by Megan Gregor
Narrated by Bob Eccles
Carrying a single bag, the young man travels alone with no particular destination in mind. It’s trips like these that got him hospitalized. Apparently, it isn’t acceptable to take off on foot, with one bag, spontaneously. But that’s the problem with being impulsive. You can’t really plan ahead.
“Stay off the road, jackass!” a driver yells as he zooms past. The car’s wheels kick up gravel, emphasizing the driver’s point. The rocks pellet Mazen, the young man, accused jackass, loping alongside of the busy interstate.
Mazen lives for quick decisions. He always follows his gut reactions. He loves sudden changes in plans. In fact, he often is the one instigating the plan’s change. In another era, he would have been a stellar gunslinger, or a Robin Hood of sorts, maybe even considered a hero. In this century, in his community, he is thought of as a loose cannon, unhinged, a manic personality. In the hospital psych ward, he is diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
The nurse divulges this information to Mazen when he is puffing on a cigarette during a monitored smoke break. Mazen forms a placid smile and purses his lips to exhale the thick, pungent plume of smoke.
“You say tomato, I say tomahto,” Mazen murmurs. The nurse divests a charitable smile and continues reading an entertainment magazine while chomping on a grayish piece of gum, snapping the bubbles with arrogant zeal.
Minutes later, Mazen drops the cigarette onto the magazine. At first it looks like the glossy pages are flame proof. Then, the perfect smiles of the celebrities on the page melt and curl, producing a noxious fume and a puffy billow of smoke.
There is a second of pause while the smokers and nurses struggle to process this bizarre turn of events. It seems like with one stomp, the magazine’s flicker could be extinguished. But then the screams begin, the flailing arms, the pushing and cursing. Things happen on fast forward after that; it’s hard to track each person’s movement.
Mazen propels himself off the stair rail. He endures the jarring impact of a six foot drop with a small yelp. Running at breakneck speed, he makes it to the high metal fence where he claws his way to the top. His wiry agility is impressive, and fellow patients cheer and cajole through their cracked windows. Mazen’s display does not last long. He is not the first to make a break for it, and he is not the first to fail. The moment when it becomes clear that he will not succeed is easy to pinpoint for those watching. But Mazen has no awareness of his defeat. Every breath he takes is acutely personal and tastes like victory.
The patients, prisoners of their own illnesses, loudly curse the nurses, who look a lot like guards. The nurses quickly surround Mazen and taser him into submission.
Mazen grins through the whole escape effort. Harm to self? No. His self is being harmed by these self-proclaimed protectors. These health care professionals who not only define what sickness is, they also dictate the sentence. Mazen is in a 48-hour involuntary hold, at the signature of his older sister.
His big sister Fatima arrives at the hospital hours later, as the knock-out drugs are wearing off. But Mazen is still tethered to a table. For his own safety. She clucks her tongue and speaks piously to him.
“What would Mama and Papa say? If they could see you indulging yourself in this manner?” She tugs his shirt down to cover his exposed belly button. Swiping his hair out of his eyes, she continues to scold and nag, lecture and patronize.
It is not lost on Mazen that Fatima seems to enjoy his inability to swat her hand away, or defend himself by leaving the room, or plugging his ears. These are his tried and true techniques when dealing with her smothering.
The hospital protests that they cannot keep him safe, cannot manage his symptoms with their limited facilities. They transfer him. To be transported in his sister’s care, to the bigger, state-run institution across the river. Fatima slowly shakes her head and signs paper after paper after paper. Documents which hand his freewill from the strangers with diplomas over to his big sister.
At the pharmacy in the hospital basement, she pays for bottles of pills, reviewing the directions in detail with the pharmacist. While she dutifully listens, Mazen feels the cinder block wall for hidden doors. The textured surface is pitted with paint bubbles, and Mazen presses the pads of his fingertips against the miniature rivers and hills. Every foot or so, he pushes hard, feeling the blood squeeze out of his fingers with the pressure. He has never found a secret doorway. So he assumes any day now he will succeed. In his world, you never know. He plays it safe; it doesn’t hurt to check.
The drive is silent; Mazen is busy thinking and his sister is busy not thinking. The road stretches out ahead of them but they greedily speed over it, gaining miles and space from the previous hospital, rushing towards the next one. Fatima holds out as long as she can before stopping at the rest stop to use the bathroom. Clearly, he can’t go in with her. And she can’t lock him into the car. So they part ways, into their respective restroom doors labeled with block pictures of a person in a dress and a person wearing pants. It’s the divide that she will never be able to cross, the difference between them that he will always take advantage of, as long as he is able.
