Dr. Griffiths straightened his tie and washed his face in the bathroom of the waiting room. He needed this job and was starting to doubt himself after thirteen failed interviews. He didn’t quite know what to expect of the position – a ‘mental health technician’. Whatever that means. The job listing description was short and rather vague. It listed qualifications such as “high school or graduate equivalent”, “one year of related experience with understanding and knowledge of mental illness”, and then the most unsettling of them all: “Willingness to work in an environment with frequent exposure to communicable disease and moderately adverse working conditions due to certain patient care activities”. Dr. Griffiths wanted to get a clear explanation of this part in his interview, but either way he couldn’t turn down the job. It was this or he was going to need to start applying to middle school counselor positions. He took in a last deep breath, and returned to the waiting room.
The room was mostly empty and silent, barring the secretary’s pattering keyboard and occasional sniffles behind the etched glass divider. A small part of the drywall beside the bathroom door was collapsed inward like someone had punched it. A musky scent hung in the air that was noticeable, but not overwhelming. Dr. Griffiths was starting to pick up on another sound – a ticking clock just beside the flickering red-lettered exit sign. Every one of the cheap red-cushioned chairs were empty, leaving Dr. Griffiths with a breadth of options. He could sit facing the television that was playing public access announcements, or perhaps he could face the door so that on the off chance someone walked in, he could make awkward eye-contact with them. He could even take the one seat that was faced toward the secretary and stare until they were both made uncomfortable.
But before he could sit down, a door creaked open behind Dr. Griffiths, startling him. He grasped his resume, crinkling it a bit, and spun around. A pale man with glasses teetering on the edge of his nose poked his slouched head out the doorframe and cleared his throat. “Dr. Samuel Griffiths,” he croaked.
The secretary looked up briefly, glanced at the man, and then darted back to her computer.
Dr. Griffiths raised a hand and smiled. “Yes, that’s me.”
The man motioned for Dr. Griffiths to step forward. “Hello. So good to finally meet you.”
“Please, call me Vince,” he said. Dr. Griffiths found him to be much more inviting than expected. “Right this way. We can take a brief tour of where you’ll be working. We can talk on the way.”
Dr. Griffiths was taken aback by this. Where “you’ll” be working. It sounded as if he had the job already. But he didn’t ask for any clarification yet, and followed Mr. Wilkens as instructed. Vince held the door for Dr. Griffiths. Then they walked down the hall together. The musky odor was even more potent when they left the waiting room: enough so that it stifled Dr. Griffiths breathing.
Vince walked with a shuffle, as if he was favoring his left leg. Dr. Griffiths made sure to walk slowly to match his pace. “I presume you read the listing in full?” Vince asked.
“Yes of course.”
“Do you have the minimum requirement of a high school education or equivalent?”
“Yes, actually. I graduated from The University of Pennsylvania with a doctorate in psychology and I’ve been working in the mental health profession for almost ten years.”
Vince nodded, but his expression didn’t change. “A bit overqualified, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, well I just feel a calling towards working in a psychiatric hospital. This one in particular.” He was already blanking – he’d forgotten the name of the hospital for a moment.
“I feel that despite the press, Barnes Presbyterian is still the best hospital in all of Pennsylvania. Barnes has a stellar record of keeping a large quantity of patients and still maintaining high marks in adult specialties. I know the hospital was ranked number one in the state for seven years in a row, and I think with my qualifications, I can help return the hospital to its very best.” But if he was honest he would have said he needed the job to support his daughter, Elise. He couldn’t bear to have to tell her Santa Claus wasn’t real just because he couldn’t afford that dollhouse she wanted so badly.
Vince grumbled. “And what makes you think you’re uniquely qualified to help us toward those goals?”
Vince sounded a little irritated, which made Dr. Griffiths stumble over his words. “Well – I – I’ve been working in the industry for almost ten years and have a – a uh – an extensive knowledge of a – uh – wide range of mental illnesses and – and did my thesis on the modern psychiatric hospital and how we could be providing better care as a nation to patients.”
Vince seemed to ignore this answer in a way. He stopped in front of a large windowless metal door and peered at the doctor over his glasses. “And you have the clean bill of health required for this position?”
“Yes. I did want to ask you about that though. What are the conditions really like in Barnes? I’m not inclined to believe the reports, but I just wanted to clarify the part about moderately adverse conditions.”
Vince spoke slowly and deliberately. “You want to know whether our patients are withering away in padded cells rolling in their own filth, don’t you?”
“Well – no – I mean I suppose. I just wanted to clarify the job description.”
Vince crossed his arm and stood squarely in front of the metal door. “Look, Mr. Griffiths: ever since the heyday of the lovely Dorothea Dix, the media has been up our backsides trying to look for excuses to act like they’re stuck in 1965 and shutdown every psych hospital in America. I can assure you we operate by the utmost standards at Barnes and our patients and their families are as happy as could be here. It’s all sensationalism, you understand? Sensationalism. Sure, we have some patients here that are more…troubled than others. But we care for them all the same.”
