Within seconds of Bittell driving his head into the wall, chief of security Stephanie McDowell was in the room with her knee on his spine and zip ties around his wrists, whispering to him so quietly that he stopped screaming, saying that she didn’t care how much money his daddy had, she’d paralyze him if he didn’t stop kicking up at her. He was taken to the safe room at the end of the east corridor in L’Auberge, a padded chamber with an unreachable but still shatterproof skylight overhung by pine boughs.
‘We’ll give him his wish. Escape,’ Meyer said afterwards.
‘That doesn’t sound like his wish,’ Stephanie said.
‘We’re discharging him.’ Meyer nudged one of his windows open to eliminate the cracked-battery tang of blood in the room. The thin woodland air around L’Auberge leaked in, the purity level still foreign to Meyer after four years. They’d built on a private strip of British Columbian coastal forest donated by a patient from their first intake, years ago, intruding on the land with buildings and patients after a respectful ceremony with an elder whose name and people Meyer forgot almost immediately. ‘Let his parents find a place that’ll fit. He’s ten years too old and has too much rage in his cocktail for us. We’re done with Keith Bittell here.’
‘Thirty-four, never lived on his own. Baby, not a kid.’
‘He really is a good sculptor, though.’
There was a potential new intake at three that afternoon, the parents driving up from Seattle to investigate L’Auberge. Meyer thanked Stephanie and started a quick round of the buildings and grounds.
Most of the students were in the atrium after morning group, doing their hour-long, enforced decompression meditation – a staring and thinking contest that relaxed them before they made their way to the various studio rooms, the writers taking the left corridor, the painters, sculptors and multimedia kids taking the right. Without Bittell here the oldest patient would be twenty-three, which was the way it should be, and would be from then on. The older ones had too much shape to their frustration.
Keith Bittell had charged up the wrong way during these sessions, staying focused and inward, but just building anger, stacking resentments and delusions, until they quivered out of the pores, and at his hairline two lines of sweat with his eyes in the middle, beaming deadly purpose at whatever person, empty easel, wall or back was in front of him. He had to go.
Meyer watched the remaining patients from the walkway that encircled the atrium. A small group of eleven: a perfect scene for the visiting parents. One of the patients, Cindy Lum, who’d meant to go to the University of Austin but had instead spent a year in a Dallas meth den before her parents could find her, looked up and saw Meyer, waved.
He frowned to acknowledge her breach of focus before waving back. Cindy was a writer now, and had been intending to read through the canon in her undergraduate at Austin before launching a campaign against it during her MFA. She was still young, not even twenty-two, barely had a life yet to ruin when she started to lose it in Dallas. She’d come in from detox so emaciated her legs looked as pale and weightless as flashlight beams.
Cindy now was eleven months sober and three hundred pages into a truly dreadful novel with an occasional detailed scene of such striking truth that someone seemed to have intruded during the night and inserted it into her notebook. Meyer had asked her about one of these excerpts, a five-page foot chase through a dark warehouse full of bags of grain.
‘Where did that part come from, Cindy?’ He never asked these source questions during group talk, only during solo sessions. A similar question had set Keith Bittell off upstairs.
‘It’s not real, if that’s what you’re thinking. The stuff Tom did at the house was the worst of it.’
‘That was bad enough, Cindy. You don’t have to downplay it just because other people here went through worse.’
‘I know. I got the idea from this movie, a cowboy movie that was on while Tom was having an argument with a guy who’d come over to pick up, a guy who owed like so much money from before.’
Meyer would have one of her coordinators tell her this week that she had to scrap the major part of the manuscript and rebuild everything from her five good scenes, that it was the final phase of her treatment. Perhaps he’d leave out that last bit – Cindy had been here for the whole year-and-a-half of her healthy adult life and would be understandably afraid of leaving.
That day’s visiting parents, inheritance-plus-tech rich, waited until the endgame for their questions. The father was humming as they walked toward Meyer’s office, a melody that got higher pitched as they walked down the corridor, until his wife squeezed his arm and the sound stopped. Meyer got to the meat of the pitch when Mr and Mrs Bora were sitting in the patient divots on the couch.
