So. Uh. Yeah. No explanation except quarantine brought me here. I'm rewriting this story. And probably starting new ones. No promises, I doubt many people are even going to read these at this point. But yeah, it's mostly for me, so whatever. If anyone is reading this, thank you!
Arthur sat slumped over in the airport terminal in Charlotte, North Carolina, his insides twisting like ocean waves. He had opted for a connecting flight as it had been cheaper, but now he wished he had gotten it all over with at once. All things considered it was successful. His stomach twisted and cramped the entire time. His head felt thick. For half the ride It had told him to pry the windows open and jump. But he had gotten this far. And right now, that was all that mattered.
It was early morning now, and Arthur was dizzy. Orange light filtered into the airport windows. There weren't any clouds. Arthur slowly laid down in the vacant seat next to him, trying to ignore everything telling him it was filthy, dangerous, filthy again. The voices had gotten louder since his escape. Even so, there was something cleansing about being out of New York after so many years. He hadn't even heard the hooves since he left the city.
The ticker above the gate informed him that it would be another two hours until the flight to Jacksonville boarded. Arthur focused on the letters until they blurred into light, and then let his eyes close.
Arthur was awoken by a voice. It was gruff, masculine. "Hey buddy, you're going to need to move. There are only so many seats."
Something jostled his shoulder, and Arthur shot up, blinking heavily and gasping. He lurched back in his seat and curled his legs in. "Sorry, I'm sorry," he mumbled.
"No big deal. Don't worry," said the man. He sat beside Arthur in a tired huff, crossing his muscular arms over his chest. He was older than Arthur, maybe forty, with thick blond hair and freckles. "Figures. Looks like our flight is delayed," he said with a slight, mirthless chuckle.
The ticker read delayed now in red, unforgiving letters. Arthur clicked his tongue. "Oh, classic."
"Huh, nice accent. You coming from far away?"
So he was a chatter. Arthur drummed his fingers on the armrest, scratched his ear again. He pressed on cautiously. "I'm from London originally, but I live in New York."
"New York, huh?" The man laughed, or maybe sighed. "Of course."
"Um, yes," said Arthur. He crossed a leg over the other, trying to look composed. Here, to this man he would never see again, he was not someone who had just escaped a psych ward. If he managed to keep it together, he was just some bloke in an airport. So, he kept talking. "Have you anyone in Florida?"
"Yeah. A friend of mine, I guess you could say." The man looked forward, the sun catching his pale blue eyes. The light brought out the faint wrinkles around his mouth. "Tell you the truth, he's more like a son."
Arthur was not sure what to say to that. "Oh?"
"I'm a coach," said the man. "I love all of my boys, but this one… he's definitely a special one."
"How so?" asked Arthur.
"He's like an explosion. Loud, impulsive, a little immature…" The man shook his head and broke off into a short laugh. "He's always getting into trouble."
"Sounds like a problem child," said Arthur.
"Yeah, sometimes. But he's also the bravest kid I think I've ever met." The man smiled. "And he definitely has the biggest heart."
"Hm," hummed Arthur, "I know what you mean."
"He never got hurt, though, no matter how stupid he acted." The man stopped smiling. "Not until now, at least."
Welcoming the distraction, however odd, Arthur pressed on curiously. "How old is he?" he asked.
Arthur blinked and shook his head a bit. "Oh," he said. "Oh, really?"
The man looked at him. "Something wrong?"
Come to think of it, it was a silly thing to assume. He just reminded Arthur so strongly of his gym instructors from primary. He flushed. "When you said you coach, I assumed it was a… um, a little league of sorts?"
The man smirked, and then broke into a wild laughter. It was hearty, deep, riotous. Arthur was not sure if he should be embarrassed. "Feels like that sometimes, but no, I'm a little higher up than that. I coach for the NFL."
Arthur spoke without thinking. "What team?"
"New England Patriots."
