In the Water
by Katherine Mankiller
Yvonne looked up from her monitor, the beads in her cornrows clattering as Roger walked into her office.
Roger sat in the dark wooden chair opposite her desk. “Weren’t you assigned Alice van Buuren?”
“Oh, no you don’t,” Yvonne said. “You can’t have her.” Yvonne hadn’t been assigned Alice; she’d requested her. Alice was probably the only murder victim’s wife she would ever meet. They hadn’t even put the murder in the papers. Maybe they thought there’d be a panic.
“Please,” Roger said. “I’m just trying to save you some trouble. I’ve already spoken to her, and…”
Yvonne crossed her arms and glared. “Wouldn’t you raise hell if I talked to one of your patients behind your back?”
“She’s refusing modern therapy. What are you going to do, use the old-fashioned techniques your grandmother used?”
Roger had a lot of nerve mentioning Grandma. Yvonne glanced at the photo on the corner of her desk. Grandma Jackson had been a big woman, with braids down to her hips and skin like chocolate. Grandma Jackson smiled back at the camera, all reassuring good nature.
Roger said, “I think we should just wipe her and have done with it.”
“Too bad she’s not your patient,” Yvonne said.
“I could take her away from you, you know.”
“Don’t you dare!”
There was an awkward silence.
“It’ll be less confusing for her if I come with you,” Roger said. “Just to hand her off to you. You understand.”
“Fine,” Yvonne said. “Whatever.”
“Good girl,” Roger said, and Yvonne gritted her teeth. “Room 314.” He stood. “Let’s go.”
“Now?” Yvonne said. She picked up her coffee and almost took a sip, then put it down again, making a face. It was cold, and it had been so bitter hot that she’d taken caffeine pills with orange juice instead.
Roger snorted. “That bad?”
Roger clearly wasn’t going anywhere, so Yvonne stood, picked up her jacket, and followed Roger out of her office. The halls were white to the point of being blinding after her calm, earth-toned office, and reeked of disinfectant.
They went upstairs and over to room 314. Roger placed his hand on the identification plate and the door slid open.
“Hello, Alice,” Roger said.
The patient, a skinny, pale woman with brown hair, backed away from Roger. She reminded Yvonne of someone, although she couldn’t put her finger on whom.
The patient fell into a seated position on the bed, mouth open, staring at Yvonne. Before Yvonne could say anything, Roger said, “This is Doctor Jackson. Doctor Jackson, this is Alice.”
“We’re not going to hurt you,” Yvonne said.
The patient–Alice–stared at Yvonne for a moment, then shut her mouth. She shot Roger a defiant look.
“I’ll just leave you to it,” Roger said, and left.
“Hello, Alice,” Yvonne said. “You can call me Yvonne if you prefer.”
“We’ve met,” Alice said. It wasn’t a question.
Alice really did look familiar. “Refresh my memory?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Alice said and looked away.
There was an uncomfortable silence.
Yvonne said, “Dr. Hill said you’re refusing drug therapy.”
“I had a negative reaction once,” Alice said.
“Really?” Yvonne said. “Usually that’s associated with an interaction with an unapproved drug. You should be fine this time; your blood tests came back clean.”
“I wasn’t on anything then, either,” Alice said.
“That’s very unusual,” Yvonne said.
Alice shrugged. “Just weird, I guess.”
“He also said you object to memory modification.”
Alice started to cry.
For a moment Yvonne just wanted to hug Alice and let her cry, but negative emotions caused crime. It wasn’t right to encourage Alice to carry on. “You won’t forget your marriage. We’ll just erase the trauma of his murder. We can come up with a cover story for why he’s gone together–a heart attack, perhaps–and then give you some antidepressants and send you on your way.”
“I’m sorry,” Alice said, and dried her eyes, sniffling. “It just feels like forgetting so soon would be wrong. I don’t want to forget. I loved him.”
“You won’t forget. You just won’t be upset.”
“Which feels wrong.”
“Well,” Yvonne said, “you’re not a danger to yourself or others, so I won’t make you do anything you don’t want to do. But we are going to keep you for observation.”
“All right,” Alice said.