‘We think of L’Auberge as more of a sanatorium than a rehab. Certainly not as a mental hospital. I don’t know if you’ve been in what passes for a mental health facility in this country, particularly a hospital-attached model, but I couldn’t imagine a worse place to get better. Especially for someone with a talent that’s either thriving or choked, and that has never successfully detached their work from their self-harming practices. In some cases – I’m not sure if this is true of your daughter Anji – in some cases the primary work we end up doing here is the delicate surgery of separating the concept of creation from the patient – the creator’s – perceived need to endure damage, to hurt themselves.
‘We believe that removing an artist from her labor isn’t just counterproductive to recovery. It’s unethical. Any detox that needs to happen takes place off-site. We can arrange that, of course, if your daughter needs it. We deal with the getting-better here. And for people like your daughter, Mr Bora, Mrs Bora, healing means making. Creating. Our staff here in the studios, all of them have an art practice of their own. Master’s degrees. They regularly exhibit, they publish. Even our maintenance and coordination staff, they’re all makers of one sort or another. Everyone on staff here is someone your daughter can respect.
‘We get that people are different at L’Auberge, and we aren’t afraid to venture into elitist territory when we tell parents and patients the truth: artists aren’t normal. They’re better than normal. We want to get your daughter – if she’s willing – we want to get Anji back to being better than normal.’
‘So her art practice defines your therapy,’ the mother said, and Meyer almost grinned at her.
‘Exactly, except that it’s a collective effort here, one that I guide. She and her fellow patients will be deeply involved in that crucial act of definition.’
Bittel was in the soft room, jumping up and down beneath the skylight, wearing green nurse’s pants. His confiscated patient uniform, spattered with dry drops of wood-brown blood, hung from a plastic chair just outside the door. Meyer watched him for a few moments before letting himself in.
‘I love you, Keith,’ Meyer said. ‘You know that.’
‘Sure,’ Keith said, still jumping. He spoke between big gasps, exulting and suffering through the exertion of his leaps.
‘Stop that, please,’ Meyer said. Keith did, staying still and stiff-legged in the loose green pants, a canine puff of pubes meeting his damp stomach hair above.
‘Thanks,’ Meyer went on. ‘I also want you to know that I’m a fan. An official lover of your work. In the whole existence of L’Auberge I’ve asked three former patients if I could buy their work. You’re the fourth.’
‘Will I also be a former?’ Bittell said.
‘You will. I couldn’t have any sort of commercial link with a patient, you know that. I’d like to buy Garland, that cloth and wire piece.’
‘The one I’m not allowed to touch.’
‘Keith, you’re not allowed to touch it because of what you did in the studio a week ago, which you compounded in the office today. We are not that kind of facility, and you’re usually not that kind of man. I wish you could remember that often enough for us to help you, but apparently, you can’t.’
Meyer turned to leave, letting Keith see his back, a tangible vision of casual trust.
‘This is your major project, then?’ Anji Bora asked, directing the question to a felt square on the floor in front of her, one of about 700 she’d cut out herself from a bolt of fabric she’d ordered on parental credit.
‘My project?’ Meyer asked.
‘This place. You know.’
‘Oh, yes. I’ve heard this facility-as-artwork theory before, from other patients. But L’Auberge would be no good as an art project.’ His language around Anji, in particular, was the most precise part of the treatment, an odd game of straight-shooting, lies, psychological terms, praise and insults. He modified it based on how she did or didn’t react. ‘I can’t think of you as elements of my ego or work, or it would be impossible for me to help you to actualize.’
‘Yes. A bullshit word in some cases, but here it means making space in the world for you to do what you’re doing right now. There is some choreography involved in the planning of group events and scheduling in general, but it stops there.’
‘You said the other day that the “balance” was perfect now. To the black security woman.’ Most of the squares Anji had arranged on the bed had been hand-dipped in multiple dyes. She picked a yellow, grey and blue one off the bed and set it against an undyed piece of felt, watching the cloth instead of Meyer. ‘Balance of patients, right?’
‘Yes,’ Meyer said. ‘And while you were wrong to be eavesdropping, you’re right to note that Stephanie is the person who keeps us all safe here, and it’s in those discussions that we tend to refer to the patients as a body, the way that on campus we’d refer to the student body.’ He wished he’d had the chance to test this answer on someone less keen than Anji.