The man shifted his arms then, revealing the red, white, and blue logo embroidered on it. The very same one that strained against Alfred's shoulders when he ran through the hospital doors every week. Of course, thought Arthur sadly. Loud, childish, stupid, brave, heroic… perfect. Suddenly it all made sense, so clearly that Arthur could not believe he missed it. His eyes grew bleary. "Terribly sorry if I'm mistaken," he said, even though he knew he was right, "but are you speaking of Alfred Jones?"
"It's all over the news already, huh?" The man grimaced. "Friggin' vultures…"
Arthur spoke without thinking, hoping the man would understand. "My name is Arthur Kirkland."
The man said nothing for a few moments. He blinked, his expression blank and unreadable. Finally, he said, "Wait," and stared at Arthur incredulously. "Arthur? As in, Alfred's…" He paused, almost shrugged, "…friend?"
Arthur wondered how much Alfred had told him, and he wasn't sure how he felt about that. Blinking away a stray urge to run, he nodded.
"I thought you were in the hospital," he said. "Were you discharged?"
"Um," mumbled Arthur, re-crossing his legs. He scratched behind his ear again. The skin was beginning to rub raw. "Not… exactly."
The man leant forward, and Arthur's pulse quickened. After a moment he slapped a hand on his knee in bewildered understanding. "You're joking, right? You have to be joking." Arthur stared back blankly, and the man scoffed. "You really just up and left?"
Arthur felt like a pot of boiling water, whispers like bubbles rising and waiting to spill over. It was so hard to ignore it all, and his resolve was quickly dissolving at the mention of the hospital. Not here, not now… "Don't let them take me back," he whispered hoarsely.
Arthur closed his eyes, willing himself to breathe, to think, but deep down in that part of his brain he always seemed to listen to, he was certain this was dangerous. "I mean, I'm… I'm fine, really, just, if you tell anyone, I'm…" He closed his eyes, his stomach turning violently. But he was in public now, so, so close to Alfred. He had to keep it together.
Arthur's feet were wet. He looked down and saw nothing, but he felt the water pooling at his ankles. It made him feel weightless.
"Hey, man, no one is sending you anywhere." The man sounded genuine, but Arthur saw lies in his eyes. "How you got here is your own business."
Arthur mumbled what was left of his stream of consciousness, then forced himself silent. He squeezed his legs together tighter, shrinking, and regarded the man evenly. If this man was going to try and drag him back to New York, well, Arthur would just have to fight him off. He braced himself. The water was up to his shins.
"I don't think I formally introduced myself," said the man, extending a hand. "My name is Davie."
Arthur stared at his hand but did not take it. He was frozen, concentrating on not being swept away in the current.
"So," said the man who called himself Davie, dropping his hand, "I've heard a lot about you."
"Have you?" said Arthur, a faint panic enveloping him like a fog. "Like what?" What could Alfred possibly have told him? The last ten years of his life felt like radio static – a long, abysmal stretch of emptiness, punctuated only be meaningless noise. Noise that only Arthur could hear. Noise that was currently telling him to gouge out his own eyes. Water lapped at his knees.
"You two were friends back in the day, right?"
Oh, that's right. The past. The only part of his life that Arthur could make sense of anymore – on the days he could remember it. "You could say that," he said quietly. He almost smiled, until a zing of lightheadedness wiped it away. His stomach was wet now, tiny waves encircling his torso. "Things are a lot different now."
Davie leaned heavily against the seat, adverting his eyes to the window. "You know," he said, "Alfred seems to think pretty highly of you."
Arthur scanned the room, his thoughts consumed with where this water was coming from. It was swirling now, wrapping around his shoulders, his neck, getting ready to suck him down the drain. But Arthur couldn't see a drain. "I'm sorry, highly?" he asked, distracted.
Davie shrugged. "When he first joined the team, everything was about the game. It was all he ever talked about. It was all he ever did." He pursed his lips, resigned sadness in his eyes. "Then he started talking about you."
Arthur swallowed, water rushing down this throat. "And?"
"And suddenly football isn't that important anymore."
