“Please, can I stay just a little bit longer?” the patient asked Dr. Randy Ekman.

Ekman smiled; he had grown so accustomed to that pleading voice over his time at the ward that he barely noticed it. He could already anticipate the man’s rationale for why he be permitted to remain beyond his maximum time. The reasons were hardly ever original.

Placing a gentle but firm hand on the patience, Ekman took him for a walk along the main room on the second floor. He tried to keep them away from the windows where the man might observe the stunning lawn and patio overlooking the tall concrete walls and barbed wire surrounding the perimeter. He had to take the patient’s mind off his imminent departure.

“I understand you’re anxious,” Ekman said. “However, unless there are extenuating circumstances, I cannot permit it.”

“But, Doctor…”

“I’m sure you will do fine once you return to your home and family. No doubt they’re anxious to see you again.”

The comment gave the man pause; precisely as Ekman had hoped. Keep him concentrated on his loved ones, their expectations, his commitments. Anything that would sway his mind. Ekman had never failed to convince a patient to leave when their time had come.

The man glanced at the security doors leading to the stairway. One of the female orderlies already had his coat and hat waiting for him. Ekman gave her a cautious eye not to rush the man or seem as though they were in a hurry. Better to wait another minute or two and have him go voluntarily than spend hours trying to coax him.

“I suppose it’s time to go,” the man said.

“It’s not like you’re leaving for good,” Ekman said. “Your subscription gives you two visits a month. It’ll be sooner than you think.”

Without another word, the man approached the orderly and took his things before heading down to the lobby. The orderly went into the security center to double-check the man’s movements, but Ekman stopped her.

“I’ve worked here long enough to know when a man is lying or not. He’s leaving.”

“Very good, sir.”

Now unoccupied again, Ekman returned to the main part of the room where patients had gathered. Some were reading books from a shelf by the wall, while others were playing board games. Others then were working on crafts or hobbies. Another cluster of men were huddled near a table discussing sports trivia.

He didn’t bother any of them. They didn’t need his help.

He then noticed one of the men standing in front of the large window overlooking the garden. Ekman was good with faces, and he didn’t recognize this person. He was certain it was a new patient. Strolling over to his side, he offered his hand in greeting. The man took it reluctantly.

“I’m Dr. Ekman, I’m in charge of Ward 387.”

“I’m Gregory.”

“When did you arrive?”

“Early this morning.”

“What brings you here?”

Gregory laughed. “The same thing that brings everybody here. A chance to get away.”

“That’s not quite what this place is for.”

Gregory frowned, but was quiet. He kept staring out the window.

“Anything out there that interests you particularly?” Ekman asked.

“Yeah. Everything.”

“Everything? How so?”

“I’m amazed at how so much could be so wrong.”

“Now, now, I would encourage you to dwell on other things. That’s what I tell all new patients here. I want them to enjoy their stay. They can’t do that if they’re spending the whole time fixated on what’s wrong with the world.”

“Then we just have to stop thinking about the world.”

Ekman gestured away from the window. “Come.”

Gregory hesitated, but eventually walked alongside him to one of the tables. Ekman called to one of the orderlies and had them bring coffee. Gregory leaned back in his seat as he watched Ekman stir cream into his mug before taking soft sips.

“What exactly do you do?” Gregory asked.

Taken aback by the remark, Ekman chuckled and set his coffee down. “Other than managing this ward? I work with patients like yourself.”

“Work with us on what?”

“On handling the struggles of the real world. I don’t hold it against anyone who finds it difficult. Constant changes. Continuous information and communication flooding your senses. All the urgency and demands and stress that are applied from all sides. It takes a toll on a person. That’s why we have places like this for people to get away from it all, to take a break. A few days away from the real world is enough for people to recharge their system and regain perspective, wouldn’t you say?”

“I wouldn’t know: I’ve only been here for a few hours.”

“Ah, yes. And how have you liked it so far?”

“I never want to leave.”

Ekman laughed. “That much, huh? I’m glad we’re exceeding your expectation. I hope we can impress all other patients here.”

The doctor then left to visit with other patients in the ward. Most confined themselves to the main room on the second floor. While Gregory had been withdrawn, others were more cheerful and talkative. It pleased him to see some were enjoying their stay and actually showing it. However, he couldn’t take him mind off Gregory, who remained at his table alone as he observed everyone else with an eagle-like gaze.

He only broke his concentration when it was mealtime. Cued by an announcement through the speaker system, everyone entered the dining hall and lined up in front of the counter to receive one of three meals for the day. The cuisine was extraordinarily plain. Ekman himself had designed it that way; he didn’t want to overindulge people who stayed. They weren’t supposed to be there for the food.

