like a waking limb
by Cody

Day One


"If I had a cigarette," Lance said wistfully on the way back from lunch, "I could take a dump."

Chris looked at him askance. "You're constipated?"

"I wouldn't be if I had a cigarette." The hardest part of all of this, for Lance, was that he never got to smoke. They had a weird thing here about not giving cigarettes to pyromaniacs.

Chris's eyes were bright with opportunity. "Ask for some Ex-lax."

Lance snorted derisively. "I don't want no fuckin' Ex-lax."

"Ask for it and give it to me," Chris said, "and I'll give you a cigarette."

Lance pretended to mull it over. "I don't know... they'd probably catch me smoking, anyway."

"You could go around the side of the pool." Chris was leaning forward, his voice at its most persuasive. "I'll even cover for you. Anyone asks where you are, I'll say you're taking a big, nasty shit."

Lance's eyes flashed at the thought of taking a big, nasty shit, and Chris knew his mind was made up. "All right, I'm gonna go get it. Meet me in the dayroom."

Chris grinned. "With bells on."


The dayroom was just a cramped rectangular area off of the main room with small, hard couches and small, hard chairs and a stand that held a twenty-five inch television with reasonable reception and a temperamental VCR. Chris waited on one of the couches, his leg bouncing nervously.

A hand clamped down on his knee, held it still. "Cut it out already." That was Joey, probably the craziest of them all. Nice a guy as you'd ever want to meet, but completely off his rocker. A schizo; a real bad case. Hears voices that tell him who knows all what, but he's forever looking out of windows or over his shoulder, trying to find the people in his head.

"Sorry," Chris mumbled, his nose wrinkling as he noticed what's on TV. "How many times you gonna watch this movie, Joe? Don't you never get sick of it?"

"I like this movie," Joey said, eyes steady on the screen. He watched Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as often as he could. Which was pretty often, 'cause he's the biggest guy in the place after that guy who never talks. Besides which, people liked Joey. He's friendly and fun, once you got used to the fear that's always in his eyes, like he's scared he might finally see what's talking to him.

"I met that guy, that kid who plays Charlie? I met him once. He was at a party at my uncle's house in Malibu," said Chris, who's never been to Malibu. "He's gay, you know? Tried to hit on me. But he's ugly as sin and twice as fat, so I decked him. Just like that, pow! Right in the nose. Bled like a stuck pig."

Joey just nodded, not listening, anyway. No one listened to much Chris said, or if they did, they just shook their heads at whatever he told them. Compulsive Liar, his doctors called him. Fucking full of it, was the term his parents preferred. Not that they didn't love him; they did. Who but loving parents would shell out a grand a week keeping their kid locked up in this place trying to cure him?

"I got it." Lance was approaching, one fist around the prize. "Gimme a fucking cigarette, I got it."

"Lemme see." Chris held out his hand, waited for Lance to drop the pill into his palm, his fingers folding over it greedily before reaching into the shirt pocket of his scrubs for his Marlboros, opening the pack for Lance. "Go ahead."

Lance nearly trembled as he pulled one out, brought it under his nose and inhaled reverently. "Ah, sweet nicotine. My one true friend." And then turned back to Chris, "Gimme a lighter." His hand out again, fingers twitching demandingly.

"Fuck no." Chris shook his head firmly. "They catch you with that and it'll be hell. Take Joe with you, borrow his lighter. If they catch you, you can say it's his cigarette."

Lance's gaze flickered from Joey's face to the TV and back. "He's busy."

"He ain't that busy, are you Joe?" Chris elbowed him. "Take Lance for a walk, will you? Sure, you will. Come on, Joe."

"Huh?" Joey looked at Chris, startled, and then at Lance. "You want to go somewhere?"

"Just behind the pool." Lance sounded apologetic. "If you're busy that's okay. Watching your movie."

Joey smiled bright and goofy. "I'll go."

"See? He'll go." Chris jumped to his feet. "Happy trails, boys. I'm off to see a man about a horse."


Even though the door wasn't really closed, all residents had to keep a towel on the floor in the doorway to keep it cracked open, Chris knocked. He waited until, "Yes?"