Arthur craned his neck upwards, his mouth barely above surface. But among the chaos he felt guilty. Most memories he had left of Alfred involved football – the way his eyes lit up when he talked about it, him sweating, panting, beaming after a game, the varsity jacket he wore every day in high school. Arthur hadn't considered just how drastically Alfred had overturned his life for him. And he wasn't sure how he felt about that. He let his chin drop, submerging his face. "He loves that game," he said, and then quieter, as the bubbles rose, "he really loves that bloody game."
"Sure he does, but he's always had a one-track mind. Damn kid." Davie shook his head, looking far-off. His voice was muffled. "So, Arthur. You ever fly first class?"
Arthur cleared his throat, choking. The whole room was under now. He shook his head and listened to the water gurgle. He wondered why Davie was not drowning. He must have been superhuman. Yes, that must have been it. It would only make sense for Alfred's coach to deal in magic.
"That's no good." Davie jerked his head towards the service desk. "Come on, let's get you upgraded."
It took a moment to process, and Arthur shook his head rigorously once he understood. Who was this magic man to do this for him? And what could he want? He stammered into a response. "Oh. Oh, no, I couldn't possibly…"
"After what you've been through, I think you deserve it," said Davie, cutting him off. "Besides, I think we have some things to talk about."
"Well, um…" Arthur drug his hands down his face, desperate to push away some of the water. His hands came back dry. "Okay," he mumbled. He slowly rose to his feet. A strong wave crashed against his temple, weakening his knees and doubling his vision. He was drowning. Davie could poison him, could kill him. Each second of his trip Arthur was losing more and more control.
But he strode forward, even as the waves pushed him back.
Alfred existed in a state of limbo, floating. Both metaphorically and literally.
After a certain point, he couldn't avoid the physical therapy anymore. Michelle, bless her heart, was patient with him, but it did nothing to suppress the storm brewing inside of him. Every day, every movement he made in the chair, every time he instinctively went to stand and couldn't do anything, just like someone would try to turn on the lights during a power outage. But this outage was permanent. Alfred missed feeling the ground.
And it was after these sessions, when Michelle took that thing away and Alfred was left to deal with his broken bones and ringing ears and halved body, that it all came rushing into him like a water filling his lungs. Now that there were no cameras or flashing lights, he felt things he hadn't in years. There were no distractions. Alfred remembered.
His bedroom in Tennessee had been blue.
He couldn't sleep his first night at college.
Arthur hadn't been okay.
His father always told him not to cry.
And Alfred would sit with that, like a slideshow, or a rolling fog. Detached. It meant nothing. It should have meant something. But it didn't. So Alfred stayed in his room, watched the planes go by, and went through the motions. He learned how to use the chair. He learned how to get out of bed. Like an infant, he learned how to survive. He existed. He would be discharged soon, but what came after this felt like a blank void in his vision. What could possibly come after this?
It was still so hot. It was still another hour before Alfred's final in-patient physical therapy appointment, and he was sweating. Rubbing at his forehead, he looked towards the sun long enough to burn his eyes, and then watched the ghostly yellow circle flicker across the white wall.
But then the silence was broken with a clatter, a breath, and a whisper.
"I think… this man is the devil."
And then Arthur collapsed to the floor.
Once Arthur stopped leaving his apartment, he found himself constantly confused by the weather. One day, he would look out the window and see orange leaves. The next day brought snow. Bitter winds. Which was a problem once the heat shut off. But that was okay, because before he could look away, it would rain. It sizzled off the pavement. Arthur couldn't keep track, not really. He swore the weather changed hourly.
Despite the weather, Arthur grew to love the oddities of his little apartment. He became accustomed to the way the building settled at night, how it groaned and creaked and shook. The lights hissed. Sometimes the floor caved in, strong and funneling, a vortex. The days were filled with voices he couldn't place and flashes of movement he could never follow.
So it wasn't perfect. But dammit, it was Arthur's, and no one could take that from him. Not as long as he kept Them out.
So Arthur built walls, watched the seasons change, ignored the pounding. He let his hair grow well past his ears and let the dishes pile up in the sink. He became accustomed to his new reality until anything else felt lifetimes, eons away. Sometimes he had a passing thought about his old American friend with the name he could never quite remember. But that was infrequent.