She was right. A harmony in the group had developed in the three months since Anji had arrived and Keith Bittell had left, a balance that Meyer was careful not to tamper with, focusing heavily on individual sessions at the expense of group discussion.
She had even been able to defuse pair-bonds that threatened positive therapeutic outcomes, seemingly just by being there. Calvin Stern and Felicia Rhee, the Connecticut beer-empire scion’s son and San Francisco real-estate broker’s daughter who’d been getting close to a forbidden romantic connection, had drifted into a more natural, open friendship, almost like an ideal analyst / analysand duo that reversed positions every couple of days. Calvin’s folk songs were still unspeakably bad, but Felicia’s optics experiments, her stacked-lens and water-and-light creations, were approaching a Zen-garden peacefulness, or at least a highway-side-cairn chill. She and Anji talked quietly for a few minutes after meditation every day, sometimes pointing at the studio, sometimes at Dr Meyer.
‘Can you tell me about the man in the forest?’ Anji asked. ‘The groundskeeper?’
‘We don’t have one. A crew comes in once a week from town.’
‘I met someone out there.’
‘He was dressed like you guys. Not like you, but the studio people. Blue vest.’
‘Young but older than me. Dark hair. Not a clean person. Sweat and something meaty on him under the forest smell. Even that scent wasn’t quite right. It was like he’d rubbed a pine air freshener on his clothes.’
‘Interesting,’ Dr Meyer said, feeling a queasy certainty. Keith Bittell was back. In the woods, hiding out and pretending he could go it rough. After his parents had picked him up from L’Auberge three weeks ago, he’d stolen their Suburban during an overnight hotel stay in Cache Creek, taking his father’s wallet with him before vanishing.
Keith was still a city type, though. A Toronto private-school boy with imagined Maori roots that he’d tried to confirm with tattoos, despite the denials of DNA tests and genealogical research. If Keith was in the woods, he’d be making runs to the Husky station for generator gasoline, snacks, a proper toilet.
‘I don’t know who you’re talking about,’ Meyer said to Anji. ‘A hiker, possibly. People ignore our signs all the time, and that’s fine. I don’t mind some driftwood hippies floating through the property.’
‘Of course you’d say that,’ Anji replied, disassembling her felt assembly and heading to the Singer sewing machine that her parents had paid to have hard-installed into the room. ‘What even is property, maaaaaaaaaaan?’ she sang, grinning as she started to stitch a sandwich of cloth tiles together.
Anji did well in group therapy because she was a manipulator, skilled beyond any natural gift, a talker who built structures and lived for the other patients, mortaring their problems with real and invented experiences from her own life, sometimes with just a quick interjected phrase that trailed off into a questioning, engaging look.
But she’d seized on to Cindy Lum immediately, her second day on the inside. This was the one considerable strike against the group harmony that her presence had established: Cindy Lum was increasingly lost to him.
‘I think you should spend less time with Anji Bora,’ Meyer said, talking to Cindy during the calm outflow period after DM, while the patients were walking around the room. Calvin, dressed in a blue boat-neck shirt that his mother had sent him, was singing a new verse he’d composed to Felicia. She was concentrating on stretching out her calves in a short yogic set.
‘Are you telling me that I can’t talk to her anymore?’ asked Cindy.
‘Not yet. Let me correct that: not ever. If I think that you’re disrupting your therapy with unhealthy friendships and alliances, I’ll take that as an act of sabotage against the collective and your work, not just yourself. And your time at L’Auberge will come to a close.’
‘She’s making my work better,’ Cindy said, upswinging the end of each word.
‘I’ll decide that. You and I together, not Anji Bora. Unless you’d like to take over as arbiter of your own work – if you’re feeling prepared for that, I’ll be your biggest advocate.’
Cindy nodded, then shook her head twice, eyes glazing, not in boredom but from a fear so vast that it was absenting her consciousness from her body. Meyer gestured Stephanie McDowell over, told her to get Cindy a glucose-rich beverage and a seat in the Gloaming Room, to make sure it was clear and that an attendant was posted at the door with pills and extra blankets.
Meyer walked to the Digital Hall, where Anji Bora went twice a week. She touched nothing, just stared. Her textile and fabric work, she said, could translate into this field if she used fiber-optic stitched pieces. For an installation, or even for some sort of smart-clothing line.