Then he peeked his head in, grinned. "Hey, what's up?"

"I'm just..." JC lounged shirtless, eyes on the sketchpad on his lap. "What do you want?"

"I've got something for you," Chris said. "Can I come in?"

JC nodded slowly, closing his sketchpad and tucking it under his pillow. Chris went to the empty bed beside JC's and sat, held out his open hand. "You want it?"

JC sat straighter, tucking his legs underneath him, and leaned forward like a kid presented with chocolate. "Where'd you get that?"

"I have my ways." Chris pulled his arm closer to his chest, so JC would have to come to him to get it. "You want it?"

"You know I do." JC looked angry for a second, but quickly affected an ingratiating smile. "May I please have it now?"

"Sure thing." Chris leaned backwards. "Come and get it."

Blink and JC was nearly on top of him, reaching for it. "Thank you, thank you, thanks, thanks, thanks. Give it now, okay?"

"Here, here you go," Chris was laughing, one arm around JC's waist, keeping him pulled close. "Open your mouth." JC opened wide, obedient and expectant as a little boy. "Yum," Chris said, and placed the pill on JC's tongue.

JC clamped a hand over his mouth as he swallowed, scrambling off of Chris, tugging away from him so he could sit on his own bed again. He removed his hand a moment later and said, "Go away now, okay?"

"That's not nice, JC." Chris's tone was hurt. "I just gave you a present and you're asking me to leave?"

"You can come back if you get more," JC said, pulling his sketchpad out from under his pillow.

Chris's face twisted, anger flaring. "Fine, I'm going. I don't wanna look at your fat ass, anyway."

And then the sketchpad flew at him and missed, hit the wall. "Shut up. Get out!"

"You on your period, JC? You look bloated." Chris grabbed his own gut, puffed out his cheeks. "Look at me, I'm Big Fat JC." He stomped around like a sumo wrestler. "Big Fat JC! Eats like a hog and smells like one, too. Better not make him mad, he might sit on you!"

JC was standing on his bed now, hands clenched into fists, face beet-red. "Get the fuck out, you dirty cunty fuckass! Get out before I kill you!"

"Is there a problem in here?" They both looked towards the door to see a nurse standing there, her face stern.

JC pointed at Chris accusingly. "He won't get out of my room."

"Chris," the nurse warned.

"What?" Chris was a picture of wronged innocence. "He threatened to kill me, you heard him!"

Someone came up behind the nurse and she stepped into the room, pushing the door back to allow the boy carrying a duffel bag to come in. He stopped inside the doorway, looked Chris over, and then JC. Looked JC over twice, actually, before hastily averting his eyes.

"This is your room, Justin," the nurse told the boy. "Go ahead and unpack, group therapy's at four."

Justin nodded, went to the shelves and drawers built into the wall by the door, close to JC's bed, glanced up briefly at JC, who was staring at him blatantly, and then started unpacking. The nurse left, taking Chris with her, and when socks, undershirts and boxers had been put away and toiletries lined neatly on the shelf, Justin turned to find JC still watching him. JC looked away, realized he was still standing on his bed and sat down cross-legged.

"Um," Justin started, not sure of the proper etiquette in such a situation. "I'm Justin."

"I heard," JC said, and then looked up at him. "Don't touch my stuff."

"I won't." Justin glanced over at JC's shelf, which held pretty much what his did, plus some notebooks, novels, and magazines. "I wouldn't do that, honest."

"Okay." JC smiled abruptly. "My name's JC."

"Hi." Justin stepped towards his bed cautiously. "Can I sit?"

"Sit, sit," JC urged, patting the mattress, and as soon as Justin did he said, "Take off your shirt, okay?"

Justin tucked his chin, caught off guard. "What?"

"Come on." JC reached for the hem of the scrub shirt Justin wore, yanked on it a bit. "I want to see, okay?"

Justin hesitated, looked at JC's face as he complied, slipping the shirt over his head and letting it puddle in his lap. JC pored over Justin's chest with eyes and hands. He pinched at Justin's waist, delighted when all he got was skin, grinning when Justin yelped. "Sorry." JC's eyes were very blue and sparkling with mirth, and Justin decided it hadn't really hurt. After a while he sat back, satisfied, and nodded at Justin approvingly. "You're perfect."

