The nature of my work for the last decade has brought me into more than regular contact with an interesting and varied set of characters. I am quite successful at convincing these subversive individuals to do what they initially refuse -- to set thresholds on their volatility, silence their internal conversations, invade the fortress of their derangements. Starting in my youth, I have had the strong conviction that I can bend others to my will, which in short, becomes their will. During the process of surrender, I unearth the deepest bedrock of their psyche upon which I build the infrastructure for revitalization. I do not coerce through force, but through clarity. People fundamentally want to change. I am merely the contractor who becomes embedded in the scaffolding. While invasive, there is nothing threatening about what I do. I am benevolent, you see.
Emmett first arrived under my gaze seven days into his hunger strike. Things had been, “fine until my dad…," his voice broke off, a sigh erupting as he fiddled with his meticulously cleaned nails and lowered his eyes, "set unrealistic goals. I was making progress." His matted straw-colored hair splayed out about his head like a slick crown. The strong stench of aged urine smacked my face as I leaned in to check the steadiness of his pulse. He flinched at the placement of my cool fingertips on the soft inside of his left wrist. Thready.
Eying the slow drip of the IV bag above him, I nudged the flow upward with a few quick clicks to open the clamp. I also glanced at the end of the tubing that entered through his left nostril before descending deep into his gut. The tape was beginning to pull away from his flaking facial skin, an adhesive protest to his unhygienic state.
“What does progress mean to you?” I asked.
“Well, I have been using less soap for the past two months," he answered, his voice barely audible.
“What do you mean by less?” I pushed, exploring how far he would take me.
“I use a much smaller bottle each time,” he clarified defensively, his tone elevated, his eyes flickering. I scribbled notes on the lined paper attached to my clipboard, lingering in the moment to see how much more he might offer. Nothing followed.
“What do you mean by each time? Each time you do your rituals?” I ventured into dangerous territory. I stared hypnotically at Emmett’s eyes willing him into disclosure. Knowingly, he averted his eyes and broke my gaze. Usually, I chiseled through someone’s icy exterior after a few sharp encounters. Of most with whom I have interacted, I could write volumes on what they shared about their debilitations and resuscitations; of Emmett, I could barely populate a small pamphlet. Though he inhabited the same building as I, day and night, for what seemed to be a year, the bulk of his life before the moment I met him remained opaque. “Can you tell me more about your rituals?” I pressed on, trying to accelerate up the ramp of conversation before he could slam the brakes.
“I’d prefer not to,” he mumbled, letting out another aggravated sigh. He slumped over with his hands positioned six inches above his stomach. I noted a slight trembling as he resisted placing them down upon any surface including the notably ungowned skin of his torso. That was part of it, I assumed.
“It would help me to understand,” I assured him, “if you could tell me about your rules.”
“I’d prefer not to,” he continued, his Bartlebian stoicism pricked my ears hot with frustration.
“I could bring you something to eat,” I offered nonchalantly, “if you are willing to eat?”
“No. I told you. I can’t,” his eyelids shuttered down over his glass eyes as he willed me to disappear. He had retreated.
I waited a moment, looking for a reversal. He was recalcitrant. Standing slowly, I concluded, “I will come back tomorrow, Emmett. Around the same time.”
Each time I passed his room -- and being the first one in the main hall, this happened quite often - I cocked my head to peer through the window to the far end where he lay in bed. In all my days shuffling up and down the gleaning white linoleum, I never saw him reading, not even a magazine. He sat upright from sunrise to sunset with hands gently interlaced, staring blankly at the off-white white wall before him. Completely silent.
Prior to Emmett’s arrival, as one might expect, each cloister exhaled a symphony of taunts and haunts, rattles and battles, and fearful, if not relieved, cries from the caged. Residents would shake their doorknob, pummel the thick wooden doors, test the small metal-threaded windows with the side of their hand, hoping that the more force they exerted, the more convincing their sanity might be. I allowed it; exhaustion was usually the first step to acquiescence. Because of this, and as a point of security, all of the doors were locked. Except, now, the one leading to Emmett. A test. And a treatment. All in one. One he would likely never take. All freedom required was the grip of his slender hand followed by a brisk twist. A simple impossibility for Emmett.