Tony Andrews always enjoyed his shift working suicide watch at the Birkanshire Asylum. Not because of the constant chorus of thorazine shuffles within the cells, the metal doors clanging open and closed, the keys rattling at his hips or all the other sounds of the institution that were oddly soothing to him. No, his job was a distraction that took him away from his home life – his disrespectful kids, his unfaithful wife, the bill collectors, and his troubling loss of faith.
His work gave him a bitter sense of empathy that was beginning to ride the fence of jealousy. The more time he spent on B-block, he knew he wasn’t the only one who felt inadequate, disgusting, isolated, dejected. When he realized he no longer had a monopoly on suffering, his remaining feelings of compassion withered into resentment toward the inmates.
That night as he did his hourly walk down the long corridor of cells, doing welfare checks on each broken soul, he reflected on the irony of this life of exile.
He peered into cell 5 and saw Inmate Tolusa stripped naked, emaciated, drool resting on the corner of his mouth, rocking back and forth like a baby on his mother’s shoulder. “Jesus,” he whispered to himself. “This is how we treat the people who lost their will to live, whose only escape was death, and we strip them naked, isolate them in a cell with nothing but a hole in the floor to shit and piss in. Thought we were supposed to help these people.”
He walked onto cell 6 and saw Inmate Crable curled up in the fetal position with a hundred-mile stare, probably imagining he was back in the comfort of his mother’s womb. “We’re tyrants,” he thought out loud. “We won’t even give these poor souls the relief of death. It’s their lives anyway, who are we to stop them! And if we believe in heaven, why not let them die and go to a better place? Why prolong this hell they’re living in? It’s because we don’t really believe,” he lamented. “It’s all bullshit.”
He went on to cell 7 where Nasty Nelson stayed. “Fuck,” he gasped as he saw a man with an unsettling erection, fantasizing about past loves and unattainable phantoms. “At least you have a sex life – doing better than me,” he sadly joked to himself. He began to talk to him through the glass window, knowing he couldn’t hear him. “You guys think you have no freedom, but you’ve got it all wrong. You have no need for a job, no bills, no responsibilities, nobody that depends on you, no possessions, none of the trappings of today’s world. The only difference between you and monks in a monastery is that they chose this life, and yours was forced upon you. You’re free and you don’t even know it.”
He wandered on, shaking his head until he came to the cell of Inmate Francis. “Holy shit!” he freaked, fumbling for his radio. “Medical Response Team to cell 8,” he managed to get out.
“What’s the problem?”
“I don’t even know. There’s too much blood covering the window.”
“On our way.”
“Control, open cell 8,” Andrews ordered.
As the door opened he saw a trail of blood leading to Francis who was calmly sitting in the corner, bloody palms resting on his crossed legs as if he were in deep meditation.
“Jesus Christ! Francis, are you all right?”
“Yes,” Francis quietly replied.
“What the hell happened here?” one of the medics said as he approached the cell with a gurney. “Jesus!” he shrieked as he saw Francis in the corner.
“Please don’t use the Lord’s name in vain,” Francis humbly asked.
“Is this guy serious?” the medic asked in disbelief as he turned toward Andrews. He turned back to Francis. “Sir, we need to stop the bleeding. Where did you cut yourself and what did you do it with?”
“I didn’t cut myself, and there’s nothing you can do to stop the bleeding, he said as he looked up with gentle eyes. “These wounds are a gift from God, and you shouldn’t try to stop it.”
“What the hell is this nut talking about?”
“He’s a Jesus freak,” Andrews tried to explain as he began to feel a little sympathy for him. “This is the fifth time he’s done this to himself, but we can never find the blade. He thinks he gets the stigmata.”
“The stig what?” the medic asked.
“The wounds of the crucified body of Christ, my Savior,” Francis told him. “I suffer with him. People think I’m crazy and deranged, so they lock me away down here. But this is just part of my path, God has chosen me to receive this. I don’t want any trouble, I just want to be left alone in peace.”
“Peace? You must be crazy if you think you’re living in peace with gaping wounds all over your body,” the medic said.
“Why do you keep doing this to yourself, Francis?” Andrews asked.
“Your doubts are the ones that betray you,” Francis said piercingly.
“Come on now,” the medic said. “If you say you don’t want any trouble, then get up on the gurney and let us dress your wounds.”
Francis complied and got up on the gurney. The medics began wrapping his wrists, his feet, and his side, and they wheeled him off to the Medical Unit.
Andrews stood in the cell battling himself. “There’s no way this is supernatural. He’s got to be cutting himself somehow,” he mumbled to himself as he began searching the cell. He could fell his Sergeant standing in the doorway, glaring down with accusatory eyes.
“Happened again, huh? Why is it my staff continues to let this inmate cut himself? Are you that incompetent? Did you at least find the blade this time?” the Sergeant asked.
“Not yet, Sir,” Andrews replied.
“Well, if you don’t find it this time, it’s your job. Understand me, Andrews?”
Hearing the Sergeant’s footsteps fade down the corridor, Andrews began searching for a razor blade he knew he wouldn’t find. “How does he keep getting away with this?” he questioned himself. He thought long and hard and decided to pull an old razor blade out of his pocket. He wiped some of Francis’ blood on it and dropped it in the evidence bag.
Before he left, he stood in the doorway judging himself, questioning his integrity, and contemplating reality. He turned right down the corridor heading back to his station, paused, momentarily forgetting the way back to his post, then continued on.