The window isn’t locked. It’s even open an inch for ventilation. His back scrapes the plastic siding of the building as he slides down, landing with a painful thud on his hip.
From there, it’s easy to get lost in the woods. As he trips over the roots and clumps of leaves, hours and miles pass. He imagines how long Fatima will wait outside of the door labeled with a person wearing pants. He pictures her face as her realization dawns, her lips transforming from a pout to a gape to a scowl. This keeps him moving quickly through the unfamiliar terrain.
Slowly, the medication wears off. He sleeps under a carefully gathered pile of pine needles. The next day he spends ambling along a winding stream. Eventually, he comes to a big road. There, he nibbles on a selection of fresh litter, crumbs, and leftovers clinging to boxes and lids.
Surprisingly, many cars have messages for him. ‘Jackass’ is fine, he’s heard it before. Mazen still mulls over the phrasing of yesterday’s driver. That guy shouted, “Get a job, freeloader!” So many words in this language and so many meanings. Mazen is able to understand that each message has several levels of significance. He knows most of what he hears has a personal intent just for him. Clearly the drivers speak in code, but Mazen is stumped on the deciphering.
The car that called him a jackass grows smaller and smaller as it disappears down the road. Walking on the shoulder, Mazen wipes dripping liquid from his face with his canvas jacket sleeve. It’s blood from a gash on his cheek, a puncture caused by the spraying gravel. He grimaces. He’s transforming into the derelict his sister accused him of aspiring to become.
A small neighborhood is ahead on the right. He squints; perhaps this is his destination. Lowering to the ground, he rolls over the embankment and down into the gulley lining the roadway. This is where he takes his brain breaks. From his bag, Mazen pulls his documents, gathered at key locations during his journey.
He has pieced a lot of the mission together. But much is left to be revealed. So far he has this: “I’m lovin’ it, Please Recycle, Made in China. Surgeon’s Warning, Under 18 Prohibited, Caution Hot, Recommended, Suffocation Hazard- Do not place in cribs.” Mazen senses that the words are still out of order. Each day his understanding of the message grows.
Done consulting his notes, Mazen climbs the embankment and continues hiking to the neighborhood. He turns onto the residential street and examines the homes lining the manicured sidewalk. Minivans are in the driveways, lawns have been raked, leaves bundled into bags near the mailboxes next to the plastic-lidded trash cans. Mazen observes one house with nothing in the driveway. No bags or cans are at the edge of the property. In fact, no lights are on. The blinds are all down.
He grips his bag tightly, remembering the cautionary tone of the mission’s message. He sprints to the back of the home and tries the back door. Locked. Rattling the knob, he tenses and waits to be discovered. The wind rustles, dislodging leaves from spindly branches which surf to the ground. Mazen knows this is a sign. He kicks the door and then kicks it again. Again. Again. The frame cracks. By the forty-fifth toe-breaking kick, the door slams open. Splinters of wood rain down on the ceramic tiled mud room. Mazen enters, and carefully closes the door of his new home.
First, he rearranges the furniture to block the entrances and exits. This includes doors, windows, the fire place, and the dryer venting system which leads to the outside. Once done securing the premise, Mazen eats the sparse contents of the refrigerator. It’s a feast for him. Afterwards, he dozes off in front of the open fridge’s cool glow.
Unstuffing all the pillows in the house is easy. And reassuring. No devices found, and therefore Mazen is confident that no one is listening. He’s able to speak freely. After deliberation, he takes the stuffing material into the attic, the highest point of access in the home. He sets up a hastily constructed antennae to poke out of the fiberglass insulation into the roofing shingles. Hopefully this will transmit. His nest is easy to form out of the pliable cotton and polyester pillow stuffing. Finally, Mazen is able to relax. The bag under his head contains the directions he has followed to the letter. Gazing up in admiration at his antennae, plastered together out of dry spaghetti noodles and Nutella, Mazen exhales.
The child’s screaming does not faze him out of his sleep. Nor does the woman’s shrieking. But the sirens jolt him into an upright, alarmed position. Mazen is awake. He is ready.
BIO: Megan Gregor is a former clinical social worker who channels her curiosity about human nature into creative writing. Her short stories often capture a dark edge that challenges reality. Her painfully funny novels are ultimately about the thing we call love. Find out more at www.gregorific.com or buy her short story SIGNS on Amazon.com.