‘Dad would like that,’ she said. ‘How do we monetize, that’s his big question, right?’
‘Right,’ Meyer said, sitting with her at the back of the room. ‘You’re learning, then?’
‘Not from these losers.’ Three patients were hunched over tablets, occasionally looking up at the mounted cube of four screens at the center of the room. One had AR glasses on and kept pawing at the air a foot in front of him.
‘If you’re not getting anything from any of us, why are you spending so much time with Cindy?’
‘Not all the patients here are worthless. And only about half the staff. Better odds than usual.’ The three patients, Amin, Patrick and Gregg, had now linked their tablets and were doing something with the digital projector that Gregg’s father had endowed L’Auberge with, along with half of the equipment in the Digital Hall. A centaur with comic-book tits and the face of Audrey Hepburn reared and pirouetted as the boys clapped.
‘If I asked you to leave Cindy Lum alone, how would that conversation go?’
‘I’d start off by laughing, then ask you if you were serious, then ask if you’d thought about what being suddenly dumped by her only friend, by the first woman she’d trusted in a long time, would do to Cindy. Especially if she found out that it had happened because the male authority figure in her life, her ruling godhead, the Daddy Who Listens, had ordered it so. Then I think I’d leave it there. I like question-fights.’
‘I don’t fight with my patients, Anji. I encourage them to break their patterns and, when it comes time to form the new patterns and habits that are necessarily part of life, to be aware of them. You’re not aware of your patterns.’
‘Tell me about a habit of mine that I don’t know,’ Anji said. She wadded up a piece of paper into a ball and threw it at the porn centaur.
‘You know you’re a serial escapist. You’re more prone to act out sexually than violently, and substances have only ever been an ornament to your recidivism, never a driving cause or a goal. Even the sexual acting-out tapered off a few years ago, when you started getting especially good at your work, putting more time into it.’
‘This is all stuff –’
‘That you know. Good. Congratulations. After your third gallery show, your year out from art school, you stopped showing but made more than ever. All you present as wanting is a nice roomy trailer or house in the desert, a place to work with a lot of sand and heat around. Doesn’t sound so bad. But you keep dragging these non-sexual, usually female partners, out of their lives and into an existence that they don’t want and that undoes them to the point of suicide or suicidal ideation, things your father and mother have had to throw money and compassion at all over the country. Your hinge is having addictive people obsessed with you so you can work harder and still have a relationship, one that stays together on your end and on the victim’s end specifically because it’s based in and defined by neglect.’
‘Am I supposed to say “wow”, you little fag?’
‘The anger would be more than enough, Anji, if I were looking for satisfaction instead of trying to help you. Any crack in your act is welcome to me, both personally and professionally.’
‘Every no-talent loser that you keep here for months while you pump money out of their inheritance is a theft, Meyer, and everyone can see it,’ Anji said, calm again, looking for the right smile and finding it by the end of her sentence.
‘Not everyone, Anji. Or L’Auberge would be pretty empty,’ Meyer said.
‘Is that an admission?’
‘It’s therapeutic conversation. Indulgence. Supporting my patient’s imagination. It’s what we do here, Anji.’
‘Keith is still in the woods,’ Stephanie McDowell said, drinking an orange juice in the dingy room she kept on the premises.
Meyer was trying to cut her cheap grocery store pâté into slices, but gave up and stared smearing hunks of the melting muck onto crackers. ‘You’ve found his campsite?’
‘It’s not static,’ Stephanie said, moving over to Meyer and scooping up a loaded Triscuit. She put the whole thing in her mouth and chewed it, sending her tongue over her teeth for two cleansing tours before speaking again. ‘I found three sites, Umberto found two. No discernible tracks, and the camps aren’t radiating from some central point. He parks somewhere on the outside and hikes in, every time. Or he’s sleeping out there every night. Umberto thinks he’s looking for a tree, a branch system that he can spread canvas over, climb up and camp in. Set up permanent.’
‘Umberto thinks this why?’
Stephanie took another Triscuit, chewed. ‘More leaves and pine needles than you’d expect are spread all over these camps of his, like he’s doing something vigorous up there. No saw marks, though. But he’s climbing a lot. He’s doing something up in the trees.’
Meyer left Stephanie to her snack.