Dr. Griffiths shook his head and raised his hands in a sort of impulsive surrender. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean anything by it. I was just curious.”
Vince eyed him up and down and grumbled again. “Now, if we can continue, I want to introduce you to one of our more troubled patients you’ll be working with. Part of our interview process is to assess how you interact with the patients.” Vince slid back a small panel in the center of the door, revealing a tiny window, hardly big enough for a small hand to fit through. “This is Calvin Connors. Mr. Connors was sent to us following a murder trial in which he was deemed unfit to stand.”
Dr. Griffiths craned his neck to look through the small window. He saw a bald man huddled in the corner of an all-white padded cell. He was wearing a gray t-shirt and gray sweatpants, holding his knees close to his chest and rocking back and forth. Behind Vince’s explanation, Dr. Griffiths heard the man muttering something under his breath – something unsettlingly repetitive. But he couldn’t quite make out the words yet.
“What is he saying?”
“He’s counting,” Vince nodded with certainty. “One, two, three, four. That’s all. He counts to four over and over again. That’s the only thing he ever says. If you so graciously take the position, you’ll be our second mental health technician that’s taken a stab at caring for him. He’s effectively a mute. But we want him to speak. We need him to speak. Since he hasn’t, the murder case has remained something of a mystery.”
“Who did he kill?”
Vince sighed and reached into the pocket of his off-white suit. When he pulled his hand out, he revealed three polaroid photographs and handed them to Dr. Griffiths. Each picture was gorier than the last. They all depicted dead bodies – one woman and two children. The bodies all had a few things in common: they were laid with loose limbs spread beside their bodies like spaghetti noodles, a look of dreadful terror plastered to their faces, and a precise hole of about six inches in diameter dug into center of their chests. The hole was a clean, almost perfect circle, with absolutely no blood around it. “Did they wash the bodies before taking the pictures?”
“Then why is there no blood?”
“We have no idea. That’s why you’re here. To figure that out. We want you to focus on Mr. Connors. Gain his trust. Break him down. Get him talking.”
“Who are these people?”
“It’s his family. Wife and two kids. Connors had no priors. He was clean as a whistle before the murders – working as a professor of parasitology at his local community college before the incident.”
“No mental illness even?”
“Not that we know of. He never so much as went to a therapy session prior to the murders. Worked at the homeless shelter every other weekend, won Hazleton’s father of the year. Loved by everyone.”
“Huh,” was all Dr. Griffiths could say. Until he could get Calvin Connors speaking, the case was going to be one of the biggest mysteries he’d ever worked on. What could cause such an upstanding citizen to murder his entire family?
“And the counting? What’s the four about?”
Vince shrugged. “Nobody knows. Some think it’s something significant to him, like a lucky number or something he was thinking about at the time of the murders. Last guy thought he was counting up to the number of victims.”
“But there are three victims. A wife and two kids, right?”
“That we know of,” Vince paused. “Again, it’s just speculation.” Vince fiddled with a set of keys on a massive ring and then buried one in the door, and turned it. The door clicked loudly.
“Wait, I’m sorry,” Dr. Griffiths interjected. “It’s highly irregular to work with patients during job interviews.”
“Think of it as a case study.”
“I don’t think this is ethical.”
Vince held onto the door handle and said, “We’re not dealing with a usual case, are we? Do you want the job or not?”
Dr. Griffiths looked down to his feet and wiggled his toes inside his shoes as he thought. He thought of Elise and how happy she’d be unwrapping a doll house on Christmas day. Then he thought about what it’d be like to sit her down on Christmas upon his knee and tell her it wasn’t that she was bad this year, it was that Santa didn’t exist and daddy was too broke to keep up the act. “Okay, I’ll do it,” he said.
Vince leaned into the door and forced it open. When it did, Dr. Griffiths saw the metal door was at least five inches thick. It required a great deal of force to pry open, even when you had the key. As the door opened more, the air grew colder. It was as if Dr. Griffiths would be entering a different biome by stepping through that door. A chill overcame his skin that stemmed from something deeper than just the frigid air. Vince wrapped his hand around the metal door and held it in place while Dr. Griffiths stood as still as a tree, staring at the rocking and mumbling patient. Dr. Griffiths was beginning to lament his past interview mistakes. Why couldn’t he just get another professorship? A two-hour commute suddenly didn’t seem so bad. “Well,” Vince said. “After you.”
It’s just a man, Dr. Griffiths told himself. There’s no need to be scared of a patient. Even if he did kill his entire family. But it wasn’t quite the murderous rampage that bothered him – it was the suddenness of it all. The doctor finally mustered the courage to take two giant steps into the room, and the door shut unforgivingly behind him. Through the whole episode of the giant metal door opening and closing, Connors hadn’t reacted in the slightest. Not even a flinch. He just sat there: hairless and rocking and mumbling, only now Dr. Griffiths could understand what he was saying. “One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four.”