Justin wasn't sure what to say to that. Settled on, "Thanks."

"How do you do it?" JC covered his stomach with his arms, ashamed. "I've got a spare tire that just won't go away no matter what I do."

Justin laughed loudly at that, then realized JC was serious and stopped. "What, you? You're thin as a rail."

JC let his arms fall to his sides, tipped his head away shyly, cheeks coloring with pleasure. "No, I'm not."

"You are, look at you." Justin took JC's wrists, lifted his arms into the air. They both looked down at JC's defined abdomen. "Look at that."

JC looked, blinked, tore out of Justin's hold and wrapped his arms around himself protectively. "I'm not. Stop it." He took Justin's shirt, pulled it on. It hung loosely. "They keep making me drink that shit and it's making me fucking fat. I've gained twenty pounds since I've been here. It's disgusting." JC's eyes were wet now, his voice cracking, "It's fucking disgusting, what they're doing to me."

Justin was unable to picture JC sans twenty pounds, didn't want to. "You look good to me."

"Well," JC huffed, then went quiet.

Chris sat against the wall outside the door with his knees pulled up to his chest. He strained to hear their conversation over the din of habitude reverberating down the hall. He thought he must have been imagining it, when he heard JC laughing.


"We have a new patient in the group." Dr. Gyllenhaal looked at Justin. "Would you like to introduce yourself?"

He could feel the weight of everyone's eyes on him, felt his palms break into a sweat. He swallowed.

"He's Justin," Chris said. "He's twenty and he's here because he killed a man with a gun made out of a hamburger."

"Chris," said Gyllenhaal.

"The first part's true," said Justin, wiping his hands off on his thighs. "I mean, I'm Justin. I'm twenty."

Gyllenhaal nodded. "And why are you here?"

There was a pregnant silence.

"Justin?" he prompted.

"I..." Justin blushed hard, felt the sweat under his arms and across his forehead, took a deep breath through his nose.

"I took a laxative today," JC spoke up suddenly. "I took it and I crapped out all that fucking Ensure."

"JC." Gyllenhaal furrowed his brow in displeasure. "If you do that sort of thing, we'll have no choice but to put you on IV again."

"Suck my cock," JC said evenly, sounding bored. He glanced at Justin.

Justin smiled, just a little.


Day Eight


"I have this friend in the CIA," Chris started. "He's only got one leg."

"Shut up." Lance was sitting beside Joey on the couch, watching Willy Wonka. "Don't you ever just shut the fuck up?"

"Oh, I'm sorry," Chris snapped. "It's not like we've seen this fucking movie a million times or anything."

"Why don't you go spy on JC?" Lance said, never taking his eyes off the screen, "Why don't you go watch him fuck Justin like you do every night?"

"Shut the fuck up," Chris glared, voice low and dangerous. "They're not fucking."

Lance shrugged. "Not yet, maybe."

"Shut the fuck up," Chris said again, standing up, "I'll fucking smack you," and left the room. He wandered down the hall, towards JC and Justin's room. Stood outside the door, listened. Nothing. Breathing. The lights were off. Chris pushed the door just barely, peering in.

There was JC perched on Justin's bed, sketchpad on his knee, drawing. And there was Justin, sleeping, oblivious as JC reached out and skimmed his fingertips over Justin's cheek, across his lips. Chris stretched onto the tips of his toes to get a look at JC's sketchpad, the door yawning with his movements, and the light from the hallway had JC whipping around, eyes narrowing when he saw Chris. A vicious whisper, "Go away!"

"What are you doing?" Chris asked at normal volume, hoping to wake Justin.

"Get out of our room!" hissed like a cat.

"I'm not in your room. Look." Chris looked down at his feet, just outside the threshold. "See? I'm not in your room."

"Get away." JC put his hand on Justin's chest possessively. "We don't want you here."

"Oh, you don't?" voice rising with each word, ending in an almost-shout, and he opened the door wide, letting the light pour in as he continued loudly, "You don't want me here, huh? You want me to go away so you can fuck your little loverboy in his sleep?"