Meyer walked out to the forest, just to listen. Some of the trees had imparted an autumn crunch to the forest floor, but most had needles they kept hold of, these old growths louring over him as he walked and followed the coordinates Stephanie had put into his phone, the GPS breadcrumbing him into the false afternoon dark of the silver-green trees.
In the small, car-sized clearing Stephanie had described, Meyer stopped, waited, avoided looking up.
Keith started speaking from four feet directly above him.
‘You can keep human breath alive in a place like this for at least two weeks, more, if you know how to shape the containment. Glass won’t work: only branches, dirt, moss, natural fabrics.
‘That air trapped under a dying tooth in your mouth, the heavy liquid in your head during a sinus infection – if your body can retain it, the way a corpse can keep in that build-up of gases before rot breaks the skin and gives it release, or the rotten air in a disease ward stays virulent – we can shape nature to keep hold of our vapours of health.’
‘Okay, Keith,’ said Meyer, checking the ground behind and below him before sitting cross-legged on dry grass. ‘A new medium, good. Not the most commercial, though.’
‘They called the devil –’
‘The “Prince of Air”, yes, I know. I worked with normal schizos for years before moving on to rich, bored fakers like you. Fakers wasting my time, their time and jeopardizing recovery for my serious patients.’
Keith came down from his branch in what he’d probably intended to be a graceful slither, but was more of an uncontrolled slide down the bark, palms and head first, arrested by an embrace of the tree trunk and a slow, muscular revolution that brought his legs parallel with the earth, then a few degrees lower, enough for Keith to drop down and pop upright, pocketing his scraped hands right away.
‘I’m very serious,’ Keith said. ‘Especially now that I’m not your patient.’
Meyer walked back, regretting his shoe choice for the last mile or so. Umberto Funei, the small Italian-Mexican kid who was Stephanie’s second in command, was smoking by the staff entrance to the Walser Wing as Meyer walked back.
‘Saw you go out there,’ Umberto said.
‘Yeah. I saw him.’
Meyer sat on a dry, flat rock and held out his hand for a cigarette that he knew he’d second-guess and refuse when Umberto presented it. ‘You talked to the wolfman? He came out and played nice with you?’
‘Yes. He’s not going to do anything bad, really, but he’s been bothering one of the girls.’
‘Yeah, the new girl. Beauty stitcher.’
‘You’ve seen them speaking?’
Umberto used his smoke to point up to a second-storey window in the O’Keefe Wing. ‘Saw her come down and go out there twice this week already. Ran right into the woods, but quick, quiet, all in black, not the suit we give them.’
The dyes, the fabrics. Anji had been crafting camouflage, her own secret ninja suit.
‘You should have told me this, Umberto.’
‘Nope,’ Umberto said. ‘I tell Steph. She’s supposed to tell you.’
‘Fair,’ Meyer said. ‘This kind of thing didn’t happen at your last place, eh?’
‘Meyerhoof?’ Umberto laughed. ‘No. The alarms, the bars, the drugs – no, no one running around in the woods.’ Meyerhoof was a supermax emulating rehab outside Palo Alto and Umberto was classic staff material: affecting less knowledge of English than he truly had, built big, good at violence but not excited by it.
‘Where d’you work at before here, Doctor?’
‘I’m not sure what you’ve heard, but there’s not much to tell.’ Meyer said. He could feel his abraded right big toe bleeding inside his sock.
‘Just making conversation,’ Umberto said. ‘I think you run a good business, a good hospital, you help a lot of these kids out. They’d be fine or fucked up anyway, they got too much money. And I think you got to get that guy out of our woods, like this week, or people going to start to talk, and you’re going to have a big problem, okay?’ Umberto Funei did a minor bow, a Japanese elevator inclination, and walked toward the parking lot.
He’s right, Meyer thought. The equilibrium of the whole place, a deeper measure of harmony than the patient balance, was off, even if he couldn’t quite feel how it was going wrong. It wasn’t getting better, it was just getting out of his reach.
Jimmy Ayad had the point position in the three-person confessional that afternoon, a series of sessions that Meyer had implemented in the past month. The solo therapy hadn’t been as effective lately. The kids had been guarded, as though they’d agreed among themselves that Meyer couldn’t be trusted, not completely. In a small group they were more open, at their most honest when they argued and forgot he was there.
