Travis Chase curled up on the narrow bed, listening to the pounding of his heart. Midnight had come and gone. The long stretch before dawn was always the worst, when the pathetic state of his life was revealed to him with merciless clarity. Nurses came and went like creeping shadows, the drugs they dispensed barely sufficient to numb the pain that lurked inside him. He turned over, trying for a more comfortable position, but true horror began when his flesh started to twitch as if things were crawling beneath his skin.
The bugs were back!
Travis tried not to panic. He remembered Dr. Patel telling him there were no bugs. It was all in his imagination, a predictable reaction to the methamphetamine that coursed through his system like a runaway train. But Travis knew otherwise. If there were no bugs, then why was his flesh so scabby and raw?
The Behavioral Health Unit was located on the second floor of county hospital. Staff and patients alike referred to it as Two North. The ward was crowded as always, filled to overflowing with humanity on the edge. Travis and about twenty other patients had been relegated to cots in the hallway. Institutional lighting gave everything a faint greenish tinge as though they were underwater. At night, strange pockets of darkness pooled in the corners. If Travis stared long enough, he could see shadows populating that darkness. Sometimes he saw eyes watching him.
Travis forced himself to look away. His jagged fingernails found an old wound on his forearm and he dug in with a sense of familiarity that was almost pleasant. Scratching, he peered down the corridor at the inventory of patients. Bed after bed after bed, reaching into infinity like some bizarre exercise in perspective. Huddled on each bed was a human form. Most were in a drugged sleep, though some—like Travis—lay awake with nothing but their tortured souls for company.
In the next bed was Leo. Rumor had it he was a veteran with tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Whatever his previous incarnation, Leo now looked and smelled like a mangy African lion. He had an enormous mane of matted, tawny hair and a toothy grin. Cruising on a potent blend of Haldol and Ativan—what the staff called a B52 bomber—Leo appeared to be feeling no pain. He lay unmoving, his breaths alternating between thunderous snores and long, eerie pauses. Each snore was like a death rattle and the silence that followed fooled Travis every time. Just when he thought Leo was dead for sure, the lion snored again.
Travis stretched out beneath the thin blanket. His feet stuck out the ends. They were big feet, size thirteen, with thick grey toenails. The pajama pants reached only to his shins. Institutional fabric, faded from countless washings. The pants might have had holes but they were clean holes. The baggy white T-shirt had clothed countless vagrants before him. Travis might even have worn this same shirt before. He was a frequent flyer, both here and at another hospital in San Diego.
Unable to sleep, Travis lay on his left side, the arm that itched the worst trapped underneath him. From this angle he could see the nurses’ station at the far end of the corridor. They locked themselves in behind shatterproof glass and a heavy steel door. Used to be a wooden door until somebody broke it down. Not a very big somebody, either. But strong. Drugs made you strong. Being crazy made you stronger.
An eruption of violence was always impressive. Like today. A new patient on the ward. Travis had watched in stupefied fascination as a trio of deputies struggled to control the prisoner. They might have had a hold of a demon. Tattered clothing flapped like remnants from the grave. Bony white hands writhed inside handcuffs, still trying to grab, pincerlike. Creepiest of all, there was no face. Just a black mesh hood that was meant to keep the prisoner from spitting. From beneath the hood came a savage snarling, audible even above the noise of the scuffle.
“Grab a hold of his legs, get his legs!”
“Look out! He’s gonna bite right through that hood!”
“Doc! We need a shot NOW!”
“Gonna Tase his ass.”
They finally got the prisoner into Room 9, one of the high security rooms at the end of the hall. The room was already occupied by a belligerent drunk. As the drunk was being relocated to a hallway cot, he seemed shocked into sobriety at the sight of the raving, hooded thing being dragged inside.
Travis knew Room 9. Reserved for the craziest of the crazy. Not a padded cell. Oh, no. Room 9 had a plastic mattress inside a long, coffin-like box that was bolted to the floor. The box had leather shackles for the arms and legs, what the staff casually referred to as four-point restraints. The patient was strapped down—by however many people it took do that—and given a B52 bomber. Then the patient was left in there to sweat it out, checked on repeatedly, and bombed as often as necessary. After ten hours or twelve hours or twenty hours, that patient had pretty much calmed down. This had been done to Travis on two different occasions. He had never been as out of control as that guy, though.
Was it just today that the hooded man was brought in? Travis tried to think. Maybe it had been yesterday. His sense of time was all screwed up. Minutes seemed to drag on forever, days and weeks went by in a blur. He blinked some more, peered down the corridor. Now it looked like the heavy steel door to the nurses’ station was easing open. Was he dreaming? Maybe not. Somebody was coming out. Nurse Jordan. She was young, still new. Afraid of her charges, even though there was a cop on duty all the time. Tonight was one of the bigger deputies, six foot plus, with arms like hambones. Yet the guy squeaked like a little mouse when he walked because of his heavy leather duty belt.