Justin was stirring, waking, and Chris felt a sharp jolt in the pit of his stomach. He looked to JC, expecting panic, and was surprised to find concern. JC stroked Justin's cheek, murmured, "Shh, don't wake up, okay? I'm not done," and Justin leaned into the touch before turning his head away from the light. JC looked back at Chris, soft expression curling into a nasty sneer, "Leave us alone."

Chris backed away from the door, closing it until it hit the towel on the floor, and walked quietly back to the dayroom. Lance and Joey were still watching Willy Wonka. Chris sat down next to them.

A hand came down on his knee. "Quit jiggling. It's shaking the whole couch."

"Did I tell you about my friend in the CIA?" Chris said, "He's only got one leg."


Day Twelve


Art therapy. They sat at the long folding tables and waited for the woman, what would her title be? Art teacher? Art therapist? Ms. O, she went by, and they said it fast, Mizzo.

She came in to the room and Chris said, "What're we doing today, Mizzo?"

"Well, what would you like to do?" She was close to sixty, tall and lean, her brown hair kept in a pixie cut, always wore ankle-length skirts and sweaters with embroidered schoolchildren or butterflies on them. Stuff that looked like it came from the Home Shopping Network, and dangling earrings she made herself. "I have some clay, if you'd like to do sculptures?"

"That kind that turns all white and foamy when it dries?" Lance asked, because that was his favorite.

"I sure do." Ms. O went to her big cabinet, unlocked and opened the doors. "We'll make something today and you can paint it next time." Art therapy was only twice a month. Most patients who started a project never had a chance to finish. There were no actual benefits to the sessions, really, just a provided break from the daily grind of breakfast, therapy, lunch, group therapy, dinner, bed that patients trudged through. The pool was opened once a week when weather permitted and the gym accessible every other day. The rest of their time was expected to be filled walking the courtyard or in the dayroom, or at the ping-pong table, or in their rooms.

"I'm going to make the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland," Justin decided, and JC smiled at him. "What are you making?"

"I'll make the mushroom he sits on," JC said. "Next time we come, we can paint them and glue them together."

Chris heard their exchange; took the opportunity, when Justin went to get them clay, to go over and tell JC cheerfully, "I was gonna make a mini-statue of you, but there wasn't enough clay for all your rolls of lard."

"Fuck off," JC spat.

"Has loverboy seen you naked yet?" Chris put a finger to his chin, mock pensive. "Did he barf all over your stretch marks?"

JC's face was nothing short of feral as he began to reply, but Justin's arrival stopped him before he started. Justin noticed the tension. "Is there a problem here?"

"We were just discussing diet tips." Chris put a friendly hand on Justin's back just to watch JC's eyes flare. "But he's probably not the best person to ask, huh?" Chris grinned at JC. "You've gained how much weight since you got here? At least twenty-five pounds, I'd say. That about right?"

Justin stepped infinitesimally closer; shoulders straightening and eyes fixed on Chris's. "I think you better get back to your table now," and glanced at Ms. O, at her desk flipping through an issue of The Reader's Digest.

It was a clear message. Chris backed off. "You're right. I need to get started on my sculpture. I'm gonna make a pig. A big, fat pig." He went back to his table, grin stuck in place, feeling victorious.

He sat down and grabbed his lump of clay to shape his pig, looked up at the sound of soft laughter. There was JC, head ducked and looking very contented and amused by whatever Justin was saying in his ear.

Chris slammed his clay onto the table, pounded it flat with his fist.


Day Sixteen


Chris interrupted Lance at group therapy and said, "I wanna know why Justin's here."

"Chris," Dr. Gyllenhaal said patiently. "That's not really any of your concern, is it?"

"Why won't he tell us?" Chris looked at Justin expectantly.

"I'm--I--" Justin stammered. "Dr. Tan said I didn't--"

"Dr. Tan says that Justin is making wonderful progress in his private sessions." Gyllenhaal smiled at Justin kindly. "If he doesn't feel comfortable talking about it in group, then that's his choice to make."

Chris was unimpressed. "I bet JC knows."