‘They think – everyone, the professors, the police, people at the bar – that because my parents are rich, I’m rich. I disinherited myself, I tell them. No one understands. Like they can’t get that concept, that I wouldn’t take what’s there for me.’ Jimmy had a mixture of boarding school accents, coming out as a mid-Atlantic Cary Grant cocktail that went well with his tiny mustache.
Erika di Benedetto, who worked in liquid nitrogen and feces, laughed. ‘You can’t just shake it off like a, like a bad hat or something. You’re only here because of your money.’
‘It’s still his money now, while he’s alive,’ Jimmy said. The third patient was Cindy Lum, who was as silent as she had been with Meyer since their talk.
‘You can’t shove it off, or you would have already. That’s why no one understands your opera,’ Erika said. Disinheritance, Jimmy’s book for a hip-hop musical, was nicknamed ‘Dis Inheritance by the other patients.
‘You don’t understand the long game,’ said Jimmy. ‘You don’t know how to use money against money. My work is anti-money. Not just against wealth, it’s the opposite of wealth.’
Cindy started to talk, while pulling her right ankle up to rest on her left knee, craning forward into a deep stretch that had her facing the floor. ‘Yeah. Once their money gets to us, and especially when it passes on, it’s not theirs. It’s a symbol, a vehicle. It’s what you write, it’s what Erika sculpts, what Clive or whoever designs, but at that point it’s not money anymore.’ Cindy looked at Meyer. He stayed impassive, but she smiled. Breaking one of the few rules of the new small-group sessions, Cindy got up and walked over to Garland, Keith Bittell’s piece. She flicked its dark cloth tail, backed away, grabbed the air near it.
‘The way this is real, the way it makes what we’re breathing and looking at and talking about right now real. That has nothing to do with money, get it?’
‘But,’ Meyer said, ‘Erika tells us that the only reason Jimmy’s here and creating is because of money. That piece was made here. So perhaps money is part of its reality.’
‘No,’ Cindy said. ‘The money, the insane amounts my dad pays you even while he knows his next funding round is going to be a bust, it’s the last step of falsity. That’s what makes us really able to make things, here or anywhere else. All that money, the gesture of it, it’s like the first step into the imaginary.’
‘This is really striking and important, Cindy,’ Meyer said. ‘I’m just curious if it’s your story.’
‘What do you mean?’ Cindy asked, still fondling Bittell’s sculpture.
‘What I mean is where did you get this from? I’ve never known you to talk about anything financial before. I’m not actually asking, though. I just want you to know that I know,’ Meyer said, getting up. He opened the door of the office and made a stilling gesture towards Erika and Jimmy, then waved Cindy toward him. When she was close, Meyer leaned in, pushing the hair over her left ear away with his pen, whispering.
‘You’re gone, Cindy.’
The digital kids signed themselves out after Cindy’s dismissal, as a show of solidarity or maybe, as they insisted, just because they were bored. One of the boys, Gregg, had offered to take Anji back to California on one of his father’s company planes, which was landing within the hour.
‘You shouldn’t have kicked the girl out,’ Stephanie McDowell said, sitting in the cab of her F-350 in L’Auberge’s parking lot.
‘I released her, Steph. I’m not having it get around that I’m milking cash from recovered patients who are just a little insecure. If she’s got enough confidence to mouth us off, she’s good to go.’
‘You sound like a dumped boyfriend, not a doctor. You’re bottoming out.’ Stephanie McDowell started the truck and waited for Meyer to lean away from the door, then rolled up the window and left. Her shift wasn’t over for another three hours.
‘Does he make you wait for the moon?’ Meyer asked through Anji’s door. It was barricaded on her side with bolts of silk and black linen, and Meyer let her keep the illusion that the barrier would stand. All the doors in L’Auberge had double-swing hinges that could be triggered to open the other way with a swipe of a staff pass key.
‘He doesn’t make me do anything, Meyer,’ said Anji, invisible in the small blind spot between the bed and the west wall. ‘The moon’s a practical consideration, so you can forget your shitty tone. We need the light to work.’
‘He has a Suburban and a gas generator out there. You could use floodlights to do your work. To “trap the air”,’ Meyer said.
