The woman at the door tells Greg to put his keys and cell phone into a small, square locker. Once he does, she locks it and hands him a key. He doesn’t understand why this key is safer than the ones to his car, so she explains it has less to do with potential weapons and more to do with escape.
Why would I help her get out, he asks.
Because she’s your family, isn’t she, the woman says back.
Three sets of doors separate him from the pod of locked-in patients. Through the first set of doors is a long, empty room, where the lady jingles her keys as a ward against the possibility of someone thinking she belongs there. The second door leads to the hub, where an older nurse and a tall man talk about a third person who isn’t working today. It smells like wet paper and Greg tries to smile at the nurse, but it comes out as a grimace. She looks away before he can change the expression.
The third door is wooden and thick with glass. Greg is told to stand in front of the window so he can be let in, which doesn’t happen quickly. On the other side of the glass, patients begin to notice him. They stare, pulling on pajamas or too-tight clothing family members brought before the patients gained the weight of locked rooms.
Greg hears the lock turn, and a youngish woman with long braids opens the door enough to put her face through and ask who he’s seeing. His first impulse is to say his sister, but he realizes she doesn’t look like him anymore, so he stutters out her full name. It telegraphs from his throat and gets lost somewhere behind the woman’s face. She lets him past after pointing him towards a half-open door.
His sister looks hollow. He looks at her and thinks of silk stretched over a skull. He’s not sure if he should walk into her room, so he stays still. His sister looks at him in the doorway and sits up, smiling. She slinks to standing. Unlike the longer term patients he’s seen, his sister has lost weight. She’s not looking at his eyes.
Who let you in here, she says.
Greg isn’t sure if she’s being cute or if she’s serious, so he shrugs and smiles. She smiles back and points to the only chair in the room.
He is scared to ask her how she’s feeling, so he goes into the script of the visiting sane. He comments on the coldness of the room, he makes fun of the wall color and the horrible program on TV in the common room. He talks about anything except for how it feels to see his sister in a mental institution.
His sister talks about how they are staring at her. How she thinks the fat man in the purple shirt is going to rape her, though she won’t tell Greg if he works there or if he’s a fellow patient. She talks about starving and dying and figuring out how she can get out and sue the place into the ground. He tries to listen, he tries to ask questions, but after fifteen minutes he smiles and nods at her and tries to ignore listening to anything she’s saying. He looks out of the doorway when she looks away from him, and he wonders how many of the people who walk past are just as confused as she is. He imagines that everyone in the common area is just as lost, all of them imagining everyone else is trying something.
When he leaves her room, the braided woman unlocks the wood door and Greg feels like he’s going through an air lock. Each door introduces him to a space that is not so covering, that is not so full of weight. It takes him a few minutes in his car before he’s able to turn the key and drive away.
He knows he’s affected. He can tell by the thin breath he takes for the rest of the day at work, by the way other employees repeat their questions to him after he answers them but not aloud. He can’t leave the room his sister is in. He can’t jimmy the locks and go back into the world.
Greg’s mother asks him to come by the old house and help clean up. Your sister destroyed the place, she says, and I am getting too old to do this by myself. Greg ignores the gentle, almost friendly guilt that his mother puts into her voice for him to catch. He says sure, of course I’ll come. Of course I’ll help.
And he does, of course, because that’s what a son is for. That’s what a brother does for a woman who reminded him of his sister before she lost her mind.
Bookended by what life is becoming, Greg loses his focus at work. He looks up paranoia and schizophrenia and personality disorders. Co-workers walk past his desk, and he doesn’t care if they look at his screen and raise their eyebrows comically like they’ve caught him in some compromising situation, which they have. He reads and reads until it’s time to leave, which he does without saying goodbye to anyone else.
He avoids reading what his sister wrote along the walls of the kitchen. His mother avoids it, too. They stand in front of it and talk about painting the room but not why. She says there is lots of laundry to do, that there is so much shit his sister has collected from thrift stores and she can’t figure out what to do with it all. He nods because his first impulse is to burn whatever will burn and bury the rest under the yard.
I’ll put everything that isn’t furniture into the garage, Greg says. I’ll put it in there and we’ll deal with it later, he explains.
His mother nods and goes upstairs to gather another trash bag of sweaty, stained clothing for the washing machine. Greg picks up a box of ceramic figurines and books for the garage. He doesn’t look at the kitchen wall as he walks past it.