"Chris, stop." Gyllenhaal put his hand down on the arm of the chair he sat in, lightly but emphatically, like a slow-motion play of slamming his hand down. "Lance was trying to tell us about the family therapy session he had today. It was very rude of you to interrupt him while he had the floor."

Chris rolled his eyes, tuned out as Lance picked up where he left off, with his mother crying and his father cursing. He kept his gaze on Justin and JC sitting together on the couch perpendicular to the one he was sharing with Lance and Joey. JC's right leg was bent so his foot rested on his left knee, but what caught Chris's eye was the almost imperceptible movement of JC's left arm. Chris tipped in his seat, craned his neck to see what was happening. Saw JC's hand, where it disappeared into the front pocket of Justin's scrub pants. Glanced up quickly at Justin's face, found it ostensibly blank, but looked closer and saw the way his teeth bit into his bottom lip, and though his eyes were downcast, watched how the lashes fluttered intermittently, heard the breaths he took through his nose.

Chris looked at everyone in the room; felt a vicarious thrill at how unaware they remained. Joey was staring out the window, Dr. Gyllenhaal was centralized on Lance, and Lance was lost in his account of his sister calling him a fucking freak.

The way JC's arm moved just barely, Chris knew no end would come of it, not here. Just touches, exhilarating touches, a foretaste of delicious privacy that lay ahead, building a haven from this damned place with their arousal, letting them drift through it all, above it all.

Chris hated them for escaping together and leaving him behind.


Day Twenty-one


"Sign this card." Lance handed him a homemade card, looked like one of Joey's creations. Uneven balloon-lettering, strange but endearing, just like Joey. From the whole gang, it said, with a half dozen signatures below.

"What's it for?" Chris said, pen poised to write.

"JC's leaving tomorrow," Lance told him. "Remember?"

And Chris didn't know how he'd forgotten. "I've been in this fucking place too long," Chris tried to laugh. "I can't keep nothing in my head."

"Yhea, well, he says he's gonna come back and visit. For Justin, but we'll all get to see him," Lance said. "He's gonna come back in two weeks, 'cause first he's got to get registered for fall classes and get settled and everything. Get 'reacquainted with the real world'." It was a term they heard a lot in therapy. Something scary and alluring, when spoken within the safety of concrete walls.

"He won't come," Chris said, and scribbled in purposely-oversized script, Good riddance, Fatty.


Day Twenty-six


Now that JC was gone, Justin was more accessible. Chris got to know him and actually got along with him really well. He still wasn't sure why he'd come; Justin always got quiet when Chris tried to bring it up. So he simply didn't mention it, and they had a nice, easy companionship.

They played ping-pong, went swimming, played basketball. They hid Joey's copy of Willy Wonka when games were aired. Justin loved to hear stories about the friends Chris had in the CIA or the time he hacked into Bill Gate's PC. He listened and laughed and encouraged Chris to keep going. It was fun, and nice, and Chris hardly ever thought about the things they didn't talk about.

Like JC, or why Justin changed the channel during commercials for antidepressants when the announcer came to the part about, "feelings of worthlessness, thoughts of suicide." It wasn't worth talking about if it would change the way things were.

But today was Art Therapy day, and Ms. O pointed to a table where she'd laid out painting supplies and their sculptures from last time. Justin went to the table and just stood there, staring at the caterpillar and mushroom. Chris wished he could think of someway to distract him without being obvious. Finally, Justin picked up his caterpillar and snapped it in half, let the broken pieces fall from his hands and walked back to his table, sat down and put his head in his arms.

Chris got his stupid pig and painted it pink.


Day Thirty


"Here." Lance brought him a card to sign, but this time Chris knew who it was for. Justin was leaving tomorrow morning. "You okay, man?"

"What, me?" Chris looked at him strangely. "Why wouldn't I be?"

Lance shrugged. "I don't know. You and Justin have become pretty good friends, right?"

"It's not like he's dying," Chris said, uncapping the pen in his hand.

"He'll be back, though, won't he?" Lance guessed. "He'll come visit so he can be here when JC comes?"

"He's gonna call up here," Chris said. "He's gonna call and talk to JC, so he can give him his address and everything and they can hang out."

"How does he know what time to call?" Lance asked.

