I have been to twenty-three funerals in the past two weeks. And at every single one of them, all of the sorrowful strangers looked at me like I should have been slayed by him with the rest of his victims, my colleagues and my patients. Just because I was not there when the attack happened doesn’t mean I didn’t love them. They were all my mental health patients, but they were all my children. Are. Were? Are? Were. I was just feeling sick and left early. Maybe that sickness was my body and mind telling me something was wrong, but I thought it was the shrimp I had for lunch and I left. And he came right after like step two. He came in like death himself, and he wiped away a hundred beautiful black souls, like an irritating smudge on a shiny glass window. They paid for my help to be saved from their own minds, but it turns out the danger wasn’t their minds though, it was some white man.
And he’s kept me from leaving my apartment for the past two weeks, since the last funeral. I have stayed home on the couch–surrounded by soggy, perishing take-out boxes and wrinkled, aluminum chip and candy wrappers–watching the news with his glorified gnarled face staring at me, his hairy blonde arms stabbing through the static in the screen pinning me down.
First it was breaking news, the alleged mass murderer of HOPE Institute, an all-black mental institution here in North Carolina, has been captured after DNA was matched in a letter he wrote, and left at the site, where he quoted David from The Bible. Then it was, breaking news, one of the victims in the HOPE Institute bombing, known as Mad Max, was the attempted murderer of rock star Willie Rocks (even though no bullets were ever fired). Then it was breaking news, the alleged bomber of HOPE Institute, the home of the craziest and most dangerous black mental health patients in the country, was a quiet and reserved family man who raised his daughter on his own after his wife died. Breaking news. Breaking news. Breaking news. God. Make it stop!
Even after I unplugged my television, the news still haunted me. He haunted me. And I couldn’t seem to get rid of his face. It was like a bad tattoo in my eyeballs. His ocean blue eyes flooded my body, and drowned every thought in my mind. He was everywhere I looked–on the television, in the mirror, in the walls, in the soup, in the fucking picture frames – tormenting me like a silent killer.
I have been wearing the same black dress for the past two weeks, I have heard the same news story on the television for the past two weeks, I have laid in the bed and cried in the dark for the last two weeks, and I have had enough. I have to go see him. The longer I wait, the madder I will become. I have to explore his mind and find out why. Today, I change clothes, reunite with the sun, and get closure. Maybe even clarity…
I stood in front of the red door and stared at it as I contemplated groping the metal doorknob and stepping outside. I shut my eyes to avoid thinking about it. Do it. My hand wrapped around the doorknob and its icy, round body sent chills through my veins. I twisted it and the chilly, bitter, wind pushed the door open and stormed into my apartment, dancing around my figure and getting tangled in my kinky brown curls.
I dipped my toe over the threshold, officially out of the safety and isolation of my apartment, then my whole foot, then my whole body. Earth’s musk filled my nose and mingled with my taste buds. I forgot what the Earth tasted like– salt, sugar, lemon, grass, and dirt.
I got in my car and began to drive down the dark and silent street. I decided to eradicate the thoughts in my brain by filling my ears with the songs on the radio. Then a song that he used to sing to me came on the radio. I swerved off of the highway and into the field of dead grass. I turned my caution lights on and rested my head on the steering wheel and contemplated whether I should make the visit to the prison. My heart began to throb against my chest telling me to go. Okay. I turned the radio off and finished the drive.
After being groped and caressed when I arrived, I was cleared by the security then escorted to a private room. I zoomed past rows and rows of peeling walls that were white in their prime, cracked concrete floors and ceilings covered in water stains, and prisoners on public display. They were like lions in a zoo–snarling and clawing at me through the bars. But what they wanted more than to attack was freedom.
I braked quickly and unexpectedly behind the officers. My nose intimately poked into one of the officer’s spines, making a crease in his cool and sweat-stained shirt, as we stopped in front of a room labeled interrogation in rusting, round letters. The officer opened it and let me walk in first. There were two officers in the room in the back, one in each dark corner of the back wall. And there he was in the middle of the room with his handcuffed calloused hands resting delicately on the dull metal table covered in greasy palm prints and scratches. His eyes held an abundance of blue, but a lack of remorse. My brown eyes interrogated his blue ones, seeing who was going to speak first. Then I said the first word.
