My little footsteps echoed through the empty hall. As we neared the metal door marking the end of the narrow path, I tightened my grip on my father’s giant hand, anxiety pooling in my chest. Uncle Matt led us to the heavy door, asking for my dad to search for my grandpa’s name. I came to a stop while they skimmed through a list of names posted on the wall, my heart beating rapidly, my eyes nervously scanning the room behind us for runaway patients. I watched as my dad pressed the black button located next to the name “M, Richard,” and a loud buzz from behind the door rang in my ears. With a sudden clang, the lock from within the door retracted, allowing us to step inside.
We entered a dimly lit room, a solitary lamp illuminating shelves containing books and magazines. Chairs rested on a deep blue carpet, their dark purple tint blending in with the darkness enveloping the walls. My dad and uncle swiftly approached a window in the wall, which slid open to reveal a slightly older woman with dangling earrings. They spoke in a low tone as I explored the waiting room, searching for anything containing brighter colors.
As I traced the rim of a black picture frame resting on a little coffee table, displaying a photo of a brown dog sitting rigidly on a cement sidewalk, my dad sighed and walked with heavy footsteps over to where I was.
“Alright, it looks like there’s a limit to how many people can go in.”
I frowned, confused. “So… I can’t see Grandpa?”
“No, you’ll see Grandpa,” he reassured me, “but you’re gonna have to wait here for a little. Your Uncle Matt and I are going in first.”
My breathing quickened as they both entered yet another metal door, located next to the little window. The door slammed shut behind them, leaving me alone in the dark, empty waiting room.
I sank into the chair beside me, trying to calm my frantic thoughts. I picked up a nearby magazine, which was a maroon color, and skimmed a few of the pages before setting it down once more.
I was alone in an asylum. There was only a thin wall shielding me from outcasts who were unable to function properly in society. Images of men screaming and women contorting their bodies flashed before my eyes. Clips from horror movies played over and over in my mind, and I dwelled on scary facts I had found online.
After what felt like hours, I got up and began to pace. My pink shoes made no sound on the plush carpet, and the woman in the window glared at me from behind her desk. I explored every crack and crevice of the room to kill time, including counting the number of chairs, reading every book with a dog on the cover, and turning every page of every magazine I could find.
Questions continued to settle uncomfortably in my chest as I wondered how my grandfather had changed. I sifted through some old memories.
My grandpa had created a game that he liked to call “The Tickle Trap” when I was four years old. In this game he would put me up on his sturdy knee, his round belly poking into my back, and hold me in his lap until I “thought about escaping.” Once he believed that I was thinking about trying to get away from his firm grip, he’s tickle me until I fell through his knees onto the plush carpeted floor, his freshly shaven face pressing into my small cheek. I could recall the deep roar of his laugh and my awestricken face as he had somehow figured out that I had been contemplating my escape route. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever hear the roar of grandpa’s laughter again, or if he would feel up to playing tickle trap just one more time.
After replaying a handful of memories, my legs began to twitch as boredom took hold of me, and I found myself sprawled across one of the chairs in the back corner, staring at the mud colored ceiling. I was positioned at such an angle that I could avoid the woman’s hostile look, the wall concealing me from her sight. There I lay, my faith that my father would return for me slowly diminishing with each tick of the clock.
Finally, just before I bolted back through the door I had come in, my uncle returned from the door by the woman. He looked exhausted; dark circles were carved beneath his watery eyes, deep creases etched into his forehead. He gestured for me to go ahead with a single finger.
I rose from my chair, my knees quivering. I walked myself over to the sickly colored, pale yellow door. Time crawled by, my fingers moving in slow motion as they cautiously wrapped around the frigid door handle. With a great heave I was able to pull the door from its position, and I slipped through the small opening I had made.
The room I entered was a bright white color. Blinding Lights hung from a somewhat low ceiling. The floor was covered in white tile, and white chairs stood against white walls adorned with colorful paintings and pictures.
People were roaming free throughout this room, some looking alike to me. Others wandered aimlessly, their gaping mouths dripping with saliva. Some sat in front of the tv, watching commercials playing at a low volume, their eyes blank.
My father emerged suddenly from behind a light brown door. As I looked around I found that there were many doors lined the white walls, patients constantly traveling in and out of each.
He took my hand and I followed him to the room my grandpa was in. On the door read “Richard,” and just below it there was another name.
I peered into the little room, finding a different atmosphere. This room was painted a deep grey color, and red curtains covered the windows, muffling the shining sunlight.
There were two beds, each covered in a flannel sheet. An empty dresser separated the beds, although clothing hung messily around the room.
Directly in front of me, in the bed closest to the door, sat my grandfather. He was barely recognizable, as his hair was long and overgrown. A thick, white beard rested on his sunken face, and loose clothing hung from his shrunken frame.
“Hey, Grandpa,” I called out, my fingers out tapping little rhythms on my legs.
I was shocked by his eyes. They were as empty as the other patients’ around him, the color drained from his once breathtakingly blue pair. What caught my attention most was the hollow, hopeless lack of emotion in his gaze. He stared blankly at me, his lips parted slightly.
Those were the only two words he spoke to me throughout the duration of the hour. My father produced checkbooks and bank information, tossing paper after paper in front of him, babbling about his scarcely remaining savings. My grandpa gave a slight nod with every other sentence, although I saw without difficulty that his mind had traveled elsewhere. His eyes were fixed on the opposite wall.
Occasionally Grandpa’s roommate would wander in and out of the little room, resting rigidly on his quilt or standing awkwardly in front of the door. He once tucked himself in bed, glared at the ceiling, then flung himself onto his feet and disappeared in a rage. He enjoyed watching the painting of a bird hanging on the wall nearby, his intense stare examining every detail. His mouth would twitch, as if he had something to add to our discussion about finance, although he said nothing; he merely spoke with his eyes. Emotion roared in his eyes like fire, then simmered into emptiness the following moment.
I cautiously lifted a finger up to my eyelid, as if to make sure that my eyes were still full of the life this institution lacked.
I was jolted from my scattered thoughts by my father, who sighed and took hold of my grandfather’s emaciated hand. He grasped it tightly, the limp limb hanging loosely in his firm grip. He then stood, gesturing for me to do the same.
I waved back at Grandpa as I began to make my way out of the room, and all I received in turn was yet another hollow stare. Enraged by his lack of presence, and frustrated by the emptiness surrounding me, I called out to him once more, resisting my father’s grip.
“I love you!” I cried, my voice carrying now through the bright hallway containing a hundred more emotionless patients. “I love you, Grandpa!”
For one fraction of a second, I saw a spark of light. A small, fragile flame glimmered in his eye, defeating the formerly lifeless gaze.
“I love you, too, Isibeal.”
Relief flooded through me as I turned towards my dad, his scolding words bleeding into the sound of shuffling feet and clanging doors.