"It don't matter," Chris laughed. "He's not gonna call, just like JC's not gonna visit."

"How do you know?" Lance argued, but Chris just shook his head.

He wrote in the card, Have a nice life.


Day Thirty-six


Nobody visited. But that's okay; nobody called, either.


Day Thirty-seven


It wasn't often that they used the Quiet Room. Chris hadn't seen it happen in over a month. And he'd never witnessed them lock up someone he knew. He'd never seen it happen to Joey.

Once, he had woken up in the morning and Joey had been in there, but that wasn't the same.

It wasn't the same as being right there when it happened. When out of nowhere Joey's eyes went big and terrified and he sprung from his seat on the couch and leaped on top of a cabinet that was at least five feet tall, movements inhumanly nimble, lightning fast. He managed to push up a panel of the suspended ceiling, get halfway in before an orderly caught hold of his leg and dragged him down.

In a heartbeat, three men were on him, wrestling him howling and kicking to the floor. A nurse hurried over, needle in hand and the scream that ripped through Joey's throat echoed in Chris's head for hours after.

Chris knew what it was like in the Quiet Room. He'd been there before, mainly out of curiosity. He pitched a fit and got a shot of Thorazine in his ass and the next thing he knew he was lying on a plastic mattress in a tiny room with blue walls and a white ceiling. All concrete. One small, high window in the room, a plastic basin in the corner to piss in, and a slot near the bottom of the door to push food trays through. But nobody eats in the Quiet Room.

Chris spent his time locked up staring at the walls until he felt like he was underwater. He cried a little, and screamed for a while, and pissed in the corner opposite from the basin. When they let him out he slept until the next afternoon. He woke up feeling sore and hungry and defeated.

Chris watched the orderlies drag Joey into the Quiet Room and knew something had to give.


Day Forty


Art therapy again. Chris went to the table in the back of the room crowded with art projects abandoned by discharged patients. He scanned the table, plucked the mushroom and the broken caterpillar out of the clutter. Went back to his seat and painted them both.

The mushroom came out ugly. He tried to paint it purple with blue swirls, but the swirls were thick and wobbly, and the paint dripped all over the place. He glued the caterpillar halves together, painted it green. Laid it on top of the mushroom, put them back on the table to dry.

The pig he was making came out not half bad. He decided to give it to Ms. O to remember him by. He was being let out in three days.

"Mizzo," he said, approaching her desk.

She put down her magazine and smiled at him. "Yes, Chris?"

"I want you to have this, 'cause I won't be seeing you again. I'm leaving Thursday." He set the pig down on her desk gingerly. It was still wet.

"How precious!" she cooed, moving it carefully onto a sheet of paper. "I'll cherish it, Chris. Thank you. I'm so glad that you're feeling well enough to go home."

"Yhea," he told her. "I'm much better now."

And didn't it make perfect sense, that what got him in should get him out?


Day Forty-three


Lance handed him a homemade card, but this time to keep, not to sign. "You lucky bastard. I might be out in a few weeks, my doctor says."

"That's great." Chris clapped him on the back. "Good luck with that."

"I'll miss you," said Joey. "Take care of yourself."

"I'll miss you too, you lunatic," Chris laughed, letting Joey crush him in a bear hug. When he was released he turned back to Lance, held out his pack of Marlboros. "Here, man. Hide these someplace safe."

"Thanks." Lance grinned, slipping the pack inside the waistband of his pants.

"You know I heard some of the nurses talking," Chris said. "One of them went to the movies the other night and who did she see at the theater?"

"Who?" Lance was distracted, thinking of where he could hide the cigarettes.

"None other than Fatty and Loverboy." Chris smirked, "Man, just let Joe hold 'em for you."

"No shit?" Lance said, handing Joey his cigarettes, "You're not bullshitting?"

"I'm cured, remember?" Chris laughed, ruffling Lance's hair as he spotted his parents coming up the sidewalk.

Lance followed Chris's line of sight out the window, "They're here." Lance squeezed Chris's arm in farewell. "Be good, man. Don't come back now, y'hear?"

Chris laughed again, full of good feeling today. "I'll visit," he promised.

And then he left.


Back to Fiction Index