Nurse Jordan was quiet, tentative. Her pockets were full of drugs. She floated along the patients’ corridor like the sandman, making sure that all the good little boys and girls were asleep. Travis watched through slitted eyes as the nurse crept toward him. He could tell she was watching him closely, trying to see if he meant trouble. What would happen when she found out he was awake? The suspense was almost unbearable. Travis tensed, got ready to bolt.
“Deputy Castillo?” Nurse Jordan called in her high-pitched voice. “I need you.”
Squeak, squeak. Here came the deputy. His voice was heavy and dark, like coal dust. “Everything okay here?”
The nurse slipped a hand into her pocket. “Everything is just fine. Isn’t that right, Travis?”
The deputy loomed over Travis, his mammoth presence overwhelming. Knowing it was hopeless, Travis got passive. He accepted the small white pill Nurse Jordan gave him. Soon he would be floating on a vast black ocean where nothing mattered. “You’re getting out tomorrow,” he heard her say. “Your three-day hold is up. We’re not going to keep you.”
Had it been three days already? Travis blinked. Had it been only three days? He had lost track either way. Not that it really mattered, with no home and no job. What was he going to do when they let him out? He had no idea.
The deputy sneered down at him. “You lucked out, Travis. You didn’t hurt anybody. This time.”
Travis tried to look repentant. He had been off his rocker but not anymore. Got that meth right out of his system and now he was ready to rock ‘n’ roll. “I’m gonna stay clean,” he told them. “I swear.”
“That’s what we like to hear.” Nurse Jordan offered a fleeting smile. “I can give you a list of resources—”
Her features froze as a bone-chilling howl came from the far end of the corridor.
“Holy crap!” the deputy cried.
The howl came again, louder. Travis realized the sound was coming from Room 9.
“He’s awake,” the deputy said. The coal-dust voice was shaky.
“Oh my God,” Nurse Jordan whispered. “I’ll call Dr. Patel.”
The two of them retreated down the hallway. Travis watched them flee. The nurse struggled to open the massive steel door and then was gone, as if she had escaped into another dimension. The deputy continued on to Room 9. He took up a position just outside the door, apparently not eager to venture inside.
The desolate and terrible sound swept through Two North like an evil wind, chilling everything it touched. Travis felt the howling vibrations rise inside of him as if he were being pushed toward some unimaginable precipice, at the edge of which waited a catastrophic fall. The rest of the ward was eerily silent. Usually when one of the patients freaked out, all of them freaked out. Shrieking, gibbering, hysterical laughter—whatever their personal preference for getting their crazy on. But it was as if every patient on the ward was under a spell and could do no more than listen. Outside Room 9, the deputy’s attempts at authority sounded weak and ineffectual.
“Hey, buddy. You need to calm down.”
“The Doc is coming with a shot, gonna get you all fixed up.”
“You got to calm down right now!”
But the howling just went on and on.
Then a new sound came, a kind of deep growling laughter. In the next bed, Leo was awake and propped on one gnarled elbow. The tawny hair was more matted than ever. His strange eyes gleamed in the darkness as Leo stared in the direction of the high security room. Then his gaze flicked to Travis, who flinched.
“Listen to that,” Leo grinned. His teeth were sharp. “Party in Room 9.”
“Party, yeah.” Travis felt the little white pill beginning to do its job, softening the fabric of reality until it began to unravel like gauze.
“I know what he’s on,” Leo continued, evidently in the mood for a chat. “I can just guess. I been hearing things. Rumors and such.”
“Yeah? Like what?” Travis was curious. He forced himself to look at Leo despite the two-ton weight on his eyelids.
“Dude must’ve scored some Primal. Ever hear of it? Supposed to be some killer shit. Makes crystal meth look like baby powder.”
With a renewed sense of interest, Travis squinted down the hall. There was a swarm of activity around Room 9. Multiple deputies, as if the first one had cloned himself. Numerous white-clad medical personnel. He could dimly hear panicky broadcasts over the PA system. The howling kept getting louder.
Travis managed to ask the all-important question. “So who’s holding?”
Leo shrugged and the tawny mane rustled. “I been trying to GPS that myself. Dude’s local, is what I hear. Cooks every batch himself. This shit is as pure as it gets.”
Another particularly agonized howl came from down the hall.
Leo grinned again. “Only thing is, coming down’s a bitch.”
Travis gave a sleepy nod. Coming down was part of the package and had never deterred him before. He had vowed never to wind up in Room 9 again, either. But if this howling dude was willing to go through that kind of withdrawal, couldn’t you just imagine how great the high would have to be?
It would have to be frigging amazing.