‘Trap the air. Is that what Keith calls it? He might not know what he’s talking about but he knows what he’s doing. I’d say that’s the opposite of you, except you score a zero on both.’ Anji walked back into Meyer’s field of vision like an actor entering the frame. She wasn’t wearing her camouflage yet, but her L’Auberge patient garment wasn’t standard any longer: she’d removed the sleeves and the pants were cut into loose boxer shorts. A secondary layer of underwear against the night outside, and a clear tell that this was her last planned exit. L’Auberge only gave patients one suit of clothes.
Anji bent and lifted a bolt of saffron cloth and one of green vinyl, each of which seemed too heavy for her to grip with both hands, let alone one in each. Some sort of lever techique, perhaps. She leaned the bolts into the door, blocking the porthole. Meyer didn’t engage the double-swing lock, and didn’t wait for the sound of Anji’s outer window sliding open. He started to run for the Northwest exit, stopping in the staff room to grab a piece of someone’s uniform – Umberto’s, probably, judging from the size – and making his way outside.
The smock hung badly on Meyer, but it was warm. It formed a crucial barrier under his coat and above his collared shirt. Anji Bora had dropped from her window at least two minutes before Meyer got outside. He was sure she could hear him following her, but she wasn’t running. Jogging, but not in flight: just eager to get to the clearing.
Meyer followed. Bittell was out there in those trees, imagining himself as a sort of Svengali medicine-man cross, some race-and-culture-hopping amalgam of invented meaning, dangling from those trees through idiot strength and the kind of arrogance that could ignore straining tendons and muscles. If Anji could see through Meyer, she could see through Bittell too. She must have.
Before they got to the clearing, they were in the thickest part of the forest, boughs and branches slapping faces and seeking eyes. Anji was a couple dozen feet in front of Meyer, a distance that widened again as he squinted and felt his way, listening to her path and waiting for the influx of moonlight that signalled the clearing.
It never arrived. The trees cleared and broke into openness, space in front and wood behind, but the moon had been put out. Meyer hadn’t realized how limited the dimensions of this area were – perhaps ten feet by fifteen. Small enough for what Bittell and Anji had done: flung, by force or ingenuity, carpets of cloth over the upper tips of the trees bounding this small arena, wrapping and curtaining it above and on all sides, except for the place where he and Anji had entered. The quiet, now that Anji had stopped moving, was absolute. She was sitting in the middle of the clearing on top of a small canvas-and-leather bag he hadn’t seen her carrying.
‘Keith,’ Meyer said.
‘Keith left,’ Anji said, in a voice that travelled without having to be raised. ‘He did his job and left.’
‘This isn’t something he alone –’
‘His job was to pay the people who did do it. Some concept stuff, too, the wires. Guess who helped?’ Anji said.
‘Patients.’ Meyer said. ‘Calvin. Gregg?’
‘No, no, no,’ Anji said. ‘Stephanie. Umberto. Others they brought in, wearing your uniforms. Those art kids are way too reedy for this kind of work, doctor.’
The wrapped trees, protected from the wind but bowing slightly inward from the weight of the rain the cloths had absorbed, circled Meyer. The wire structure that Keith Bittell had contributed was invisible, but Meyer could detect it in the straining of the trees, the way they seemed to be drawing closer to him from the roots.
‘It’s good,’ Meyer said.
‘You can keep it, just give me your car keys,’ Anji said. ‘The place could use a big piece of public art.’
‘These are private grounds.’
‘So open them up. You’re going to have to try things differently after this,’ Anji got off the bag she was sitting on and walked over to the doctor, holding her hand out for the keys to his Audi. The canopy didn’t keep them entirely dry, great drops of rain making a glottal sound against its exterior and taking their time to soak through before they dripped down in whipping strands. But it was better under here, the trapped air humid and those streams of water an occasional arrival, not a downpour. Meyer handed Anji the keys.
Anji walked off, then started to run. Meyer only heard her add speed because he was walking around the perimeter of the canopy, looking for tears in its membrane, looking for the wires, where it all came together and might start to fall apart. The moon was leaking in from somewhere, or he wouldn’t have been able to see anything at all. He kept looking for the flaw, for the source, finding nothing, but exulting as the air got thicker and the canopy drew closer in, bringing the trees with it.
Image © Petra Bensted