Yvonne patted Alice on the shoulder. It seemed to make Alice nervous, so she decided not to do that again. “Get a good night’s sleep. Let me know if you need something to help you rest.”
“I’m fine,” Alice said, although she didn’t look fine at all.
Yvonne left and locked the door behind her, then clocked out and walked to the train station. The art display on the street corner was a holographic image of large fish swimming in a tank, which she always felt was very soothing, and very appropriate to a hospital. Across the street, there was an escalator down to MARTA II, the commuter train.
The sun was setting, and the streetlights all up and down the street lit up in random pastel colors. The crosswalk signal chimed, and she crossed the street and took the escalator down to the commuter train, where most people were reading or sitting quietly. Some of them looked up and smiled; she smiled back. The station was decorated with statuary from the old days of Atlanta, some of the few architectural pieces that survived the civil war. Life had been so violent then, back before modern Psychiatry.
The train arrived, and she found a seat and pulled out her latest issue of Psychopharmacology Journal. She’d barely finished the first article when she realized she was almost at her stop, so she put the journal away and looked around. Out the window, they were passing an old graveyard with Victorian monuments of stone angels; Yvonne liked to jog there in the mornings. Grandma Jackson was buried there.
The train pulled to a stop, and Yvonne got off and walked the four blocks to her house. It was dark now, but the city provided excellent lighting. She unlocked the door, went inside, and locked the door again. Locks on doors were really a throwback to her mother’s time; one of these days she was going to decide it was just too silly and stop locking her door. Grandma always had a big key ring that Yvonne had played with as a child; Yvonne remembered the jangly noise and the metallic taste from chewing on them.
The computer and video were new, of course, but a lot of the furniture was old–her grandmother’s. There was a Persian rug, the kind you couldn’t get any more, and a grandfather clock, and books. Roger had told her to throw it all out. He said it was morbid, that it was holding her back, that she needed more therapy to get over Grandma’s death. Asshole. She couldn’t wait for him to retire.
On the contrary, she thought her house was just about perfect. The only thing missing was another person. Yvonne was so busy that it didn’t leave much time for a social life. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had friends over. The truth was that she was lonely, and she couldn’t even figure out why she wasn’t doing anything about it.
She went into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of water. There was something in the smell she didn’t like–something chemical–so she poured it out and got herself some milk instead.
Yvonne pulled one of Grandma’s old Psychology texts off the bookshelf. She put on her nightgown and went to read in bed. After a couple of hours, she took a Somnalix with a glass of warm milk and turned off the light.
She dreamed she and Alice were running away from some kind of monster–something out of the cheesy old horror movies her mother used to watch. She woke up in a cold sweat and swallowed a Valium dry, then went back to bed.
“You want to talk about it?” Yvonne asked Alice.
Alice shook her head. Her hair looked very dark against the stark white of the room and her hospital gown.
“Will you at least tell me how you’re feeling this morning?”
Alice sighed. “I’m all right, how are you?”
“I’m good. I had a nice run this morning,” Yvonne said. “You ever run?”
Alice shook her head. “I don’t have the skin for outdoor exercise. I’ve already had one growth removed.”
“I can get you some gym time, if you’d like,” Yvonne said.
“Exercise is therapeutic,” Yvonne said. “No one would object to my arranging something therapeutic for a patient.”
“Thank you,” Alice said. “I’d like that.”
“You know,” Yvonne said, “if you’re not willing to take pharmacological treatment, you really should talk.”
“You wouldn’t believe me,” Alice said.
Alice looked at her, and Yvonne suspected she was considering whether she wanted to talk or not. “What made you decide to become a Psychiatrist?”
“My grandmother,” Yvonne said, and smiled. “She was a Psychiatrist, too. She helped a lot of people. When I was little, I wanted to be just like her.”
Alice smiled. “Where is she now?”
“Dead,” Yvonne said. “Heart attack.”
They looked at each other for a moment, in an awkward silence.
“We’re supposed to be talking about you, not me,” Yvonne said.
Alice looked at her for a long time. Finally, she said, “Peter had an after-hours consultation with Dr. Hill,” she said. “If you look at his records, you might get some insights.”
“I’ll do that,” Yvonne said. “Thank you. I’ll go arrange that gym time now.”