His face was all over the news, but it hurt even more to see him in person, the man who would leave the annual carnival with black and blue knees when I was a kid because he would squeeze into the tiny flying elephants at the fair so I could ride on them, with a smile plastered across his face like he was a hero. I thought the worst thing that could happen was the tragedy, but it turns out that what’s worse is finding out someone you love did it. And, what’s even worse than that is looking them in the eyes and talking to them after finding out they did it.
“Sweetheart,” he said, frenzied, while the shackles around his ankles kept him in his chair. My stomach began to swirl, getting more intense with each step I got closer to him. I began to taste the shrimp that traumatized my belly the day of the attack again. “baby, have a seat, let’s talk.”
The pain in my stomach began to travel–past my lungs, past my heart, past my throat, and then on the floor of the guarded room. The guards launched forward like it was a tiny prisoner escaping my mouth, but it was just a disgusting pile of my breakfast and nerves. I thought I could face him, but he’s just not the man who used to sing classic rock songs to me when the lights went out or pack me sandwiches for lunch in the shapes of hearts and stars anymore. Or, maybe he’s always been the same. Has he always been so full of hate? Does he hate the black half of me? Did he hate mom? Why did he do it? I wish I could ask those things out loud, but I couldn’t.
I do not know what words to say to him. I just want to tear that smile off of his face. That would be a great way to leave–with his vile smile locked up in my damp fist. If I had nails, I would scratch that shit right off. But I chewed all ten of them off over the past two weeks, so I am stuck in this freezing box with him, with no nails, and four cops with no choice but to talk to him. What do I say? I hate you, dad. Why did you spare my life? Do you hate black people? Do you love me? Let us start over, with no puke, just words.
“Dad,” I said, just like I said it the last time.
“Dear,” he smiled gently.
“After I left the first funeral, I went home and got pills to end my life.”
For the first time since I joined him and the cops in the room, the face of each man stretched in shock, so did the clout in my dad’s face. His gnarled smile was gone. Now, his lips were in the shape of a dry and chafed “o,” shocked.
“Delia,” he sighed.
He suddenly looked ten years older than he did two minutes ago. His blonde hair was thin with a bald spot in the top, his skin was flaky and red, he had a crunchy and untamed beard with streaked with gray, and he looked heavier beneath the eyes and in the belly.
“What, you thought losing all those people would do nothing to me? I’m not emotionless like you. I’m human,” my voice trembled.
He stared at her frizzy brown hair that comforted her face, her quivering slightly parted lips painted purple, her freckled light brown skin, her pointed nose that matched his, and her fragility she obviously didn’t inherit from him. Was she his child after all these years? Unfortunately, yes.
“Sweetie, I didn’t mean to hurt you. In fact, I saved you.”
“You saved me? Ha!”
“The shrimp. I put a little mix in it so you would get sick and go home.”
“It, was you? I can’t believe it. You don’t know how guilty I’ve felt the last two weeks!”
“Sweetie, I’m sorry. It had to be done, and I wasn’t letting you die with those things.”
“Things? Have a heart, they were people.”
“Mental hospitals are human waste centers, darling.”
“I can’t believe these words you’re saying. And I can’t believe you spiked my fucking food.”
I remember when I was little, my dad made a special sauce every time we ordered Chinese takeout because he would always forget to ask for soy sauce and he couldn’t eat his noodles without something to combat the “dryness” of noodles and rice. He’s always been good at making things: medicines, soups, sauces, forts, lemonade, and apparently bombs.
“Why did you do it?”
