’t think clearly if his mind was in such a frantic sorts. When he had somewhat succeeded, he tried to think. Tried to force his disobedient eyes to open so that he could see just where in the world he was. Why couldn’t he open his eyes? Why couldn’t he remember anything?
Breathe, he told himself.
He remembered leaving home that morning. Was it actually this morning though? He couldn’t be sure. After leaving, he had made his way to a buddy of his’ place. He had made plans several weeks prior to meet up with a group of his friends. What had happened after that? His memory from there was like a blank piece of paper. Maybe, he figured, he had gone with his buddies and now they were just playing some kind of joke on him.
Suddenly he felt as if the weight that had been keeping his eyes shut had finally been lifted. Cautiously, he squinted open his eyes expecting a blinding light to immediately assault his pupils, but everything was pitch black. He lifted his head from what might have been a wall, hoping to find a source of light. As if sensing the motion, a dim light from overhead turned on. He flinched, not really because the light was very bright, but because it had been completely unexpected.
When his eyes had adjusted enough to allow him to see, he took a look around. He was in a small room that couldn’t have been more than ten or twelve feet across in every direction. A metal door, heavy looking and rather imposing, was framed into the wall directly across from him. A small, rectangle held a thinner piece of metal that he assumed could slide open.
Remembering his inability to mobilize his arms, he diverted his eyes downward at himself. His entire upper body was enclosed in a thick, dirty white fabric that was tied tightly to his waist. The end of the rope was tied to a horizontal pole beside him, preventing him from being able to stand.
For a moment, Norman couldn’t process what it was that held him so confined. Then he realized he had seen something like this before, though it had not been on him. He had seen straitjackets on television and in photographs of other people. People who were deemed extremely dangerous and needed to be held securely. People who had lost their minds and had to be kept in psychiatric hospitals, mental hospitals.
Why was he in a straitjacket though? He was not a killer, and he most definitely was not insane. He would surely know if he was.
Suddenly somebody starts to scream. It was very loud, sounding as if it were coming from inside his room, but a quick second glance around confirmed that he was indeed alone.
Where was the screaming coming from then? Perhaps the sliding metal in the door was thinner than he had thought.
It was starting to hurt his head, making him feel lightheaded. Black spots began to dot his vision. Why hasn’t it stopped yet? Doesn’t this person need to breathe? He wants to scream back at them, to yell at them to stop, but he can’t seem to get a single word out. He wishes he could cover his ears, but the straitjacket keeps his arms captive.
Maybe he will go crazy after all.
On the other side of the psychiatric hospital, an older doctor by the name of Ben Hudson and his assistant stood observing a screen displaying a man in his late thirties.
“Norman Mills,” the doctor said to the young woman beside him. She had only recently been employed. “He is one of our more... disturbed patients.” She nodded expectantly, waiting for an explanation.
“Norman has been a patient here for several years,” the man continued. “However, he often does not remember where he is and why he was brought here. That seems to be the case today as well.” Dr. Hudson turned around to grab a clipboard. He and his assistant continued to observe the actions of the man on the screen before them, screaming at nothing.