“Thank you,” Alice said.
Yvonne left, and told Carmen, the administrative assistant, to arrange some gym time for Alice. Then she went into her office and called up the records for Alice’s late husband, Peter Van Buuren.
Which were locked, by Dr. Roger Hill.
“I’m so sorry,” Roger said. Roger’s office was twice the size of hers and had a view overlooking Grady Hospital and the Carter tower. “I can’t give you those records. I was doing confidential research for MacPherson Forrester Long.”
“He was a product tester?”
“It would be inappropriate for me to answer that,” Roger said.
It was also inappropriate for Roger to do product testing at the hospital, and she’d love to tell him so. Unfortunately, the person she would report improprieties to was Roger. “I certainly don’t want to put you in an uncomfortable position,” she said.
“I appreciate that,” he answered.
Yvonne left before she said something unfortunate. Maybe she’d take a Serenitor to calm down. She stopped at the water cooler for something to wash it down with and nearly gagged. It tasted like rot, like death, and her throat closed up in protest before she could swallow. She spat the water back into the cup and tossed it into the wastebasket. Her stomach clenched, and she felt gorge rising in her throat.
She said told Carmen she wasn’t feeling well and walked out the front door. She’d just go to bed early.
Somehow, she knew, even in her dream, that she was in some kind of government facility. It was dark and dingy, rather than white and well-lit like the hospital. There were two armed men in police uniforms there, and Roger, and Alice, and a man–somehow she knew it was Peter van Buuren.
The man’s head was strapped into a wave regulator; he was about to be wiped. The armed men were pointing their guns at Yvonne and Alice.
“Tell me how to find the rest of your cell,” Roger said.
“Up yours,” Peter said.
Roger crossed his arms and glared. “You don’t even care about the danger that you’re putting your wife in, do you? She’s the one who’d suffer, not you.”
“I can speak for myself,” Alice said, from behind Yvonne. “It’s not worth it.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Roger said. He took a gun away from one of the policemen and pointed it at Alice. “Is it worth it? Is it really?”
“Leave her alone!” Peter shouted.
“You won’t hurt her,” Yvonne said. “You’re a doctor.”
Roger looked at Yvonne for a moment, then walked back towards Peter. Alice made a breathy, relieved noise.
Roger pointed the gun at Peter’s head. “Talk to me, Alice,” Roger said.
Alice hid her face in Yvonne’s back. There was a long silence.
Roger looked down at Peter, his face gentle. “I had a wife once,” he said, and pulled the trigger.
Alice screamed. Yvonne wanted to scream, but couldn’t. She was frozen, filled with a sense of horrible recognition. The smell of gunpowder, the metallic scent of blood thick enough that she could almost taste it–all familiar.
Roger looked over at Yvonne. “You of all people should understand.”
Yvonne–fully awake–sat up in bed and lunged for the light, shaking. She reached into the nightstand drawer and took a couple of tranquilizers.
She had a strong sense that Peter and Alice had been here, in her house. She could almost see Alice laughing.
She walked into the living room and had a sense that Peter and Alice had sat there, on her sofa. Peter had been serious, leaning forward, talking, and Alice had stirred her drink absently with her straw. Had she kissed Alice in the kitchen with Peter in the other room?
And then she remembered. Grandma. Lying on the Persian rug, bleeding, dead. No.
Yvonne knelt and looked at the carpet where she thought Grandma had lain. She didn’t see anything.
She pulled back the carpet, and there, underneath, the wood was stained, right where she thought the blood should be.
“I’m sorry, Grandma,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
She got dressed.
There was a hidden staff entrance to the hospital. It was always disconcerting to walk through the fish and water hologram, but there it was–the door. The fish seemed menacing somehow, even though they weren’t real. She felt like they were lunging at her.
She went upstairs, up the back stairs, and went into Alice’s room, using her emergency key rather than the hand plate. Alice was curled up in the fetal position on the bed and started when Yvonne came in. Yvonne put her finger over her lips, then took Alice’s hand. Alice stood, and Yvonne led her to the door.
Yvonne leaned against the door, listening. Everything seemed quiet, so she opened the door and looked both ways. Clear. She led Alice down the back stairs, out the door, and into the fish hologram.