It wasn't until the pounding turned to knocking and the knocking wouldn't stop that the walls gave way.
"Arthur Kirkland?" said the man who had fought his way in, "I'm with adult protective services."
Everything blurred after that. A shriek resounded through Arthur's head. There were more words, sounds. More than a few pairs of hands. After awhile, he was surrounded by white. Some time after that, he was introduced to a doctor with an oddly familiar face. He was never able to figure out why.
And that was the last memory Arthur had of that apartment.
After weeks of silence, the room Alfred had been contained to erupted into chaos.
"Christ," said Davie, who had suddenly arrived, for some reason. He knelt to the floor next to Arthur. "I don't know what to do. Oh God, what the hell, Alfred, I…"
Alfred could not find a single thing to say. Arthur was here. He was out cold, his wild mess of hair flopping into his eyes as Davie lifted him uselessly from the linoleum. His body shifted, boneless, against Davie's legs. He was wearing a sweater vest, something Alfred had not seen him wear in ten years. The collar was torn. It was like the sky had fallen. Alfred stared, just stared, for what felt like both a second and a year. He began a sputtering response but it ended up being barely a sound.
"What on God's green earth is going on in here?" said a voice. It was Dr. Machado. He came rushing through the doorway, his lab coat billowing like a cape behind him. He shot Davie a furious look. "You cannot just come plowing into a patient's room like this!"
"It wasn't my idea!" shouted Davie back. "He ran off on me!"
With that, Davie stood. Which allowed Arthur's head to crash to the floor. Alfred's entire body tried to leap up, but of course, he couldn't.
Carlos turned his attention to Arthur, wide-eyed. "Who is this? What happened to him?"
"Alfred's friend. He's been acting funny for hours. I barely know the guy; I ran into him at the airport."
"Is he under the influence of anything?"
"I honestly have no idea."
"Arthur," said Alfred finally, a small, strangled sound. Then, again, as Davie began a confusing explanation, and Carlos asking more questions, ignoring Alfred, their voices pushing over each other, "Arthur!"
Alfred was about to hoist himself out of this damned bed when Arthur opened his eyes. For a tense, horrifying moment, his eyes locked into Alfred's; glassy and emotionless. Alfred reached his hand out. But instead of taking it, Arthur covered both of his ears and let out a guttural sob. He curled into himself, knees to chest, suddenly screaming like his lungs were being torn from him. Alfred had seen this before. It made everything so much worse.
"Nurse!" cried Carlos towards the doorway. "Sir, I'm going to need you to tell me if you've taken anything."
"Just make it stop," groaned Arthur. His voice grew loader by the word. "Stop it, stop, stop, stop!"
"I'm going to need backup here."
And then there were more people, and more noise, and more chaos, and Alfred still could not stand, could not move, could not do anything. Carlos was shouting instructions, Arthur was screaming, flailing, Davie was standing uselessly to the side.
"He's schizophrenic," said Alfred. His heart pounded painfully in his chest, panicking, and dizzyingly confused. He barely understood what was happening. "Oh God, he's schizophrenic, please don't hurt him!"
Another horrible, chaotic second passed, and Alfred heard the word sedative. With a burst of adrenaline he swung his upper body towards the door, pulling his legs with him, his body moving on its own. And then he was sinking to the floor. Alfred pulled Arthur fiercely into his arms, restraining him, holding him so tightly he could feel his pounding heart against his chest. He counted the seconds and waited to wake up from this insane dream. But he was awake, and all of this was real. Alfred could not understand why Arthur was here, much less how, but suddenly none of that mattered anymore.
"Listen to me," said Alfred loudly, his voice shaky but firm. "This is Arthur, and he's the love of my life. He also happens to have schizophrenia. I have no idea how he got here, but he needs his medication. He clearly hasn't taken it. Someone needs to call the Bellevue hospital in New York City and ask for Matthew Williams." Alfred took a shaking breath and met everyone's bewildered stares evenly. "Now, please."
Slowly, Arthur's screams turned into heavy breathing and shaking shoulders, and the loud, horrible room went quiet again.
"Dr. Williams, you have a new patient."