When he puts the box down, he notices an old axe head sitting on the unused work bench. The axe head is black with rust and dull, but he picks it up just to feel the weight of it. He hefts it in his hand and lets it slip into the box of ceramic figurines. It doesn’t quite make the noise he wants, but the crunching weight of the axe against the miniature horses and children is satisfying all the same.
On his way back to the house he slips the axe head into his car. He doesn’t tell his mother that he’s taken it, because why would he need it, and why would it matter? Greg works into the night moving boxes to the garage, helping move furniture to different rooms, and ignoring the wall with his sister’s handwriting all over it.
The next morning he wakes up and watches YouTube videos about repairing axes. He drives to the hardware store and buys what he needs, spending much more than what a brand new axe would cost. He walks around the store longer than he needs to because the weight of the handle in his hand is so satisfying.
Over the course of days, he sands the axe head down with a Dremel and is surprised to see how beautiful it is under the rust. Hundreds of tiny pock marks run along its broad sides, making the axe head seem ancient. Still, the metal is shiny and the end holds an edge, so he works it over with a file until it’s sharp as new. When he returns from work he sharpens it again. He spends hours working on the axe head until it has no chips in the blade.
Once he’s sure the head is as good as possible, Greg attaches the handle. He takes it into his yard and chops a stick the thickness of his wrist apart with a slow, heavy swing. Greg has no idea why he’s restored this axe, but it feels good, and he finds himself carrying it up to his bedroom and resting it next to his bedside table, just to hold it in his hands again whenever he has an excuse to go into the bedroom.
When the phone rings, it’s his mother asking if he can go to visit his sister. She’s better, she says, and the doctors think she’ll be able to get out in a few days. Greg is excited to see his sister, he’s excited that she’s better and that she’s been restored, too. Sure, he says, I’ll be happy to stop in and see her.
Okay, his mother says, we still need to paint the walls. I don’t want her seeing all of that. I don’t even know if she remembers doing it.
Greg has his keys and cell phone in his hands before the woman asks him to deposit them in the locker. He takes the key and walks through the three doors as they are unlocked for him. Greg sees his sister sitting in the common room, and he can see her smile when he gets past the final door. She hugs him and tells him what his mother has already told him, but he acts like it’s the first time he heard it, and they hug again.
She’s gained weight, but she says they don’t feed her enough, which he can believe, given that it’s an institution. She talks about how much she wants to get out and how horrible everyone is, how the crazy people here are driving her nuts. They both laugh, and Greg feels like he’s gotten something back. She looks at him in the eyes and doesn’t seem so hollow.
I’m so happy you’re getting out of here, he says.
Me too. I feel like I’m suffocating here, she says.
I would, too, he says.
I mean it. I feel like I can’t breathe. I think it’s the air, she says.
Greg smiles, and he races to find a thousand reasons why what she said is normal. He smiles and watches her eyes flicker.
A nurse comes with his sister’s afternoon dosing, and she smiles, so both Greg and his sister smile back. She hands the cup of pills and holds out another cup with water.
His sister takes the pills and turns to face Greg. The pills become God, she says, pouring them into her mouth and taking a sip of water to wash them down. They become Jesus and God, she says after swallowing.
Greg nods and looks at the nurse, who smiles back at him and doesn’t seem to note anything being wrong. His sister sits down on the bed and takes Greg’s hand into her own. She clears her throat and asks about the house, so he tells her about the house and the way his mother has cleaned the place up a bit. His sister likes to hear about the house, so Greg tells her more but leaves out the walls, and leaves out that she probably isn’t going to see it anytime soon. He waits for visiting hours to be over and drives to his house, and then to the old house.
Greg reads the walls. He reads about how his sister is the Virgin Mary. He reads about the spread of cancer through the family and which of his sister’s relatives are the devils and which are saints. He reads the lines about sinning over and over again. He reads it all with the axe in his hand, feeling the weight of it pulling on his arms.
Greg reads the whole wall and feels the handle in his hands go up and over his head.
Matthew Kabik’s work has appeared in Five Quarterly, Structo Magazine, WhiskeyPaper and Little Fiction, among others. He earned his MFA from Arcadia University and lives in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter @mlkabik or visit his author site at www.matchstickcircus.com.