My father raised me after my mother lost her battle to cancer when I was six. He was a great father too. And he supported me through college when I moved away and when I came back. We were as close as a father and daughter could get because we didn’t have much family here in North Carolina, or anywhere actually. He would even stop in my office at the institute every week and have lunch with me. The day of the attack, Friday, was our weekly lunch date. We ate in my office because I had a lot of paperwork for a patient being discharged and couldn’t leave. He brought us shrimp fried rice and egg rolls. I should have known something was wrong when he ate that fucking dry rice.
After a nibble of shrimp, my tongue began to feel fuzzy, and so did my belly and brain, so I decided to put the paperwork away and go home. My father walked out the door with me and walked me to my car, but he must have gone back inside when I drove away.
“Well, someone had to do it. You will understand when you are older.”
“No I won’t, because I am half black. Did you forget that?”
“No I did not, baby. You are mixed with white, with my pure blood. You are not like them,” he smiled, reaching his hand out, but it was jerked back by the chain attached to the cuffs.
“Did you hate mom?”
“I did not,” he said picking bits of grime out of his fingernails.
“Do you hate black people?”
“Not you or your mom.”
“How could you love us, but hate everyone that looks like us?”
“You don’t look like them. You’re fair skinned, as was your mother. She could pass for white if she wanted. She was beautiful.”
“But why my job? I loved my patients. They were like my children.”
“Children? Those crazies are not your children.”
“You’re crazy too, dad.”
“I am not, baby.”
“You do realize they have done nothing to anyone, but you have killed a hundred people?”
“Some of them were attempted murderers.”
“Maxwell did not shoot that guy! The media blew it out of proportion like always. And. And. And you loved Maxwell!”
“He was great at small talk, but I couldn’t stand him.”
“You couldn’t stand him, or his skin?”
“I just believe the world should be white and pure, the way God intended.”
“Ha. You are fucking hilarious!”
“Baby, you’ll understand when you’re older.”
“No. I understand. I understand now. I understand that you’re a sick human being! And I hope you rot in hell with the rest of the racist people in the world!”
“Delia, don’t you dare raise your voice at me!”
My father rarely raised his voice at me growing up. I was a good and quiet kid into books instead of boys. But when I did something wrong and he yelled, it would terrify me and instantly make me cry. But right now, I don’t feel afraid of his angry tone even though now is when I should be afraid of him and what he’s capable of.
“Oh, please. Don’t try to be my father now, you ruined my life!”
I popped up out of the chair and ran out of the room. A guard chased after me, but I didn’t make it far. I paused in the hallway, lost. I didn’t know how to get to the front door, and I didn’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do now. What can you do after someone dear to you dies besides move on? I backed up against the wall and slid to the floor, melting, crying, aching.
“Sorry, ma’am, but you can’t have your breakdown right here,” the officer said nervously. He’s dealt with killers, rapists, and psychos, but never a crying girl.
“Is it okay if I finish my session? I have more questions.”
“Sure. He’s still in the room.”
The officer led me back to the room, the coldness within the small square was replaced with warmth from all the breath freed during the talking and screaming.
“I’m glad you’re back, honey,” my father smiled.
I stared at the red rings that hugged his wrists underneath the handcuffs.
“I wanted to finish the last twenty minutes of the session.”
“I’m sorry if I hurt you. I didn’t mean to.”
“You realize I don’t have a job or anything left, right?”
“You can get another job. Maybe you should take a break. Get married and have kids. I have always wanted grandkids.”
“You should’ve just killed me too. Living is hard when everyone else is dead.”
“I’m alive, honey.”
“You’re dead to me.”
“Everyone knows I’m your daughter. There’s pictures of me everywhere. And the fact that I magically went home early and survived while everyone else died doesn’t help.”
“Screw them! You know you’re innocent, and so do I. I know, and they should know you’re not capable of any harm.”
“Well, I didn’t think you were either,” I scoffed.
“You are innocent, so whatever they’re saying in those papers doesn’t matter.”
“Well, when some of the families have come together and started a petition to have me tried and arrested, it’s hard to ignore it.”
“Which family members? Oh, if I weren’t in prison, I swear to God!”
“Who are you?!”
“I’m David. Like the biblical hero.”