Seeing Gregory sit alone at the edge of a table, he came over and sat beside him. “May I ask what you do for a living?”

“Does it matter?” Gregory asked.

“I like to get to know my patients so I can help them.”

“You’re helping me already by letting me stay here.”

“Oh? So you’re feeling better?”

“Much better.”

“What is it about Ward 387 that you like? There are other wards in the region.”

Gregory couldn’t hide his smirk. “I like that this ward is here, and I’m not out there.”

“Ah, yes. Well, I have some recommended mental exercises and meditations that you could try that might very well help you when you go back home.”

Grumbling under his breath, Gregory shrugged. “Why is it so important for us to understand what goes on out there?”

“I imagine it would be hard to live if you can’t handle the realities of life.”

With a stone-like face, Gregory stared at the doctor for a while. “You follow the news?”

The doctor coughed; he hadn’t expected the question. “Well, not really. I’m more focused on my work here.”

“In my city, three hundred people were killed last week. Want to know how it happened? A motorcycle misfired while it was idling at an intersection in downtown. Everybody mistook it for a gunshot and randomly started attacking the person next to them. Then the mobs formed. Nobody had the slightest idea what the hell it was all about, but by the time it was over, half of downtown was in flames.”

“That’s terrible to hear.”

“Yeah? Let me ask you this question: I know a motorcycle misfire from a gunshot. I also don’t randomly kill people because I heard a noise. Weren’t they the ones who couldn’t the realities of life?”

“I don’t know if I would put it that way.”

“Well, then let me ask you something. Want to know what I do for a living? I work as an engineer. We’re doing work on this bridge. We find out that the architect designed it wrong, that the structural integrity is compromised. I tell that to the higher-ups, and you know what they tell me? They can’t say anything, because apparently the architect is part of a protected class I didn’t even know existed. The fact that that bridge we’re building is going to collapse within five years and probably kill a lot of people doesn’t matter. What matters is that the architect doesn’t get their feelings hurt and we don’t discriminate against someone who is clearly incompetent. So you tell me: who can’t handle the realities of life?”

“I think I’m starting to see your point…”

“I haven’t even started. Take the church I used to attend. The congregation is so dysfunctional they think young people don’t want to attend anymore because they dislike pews and want to sit in chairs instead. Imagine trying to explain to a full-grown adult that rearranging the chairs in the sanctuary will not magically cause some random man in his house to suddenly jump out of his bed at nine o’ clock in the morning and race to a church he has never heard of or been inside so he could sit in a chair instead of a pew. It’s like a child who puts cookies and milk out for Santa Claus and then sits at the fireplace waiting for him to come down from the chimney.”

Ekman raised his eyebrows. “…I see. Well, as I said, I’m glad this place gives you some peace and quiet. I suggest you take some time to rest and recuperate. Don’t think about these things too much. That way, you’ll be fully prepared to go back.”

“How often do you go out, Doc?”

“I don’t. Too much work here, you know?”

He finished eating his food while noting that Gregory had a contemplative look about him. He didn’t try to press the man any further. As with the others, the patient had to process his own issues in a manner that was best suited for him.

Yet, when Gregory left the table Ekman himself had an unsettled feeling inside. Unable to concentrate on his work, he found himself watching Gregory as he idled in the main room.

Within minutes, Gregory’s demeanor had transformed into that of a cheerful, relived individual who had not a care in the world. Ekman couldn’t help but note how quickly he befriended the other male patients and easily slid into their company. He had an indescribable intensity to his actions that both attracted and amazed those around him, and as they spent more and more time with him, they began to reflect that same aura of passion.

Ekman was divided over it; he was glad they appeared happy at the ward, yet he perceived an unknown strength within them he himself had never felt, never seen before, and did not understand. But he was too nervous to approach and determine what it was that roused their spirits. He feared what else he might find should he probe too closely. Better to let the fire kindle and burn out then to fan it further.


On the day Gregory was to be released from the ward, Ekman avoided him throughout the morning and during breakfast. He was uncertain how to approach the situation. He anticipated conflict, but wanted it handled in an appropriate manner. It would do no good to upset the other patients or the staff. Yet, he refused to let one of his subordinates take the responsibility of escorting Gregory out. It was his duty to see to it that every patient departed on the best terms possible.

Coordinating with one of the female staffers, he had her gather all of Gregory’s things from his room while he was socializing with friends; in the past few days, his companions had increased significantly.

When the staffer had his belongings packed and placed at the front door, Ekman walked into the main room to find Gregory and the other men laughing heartily at some joke. On the table in front of them there was a collection of model airplanes they were slowly completing. Gregory and two men would build the planes using glue, while the others would paint them using a small kit that they had acquired from the supply room.