Dr. Griffiths side-stepped around the brightly lit room, moving in a semi-circle pattern in order to approach Connors slowly and as not to frighten him. He spoke to Connors in a soft, inviting tone. “Good afternoon, Calvin,” the doctor said. “My name is Dr. Samuel Griffiths. I’m a licensed psychologist and I’m here to help you.”
No reaction. “One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four.”
“I’ve been briefed on why you’re here by Mr. Wilkens.” Griffiths side-stepped some more. If Calvin’s head wasn’t tucked between his knees, he would be able to see the doctor now. “I understand you’ve suffered severe loss recently. First, I want to just say how sorry I am. It’s never easy to lose loved ones, especially family.”
“One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four.”
Connors may have murdered them, but as Griffiths closed in him, the doctor felt genuine sympathy. Dr. Griffiths wondered what it would be like to be a fantastic man by all measures – father of the year – and then in a single moment of uncontrollable mental breakdown, lose everything you’d ever held dear. His stomach twisted at the thought. It put his upcoming Christmas into a sobering perspective. Elise finding out about Santa Claus suddenly didn’t seem so bad.
Dr. Griffiths knelt down beside Connors, growing less afraid of him. “You know, I lost my father not too long ago. He was a great man. I was beside myself for months. He was my role model since the day I could walk, and then he was gone just like that. It felt numb – like a part of me had been cut out forever. For a couple months, I even expected him to call. I couldn’t believe he was really gone.”
“One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four.”
“We’re expected to go on in life and hold our heads high as if nothing changed when everything did. You can be out in public and seeing strangers give you judgmental looks for having red eyes and none of them know it’s because you’ve been crying. You feel like everyone should know, but none of them do. I only recently got up the courage to go back out there and get to work. But a wife and children. I couldn’t imagine the pain. I’m here for you Calvin. You can talk to me. I’m not here to judge you or diagnose you. I’m just here to help.”
Connors still didn’t respond. Under the counting was a low whimper, wrought with pain. Dr. Griffiths looked upon him – an emaciated shell of a man who probably hadn’t eaten in days, never mind moved. He smelled of body odor and something else Griffiths couldn’t put his finger on. The doctor thought about losing his entire family in a few minutes, and nearly wanted to cry. “I can leave you alone too if you want. Sometimes that’s what we need to heal.”
Connors stopped counting. He slowly raised his head from between his knees to find the doctor. He squinted, unaccustomed to the brightly lit room around them. He moved his hands to his stomach and held it as if in great physical pain. Calvin’s eyes were bloodshot and underscored by heavy bags. His face was drenched in sweat and for some reason, dried blood. This worried Dr. Griffiths greatly. Maybe the press was right about the conditions at Barnes. His jaw trembled as he tried to speak. In a breathy, but authoritative voice he said, “Go. Please go. It’s not safe in here.”
Dr. Griffiths shook his head, puzzled. “It’s okay, Calvin. It’s not your fault. You’re not a monster.”
His eyes darted towards his stomach and then back at the doctor. “Yes,” he responded. “Yes I am.”
“Why do you think that?”
Calvin shuddered and his eyes shot wide open. Dr. Griffiths could see every blood vessel in his eyes in a stricken red, branching off from Calvin’s corneas like endless rivers. “It’s coming.”
Dr. Griffiths lightly placed a hand on Calvin’s back and leaned in closer, unfazed. “What’s com-“
Suddenly, the doctor felt a strange pressure in his chest. It was a piercing hot glow stemming from his sternum and creeping over his body in a flash. And then it began to turn to pain – a greater pain than he’d ever felt before. He felt his shirt start to drag, soaked in something.
Griffiths tried to find the source and his eyes wandered down, to the same place where Calvin was staring in agape-lipped horror.
A thick and slimy black tentacle pulsated, sucking on the doctor’s chest. It made a low gulping sound and began to twist, splitting open his exposed liver with its sharp teeth like a water balloon, bursting with blood. Dr. Griffiths coughed, and blood spurted between his teeth, adding to the collection already on Calvin’s face. The tentacle pulsated some more and twisted again, then pulled away. Griffiths intestines drooped out onto the padded white floor like an endless collection of sausage links, making the most horrible slapping sound as they unraveled. Griffiths still sat upright for a moment, but his eyes glazed over and he began to sway before thwacking into the padded white floor beneath. And then, the creature began its feast.
Vince listened to the all-too-common screams echoing from Calvin Connors’s cell. He watched the parasite collect the intestines like a starving dog. Truly a magnificent sight to behold. It didn’t often reveal itself, but when it did Mr. Wilkens couldn’t help but stare. And when it was done, it slipped back into Calvin’s chest to sleep until it needed to feed again.
Vince took out his Polaroid camera and snapped a picture of the bloodless corpse and the six-inch hole in its chest. The picture printed out the front of the camera immediately. Vince grabbed it and waved it in front of his face as it slowly developed.
When Calvin stopped screaming, he dug his head back between his knees and continued rocking. “One, two, three, four, five. One, two, three, four, five.”