She looked over at Alice, who was wearing a white hospital gown and had bare feet. The holographic fish swam over and through Alice’s body, and the holographic water cast strange patterns on her pale face.
“I think I remember you,” Yvonne said.
Alice’s lower lip trembled. Yvonne grabbed her hand and pulled her down an alley towards a cab.
The cabbie gave them a long, suspicious look, lingering on Alice’s hospital gown and bare feet.
“1343 16th Street,” Alice said.
Yvonne realized she was still holding Alice’s hand. She didn’t want to let go, so she didn’t.
The cabbie kept giving them long looks in the mirror, but for the most part he kept his eyes on the road. When they arrived, Yvonne paid and gave him a huge tip, which she hoped would help him mind his own business.
The house was a small, modest home with a large, overgrown vegetable garden in the front yard. Alice led Yvonne up the sidewalk to the front door and opened it. Yvonne reflected with amusement that her locking habit made her more eccentric than an escaped mental patient.
Alice and Yvonne stepped inside, and Alice shut the door and led Yvonne back to the bedroom. She then extricated her hand from Yvonne’s.
“Sorry,” Yvonne said.
Alice just smiled and opened drawers, pulling out a change of clothing.
“I think I remember your husband’s murder,” Yvonne said.
Alice froze for a moment, then returned to removing clothes from her chest of drawers. “Government drugs aren’t voluntary. They’re in the water.” Alice changed clothes, pulling off the hospital gown and putting on nondescript casual pants and a shirt. She sat on the bed and pulled on shoes and socks.
“Why would the government need to drug us?” Yvonne said. “We’ve eliminated crime!” Then she put her hand over her mouth. She felt a sense of wrongness that she would say that, and it wasn’t just because she said it to a murder victim’s wife.
Alice just stared at her.
“You could go to the police,” Yvonne said, then remembered the armed men in police uniforms in her dream. “Or the press.”
Alice shrugged. “I’m an escaped mental patient. Who would believe me? By the way, there’s a chemical formula that you’re supposed to write down on a piece of paper for me.”
“What?” Yvonne said.
“I know it doesn’t make any sense,” Alice said, standing and handing Yvonne pencil and paper. “But you’ll know when you start writing.”
Yvonne looked at the pencil and the piece of paper, and sure enough, yes, she felt an urge to write down a formula. She scribbled the formula onto the paper–some kind of psychopharmacological, but she’d have to study it more to make a guess at what it did–and handed it to Alice.
“Thank you,” Alice said. “You should go home, and I should go, and you can’t know where.” She looked at Yvonne for a moment, then leaned over and hugged her. “I’ve missed you. I’m sorry I can’t take you with me.” She paused a moment, looking like she had something to say, but all she said was, “I’m sorry about your grandmother.” She headed towards the door, then turned and said, “Don’t drink the water.” Then she left.
Yvonne left the house, confused, and wandered back past the train station she saw on the cab ride there. She considered taking more tranquilizers, but decided against it. She got on the train and rode to her stop. When she got off the train, she was surrounded by police, who arrested her on a charge of abetting a terrorist, handcuffed her, and put her in the back of a police car.
Yvonne didn’t for one moment fail to realize that she was strapped into the same chair where Peter was murdered. Roger stood over her with his arms crossed.
“You didn’t give them the antidote, did you?”
Roger smirked. “Good girl.”
“You’re not going to kill me, are you?” Yvonne asked.
“Oh, Yvonne,” Roger said. “You’re far too valuable as a psychiatrist to kill.”
Yvonne sighed in relief.
“People trust you,” he said. “You have a genuine quality that I could never duplicate.”
No, she supposed he couldn’t.
“We’ll just wipe your memory. After all, it worked well enough the first time.”
Don’t drink the water, Yvonne thought. Don’t drink the water.
Don’t drink the water.
Yvonne took a sip of coffee, then made a face. Bitter. She put it on the corner of her desk and took caffeine pills instead.
Business was booming and no one was sure why. At this rate they might have to hire more doctors. Roger wasn’t handling the stress well. There was even some talk of him stepping down. Yvonne wished he’d hurry up.
She stood and headed to the cafeteria for a nice glass of milk.