Matthew turned, still half-distracted by his notes. After years of practically running this ward by himself, he had gotten used to multitasking. "Sure," he said. "Why were they admitted?"
"Adult protective brought this one is," said the scruffy orderly. "Lived by himself. Apparently, the neighbors were complaining of a smell. State of the apartment was pretty gnarly. He's late twenties, male, failed the capacity test upon evaluation. Seems pretty paranoid. No diagnosis on record."
Matthew nodded. Adults unable to care for themselves was pretty par for the course. "I can handle intake. Send him whenever they're ready."
The orderly nodded and disappeared into the hallway. Matthew set down his notes, something he was trying to organize before group therapy later that afternoon. That, clearly, was not going to happen today. He exhaled a sharp puff of air. It felt as if he was more behind every passing day. Resigning, he opened his filing cabinet and pulled out an intake form. All of it was automatic, robotic, almost. The revolving door of patients was just a constant of his life at this point.
"Let me go! You don't know what you're doing!"
The voice came from far down the hall, muffled by distance and activity. The accent sounded British. It was hardly new; this hospital vaguely resembled The United Nations on any given day. Matthew jotted the date on the new patient form.
"They'll get you! They'll get all of you! Please, you don't understand, I…"
The door flew open, an orderly stepping through first. "Dr. Williams, this is your new patient." He stepped to the side, leading a man behind him. A figure in blue flannel pajama pants and a white t-shirt stumbled through the door. His back was hunched, his face obscured in a mess of matted blond hair. "Name is Arthur Kirkland."
Matthew froze. "Um," he said, blinking away a slightly stunned expression. He must have heard that wrong. "Can you repeat that, please?"
"Arthur Kirkland, sir."
At that, the figure looked up. Matthew nearly choked. He took a step back, hands wrapping around the edge of his desk, his stomach tightening painfully. It had been so many years. A pair of striking green eyes stared back at him, glassy and panicked, unfocused and so far away. So different than he remembered. But so familiar, all at the same time.
"Please! Please, I…" cried Arthur, hair flying madly across his eyes. His cheeks were too gaunt, his hair too long. A bead of spit dripped from him mouth. His body was limp, like it took effort to remain standing. "I'm going to die. I'm going to die, I'm going, I'm going to die..."
The room was spinning. Matthew opened his mouth as if to speak, but nothing came out. He could barely breathe. All of these years in the field, and finally he was speechless. Because, here in his office, was his brother's high school best friend. The one they had both thought disappeared over a decade ago. Furiously, he searched for the words. Something to make sense of this. Something to keep his composure. His professionalism. Something. But now, on this insignificant, rainy spring day, he was being forcibly teleported back to his teen years.
Matthew blinked, so hard his eyes hurt and he was forced back to the present. He was not a teenager. No, he was professional, a psychiatrist with a doctorate and endless experience. Someone with a job to do, no matter how frighteningly personal it had just gotten.
"I can handle everything from here," said Matthew, smiling lightly. "Arthur, my name is Dr. Williams. I'll be taking care of you while you're here."
Arthur regarded him with unblinking, untrusting eyes. Maybe the anonymity Matthew had maintained as a teenager was finally proving useful. Arthur did not seem to recognize him. Honestly, he barely seemed to know his own name. He seemed so… small. Matthew did not know how to feel about that or even how to process it. But that didn't exactly matter right now.
"Fuck you," muttered Arthur. His teeth were yellowed from neglect. The smell was noticeable from several feet away, something that Matthew recognized from the most severe of his intakes. It was a mix of body odor and premature death; a rotting body on a living person. The orderly tightened his grip, making Arthur flinch harder. Feral. Terrified.
Matthew took a breath, his mind filling with memories of pep rallies and parties and prom pictures. That life was so far away that he barely remembered it these days. But the reminiscing was quickly replaced with analytics, with crisis intervention and de-escalation tactics he had trained for years. As Matthew admitted Arthur to the facility, he forgot about high school.
Somewhere along the line, for a painful moment, he thought of Alfred. But Alfred did not need to know. This was not his friend anymore.
To be continued...