“Not the hero, and not my father, David.”
“Yes, your father, David.”
I decided that the man in that room was an evil twin, or something apart from the man that raised me, that I love. I also decided to live. Not for him though. And, I didn’t want to tell him I decided to live and give him satisfaction. I lived for them, for all my patients. The mental hospital may have been suffocated by flames, but like the Phoenix, it will rise again. I will rise again. I will continue in my career to help those in need. I wish I could help my father. He was a great man, a great father. Maybe the new presidency corrupted him, maybe he has a disease, or maybe he’s always had these sick values in his heart.
I remember when my dad gave me the talk about sex when I was sixteen. He was so nervous. I secretly knew that he had nothing to worry about though because by sixteen, I had never even hugged a boy. I was known as the quiet nerd always in a book. But, he was probably more nervous when he had to talk to me about periods and tampons when I was thirteen because I had no aunts or any older cousins near to teach me. He tried to demonstrate how they absorb by sticking it in a small can of tomato paste from the pantry. I had already learned about it from my best friend who got her period the year before in Language Arts class while we were watching Romeo and Juliet, but it was still funny to see my dad so content and just so human. When he talked to me about periods, and when he talked to me about sex, I thought that was the worst and most awkward conversation we would ever have. I was wrong.
“I’m glad we got to spend this hour together, my sweet.” He smiled. How could it be the same smile as the man who raised me, but be such a different man? I have been so miserable to the point of nausea for the past two weeks, and I think it has to do more with my father than the actual tragedy itself. Selfish. I asked him why, yet I still cannot comprehend why he did this. And I’m like a culprit, because I opened the doors of the institution to him. I am just so confused. More confused than I was when I got here.
“Yeah, nice talk,” I said. Tears began to build up in my eyes and the strange man in front of me became a blur.
“Your hour is up. Ms. Poole. A guard will escort you to the lobby.” A guard said hovering over me with his arms crossed in front of his bullet proof vest. Hearing my last name, the same last name as his, made me flinch. I’m stuck with him and this tragedy and this shame for all eternity. Or, until I get married. But, who knows when that will happen. It probably definitely won’t happen now, with me being the child of a mass murderer and all. The guards had me exit the room first. Then two guards exited with my father.
“I know you aren’t in the mood to say it back, but I love you sweetie. Please visit again,” he shouted as they dragged him down the long maze-like hallway. The three words, I love you, bounced back and forth between the two walls and made their way into my ears, echoing over and over again. I swatted at my ear, like at a fly, to shoo the words away.
“I used to love you,” I said, and he heard it. I stood and watched as they dragged him away, his eyes burning a hole in what was left of my heart like laser beams, and his black boots squeaked as they treaded down the hall getting smaller and smaller, until they disappeared.
I got my purse from the front and headed to the door woozy from the talk. I opened the door and the wind rushed in and filled my body like oxygen. I stood in the parking lot and looked at all the living things surrounding the deadness of the prison– birds chirping up in trees, blossoming flowers being pollinated by bees, an army of ants marching to the beat of the birds, butterflies with wings like lengthy words, and me. I’m alive. And I can’t do anything about it but live. Psychiatrists can’t kill themselves. They’re supposed to stop others from killing themselves, or give them medicine to stop them.
I became a psychiatrist after the hospital pumped two bottles of pills out of my best friend’s belly. I was away at college in California having the time of my life while ignoring text messages and phone calls after her parents got divorced. Then, the calls and messages stopped. Then there was a call from her mother, tears spilling through the phone, telling me what happened. After that event, I switched from being a business major to a psychology major. I moved back home, and I vowed to always help those in need. I blame myself for all of the patients I couldn’t help in the tragedy, just like I blame myself for my friend’s attempted suicide, and I will never forgive myself for it, even if she has. But, even though I cannot forgive myself for my friend or my patients, I must live with myself, and with what the media does to identities, and with how people blame others when they grieve, and with the mass murderer in my DNA.
I got in my car and left the prison and continued to live…