Chapter 6

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Darla woke up. At first she thought I was trying to fake-scare her with fake-chokes, so she giggled. Then she saw the idiot husband. What kind of a doctor, I had never known. Still didn’t know. But clearly, he was the sort of doctor who could slip unsuspected into a mental hospital like this one, despite all that’d happened to his deceased first wife (Jangmi) and his incarcerated second wife (the nemesis).

He was taller than me, and definitely wider and heavier: a towering statue dressed in a white gown, so stereotypical and expected of doctors. And in it, he was attempting to choke me to death. Darla yelped sharply. The drumming on the windows intensified. The wind howled through the trees in the park. Maybe it was my imagination, maybe not: I thought I heard the closet shake. When the lightning struck again, along with thunder, we saw that Murray was grinning madly. His breath smelled of alcohol. I hated that I couldn’t afford to hold my breath in an attempt to avoid breathing in the breath he’d just breathed out. He seemed to get this, and chuckled even more eagerly.

“I see you’ve got a visitor,” he said, glancing from me to Darla. “Didn’t anybody tell you the rules? No visitors except during the morning or afternoon visiting hours. And they must be pre-registered. Meaning, they have to make an appointment. You can’t just bring your little precious sister here. What did you do, pack her in your luggage? Hide her behind the curtains? Don’t you think it’s sick you’re so attached to your sister?”

Throughout all this, I tried to respond, or at least spit on his face. That didn’t work out. Murray cackled.

“No use crying for help. No one’s going to disturb us. The door is locked, there’s no way out. Staff won’t hear a thing on a stormy night like this. And even if they do, I’m on night duty, so no one will come.”

“You…” I gasped. “You’re, making, a mistake.”

“Oh? How so?” the idiot said, not loosening his grip around my neck.

Did this guy want me to answer his question or kill me immediately? Had he ever wanted to live happily ever after with Jangmi or had it always been her nemesis he’d wanted? Did this idiot ever know what he wanted?

My eyes got blurry. I thought I heard the downpour recede—then it multiplied again. I was running out of air. Darla sobbed near me, in a ball of fear. I tried to reach behind me so I could put a hand on her shoulder—do something to soothe her—but I couldn’t tell if I’d succeeded or not. Either I really hadn’t managed to reach her, or my fingers couldn’t feel a thing because my poor brain couldn’t process sensations related to the touch.

“Speak!” the idiot said, shaking me.

“Then, fucking, let, g—”

I couldn’t even say the last word, “go.” This guy kept shaking and choking me.

Then I heard it. This time, I was certain: the closet across the room had shaken. Luckily, Murray didn’t seem to notice this. He was too absorbed in his imaginary role as the—what? I wasn’t sure. The avenger? What wrong was he returning me? The “wrong” of getting his criminal wife convicted?

Also luckily, Darla had noticed the closet’s shaking but was smart enough not to let it show. Alarmed hiccups did begin (that was beyond her control), but she neither kept staring at the closet nor stopped sobbing.

I feared that if the situation escalated and exacerbated, Darla might be traumatized yet again. The closet had been bad enough. Now this? A human madman?

Because that was what Philip Murray was: a madman. And he was a madman of a particular kind: he lacked a consistent narrative.

I was glad I’d always thought of him as the idiot husband. People like him were the sorts of people who were always, somehow, surprised to find out something new about themselves, despite their supposedly above-average intelligence, not because something new had actually occurred to them, but because they were so thoughtless in their usual self-perception. Basically, no meta-cognition.

I’m not talking about free will here. I’m talking about, even if there were no free will, if you’re perceptive enough, you should know whether you want to choke someone to death or get an answer from him; you can’t get both at the same time. More importantly, if you’re going to marry someone, you gotta know that you want to, or that you don’t but are still marrying her. Even the latter would be better than simply not knowing.

Of course, you might say that if I don’t believe in free will, then I should also accept that self-perception is outside its realm. Those who’re equipped with self-perception will perceive; others won’t.

But see, if you’re like Doctor Philip Murray here, it’s too much, is what I’m saying. It’s worse than the worst of the mental patients.

Do some of the so-called mental patients see things that don’t exist in this world? Hell yeah.

But are some patients’ narratives consistent? Absolutely. They have their own world, which happens to be detached from this particular world, but is nevertheless inhabitable because it has its own set of logic.

That, I imagined, was how people interpreted my case: this guy Elmer Warde lived so deep in his fantasy land, he couldn’t distinguish reality from the imagined.

But this guy Philip Murray here? Just look at him, smell his reek of alcohol. As if he’d needed convincing to do this! It’d always been in him to choke a patient to death after locking the door from the outside, trapping us in here. Yet he acted as if he’d gone through some sort of breakdown! He jumped from one thought to the next. Despite his doctor title and having somehow managed to convince two women to marry him, Murray didn’t seem to understand what the hell kind of a person he was.

So, yes, definitely, this wasn’t about free will. Your thought may not consciously arise in your mind, but they shouldn’t always surprise you. All. The. Time. That surprise factor was what should define true insanity. Murray was basically acting like a spy in his own head, turning a suspense story out of something that really should’ve been mundane.

His marital life was one example. He’d jumped into a marriage with Jangmi before he made up his mind, forcing a big question mark to loom over his marriage: will Murray stay with Jangmi or not? I imagined his head split into multiple nations, each advocating one particular logic behind his actions. Nation X thinks Murray loved Jangmi and only later fell in love with the nemesis; Nation Y thinks he’d always loved the nemesis and never Jangmi. Then Nations X and Y each sent out spies to the other nation to find out if they really believed what they were claiming.

What he was doing to me, at this moment, was another example of his lack of consistency. By choking me yet demanding an answer from me, he was forcing a completely unnecessary question mark over our heads: will Elmer Warde run out of breath before answering the questions, or will Philip Murray remember that people need to breathe and let go of Elmer Warde’s neck, or will Elmer Warde, or will Philip Murray, or will Elmer Warde, or will Philip Murray…

Crazy thoughts. This was what happened when you were oxygen-deprived. And Philip Murray was what a true madman looked like. He probably trusted himself with nothing. I imagined he was very lonely, which didn’t make me feel sorry for him.

“Are you stupid?!” Darla suddenly screamed. “You want him to answer or to die?”

Murray momentarily relaxed his grip. He didn’t seem to have expected Darla to be so brave. My sister needed no doctor’s degree to know what she wanted: she didn’t want me to die.

I heaved in as much air as I could, then kicked Murray in the abdomen. He flew off the bed. Crying, Darla came closer to hug me.

“Are you all right?” I coughed out.

“I’m okay, are you?”

“I am. Are you, did you…?”

Darla nodded vigorously. She’d heard the closet. Jangmi knew who was in the room. And Darla, though clearly concerned that the closet shook the same way it’d shaken when she’d first walked into it more than a year ago, didn’t seem terrified to the point of immobility or her brain freezing.

I pushed her behind me. Once again, I was the shield between the horror and my little sister. And this time, I intended to be an effective one. Now that I knew my enemy was the idiot husband, I wasn’t going to get caught off guard.

Murray scrambled up. “I’m going to kill you,” he said.

“What makes you so sure it’s going to be me who’ll get killed?” I asked.

That’s your mistake!” Darla yelled at Murray.

He didn’t answer. The room was too dark to see his expression. Then he said, “You destroyed my life!”

I did?” I said, seeing the futility of my question.

Hadn’t I just concluded that Murray was many things at the same time? He was the spy. He was the nation who’d hired the spy. He was the nation who was being spied on. The guy didn’t know what. the. hell. he wanted.

The ultimate loneliness.

“Of course you did!” he screamed. “You lied and came into my house and found the murder weapon and got my wife incarcerated!”

“Which she deserved!” I said.

“We were living so happily,” he sobbed.

Were you?” I said, again recognizing the futility, yet still doing it. “You knew that woman was going to kill Jangmi that night. You did intentionally return home late, didn’t you? You waited for her to clean up after the murder, so you could pretend not to know.”

“That’s not true.”

“It’s not?” Darla said, apparently sharing my incredulity.

“If I’d known, I would’ve stopped her,” Murray whispered.

“But then how did that woman get into your house anyway?” I said. “Why was she there, in the bedroom where she killed Jangmi?”

“You don’t know if it happened in the bedroom.”

“It was in the bedroom,” Darla and I said in unison.

“That’s how Jangmi attached herself to the closet,” I said.

Murray laughed. Suddenly, he seemed to have regained his confidence. I was displaying symptoms of his definition of insanity. And other people in this world agreed that I was insane. Nobody told him that he was insane just for meandering and zigzagging and wandering from one potentially favorable narrative to the next. Some called his behavior self-preservation instinct. As if anyone like that deserved to be preserved!

“You with your closets,” Murray said. “You’re still telling that story? Are you really crazy? I’d always assumed that you weren’t, that you were only lying to get out of this mess easy.”

“Of course you would think that,” Darla said bitterly. This wasn’t one of the phrases she’d learned from our parents. But she could play the part of a lady who’d seen enough, because, well, she’d seen enough. “You think everyone’s lying to themselves. My brother is speaking the truth.”

“So she’s crazy too,” Murray said, pointing at Darla and talking about her in the third person as if she weren’t there. “Or, I guess in her case, we have to give her the benefit of the doubt. Stockholm Syndrome—”

“Don’t give me anything,” Darla snapped. “I don’t want to receive any benefit or whatever else from you.”

Murray stared for a second. He’d never been spoken to like this before, I could tell. “Oh, so you’re going to gang up on me now?” he said.

“What, are you going to go away if I tell you we are?” Darla said.

“What is this kid?”

“What do you mean, ‘what’ am I? I’m a kid!”

This was how Darla had survived the closet before I’d found her there.

“Fine, then,” Murray said. “If this is how it’s going to be, I’ll kill her first.”

He reached into one deep pocket in his doctor’s gown. When he took out his hand, he held a dagger, its blade as long as my palm. The lightning struck again. The dagger glistened sharply, coldly. With the thing held high, he rushed toward the bed once more.

“You madman!” I said, throwing myself on him, pushing him in the chest to get him away from the bed. “You’d kill a kid just to make her shut up?”

“The kid who destroyed my life!”

What a total maniac. I clung to the sleeves of his white gown as he wielded his long arms like a whip and tried to get to Darla. I could hear the dagger splitting the air. It had a ring to it like no other object here. All things here were made of wood, of cloth. Weapons weren’t allowed. So I hadn’t brought any. They should’ve checked their doctors more carefully.

I said, “You let your then-lover kill your first wife so she became a ghost in a closet and took my sister. All I did was to make your then-lover, now your second wife, pay for what she did. You can’t blame me and my sister for that!”

“I had nothing to do with Jangmi’s death!”

With that, he swung the knife at my neck. I backed away—too late.

© 2022 Ithaka O.

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This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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