Watching them curiously from a distance, Ekman finally walked up to Gregory’s chair. He remained quiet for a moment, unsure of how to interrupt their conversations.

One of the men eyed Ekman, then threw a glance at Gregory.

Gregory turned in his chair and looked at Ekman. “It’s time for me to leave, isn’t it?”

Ekman almost winced; he was still unaccustomed to such directness.

“I’m afraid so,” he replied. “I’m sure you’ve enjoyed yourself.”

“You have no idea.”

“Well, I do hope you’ll come back as soon as your plan allows you to do so.”

Gregory facetiously watched the clock ticking on the wall. After a few seconds, he said “How about now?”

“Come, now. That isn’t how it works. You have to check out and then wait for more than a second or two before coming back.”

“I’m not coming back.”

Ekman was perplexed, until he noted the man’s inflection. “You’re not planning to leave?”

“That’s about it.”

The room grew silent. The other men sitting with Gregory looked at Ekman to see what he would do. He could instantly call the guards and order them to physically remove unruly patients. But that had never been done before, and he had no intention of resorting to violence in his ward.

“I’m trying to be reasonable,” Ekman said as he stood in front of Gregory. “This is our policy. You knew that when you checked in, did you not? Is it not fair that we hold you to it?”

“I’m not angry at you, Doc. I’m not trying to pick a fight. But I’m not leaving. I’m not going back to that madhouse outside. I’ve never felt better.”

“That is the whole point of this ward: to help you feel better so you can go back.”

Gregory smiled; the other men laughed. He then stood up and folded his arms as he grinned wryly. “Doc, I don’t really care what the whole point of this place was for you and the people who made it. I’m telling you what it is; it’s a place for the only sane people left in the world to come so they can escape the insanity that is out there. We’re not the ones with problems; we’re the ones without the problems. Everyone else is our problem. The whole world has become one big insane asylum.”

The other men murmured in agreement.

Ekman went to speak, but Gregory cut him off. “Doc, why don’t you go outside for a while? When was the last time you went into town? What are you afraid of that makes you not want to leave?”

“Nothing,” Ekman answered hastily. “I’m just terribly busy here.”

“I’ll tell you what: If you go into town and stay there for three days and then come back, I’ll leave.”

Ekman shifted his pose as he contemplated the offer. He didn’t like the notion of making deals with patients, but he could not afford a commotion. So far, to all other eyes and ears the situation seemed calm. Any presence of guards would destroy that. He was not ready to break his track record of peaceful transitions in and out of the ward.

“Very well,” Ekman said as he offered a hand to Gregory. “I accept the offer.”

He had a staffer quickly pack a small suitcase of belongings that would suffice for three days. Another staffer offered to drive him into town. Gregory and the other patients were there to see him off at the front gate.

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary as they drove into town located only a mile away from the ward. However, as they entered the city limits, Ekman realized he had forgotten a few items. Jotting them down on his phone, he had the driver take him to the nearest pharmacy where he could get replacements. The car remained idle in the parking lot as Ekman went inside and began scanning the aisles for the items he needed.

Unable to recall the items, he reached into his coat to retrieve his phone.

From out of nowhere, a female voice screamed. “Oh my God, he’s got a gun!”

Ekman instantly looked around to see where the gunman was; instead, he found a man in high heels and a dress, pointing directly at him. The man kept screaming like a child. All other customers in the store fixed their terrified eyes on Ekman.

Stunned, he found himself unable to speak and explain himself. As he trembled, other voices stacked on top of each other. The commotion drew the attention of people outside the store who glanced through the front windows and then ran away.

Finally, Ekman found his voice again as he took out his phone. “For the love of God, it’s not a gun!”

To his horror, the sight of it only made the people more hysterical. “He’s got a bomb! He’s got a bomb! He’s going to set it off with the phone!”

“For God’s sake, it’s not a bomb!”

“We’re all going to die! Somebody stop him!”

Bewildered, Ekman abruptly barged through the front doors and stumbled onto the sidewalk. There, people were filming him with cameras as others called to report a suicide bomber. He tried to placate the crowd, but no matter what he said they only interpreted his behavior as violent rhetoric. While some fell back in fear, others seemed ready to attack him.

He rushed back to the parking lot where the anxious driver still waited for him.

“Get us the hell out of here!” he cried as he jumped inside.

The car barely managed to clear the exit as throngs of people clustered on the sidewalks; some had started to attack the pharmacy under the assumption it was harboring racial supremacists. As soon as they reached the outside wall surrounding the ward, the front gate opened. Flinging himself out of the car, Ekman rushed to the front steps where Gregory and his friends were waiting for him with restrained smiles on their faces.

Pushing them aside, Ekman frantically ran into the ward and up the flight of stairs into the main room. He then hurried into his office, closed the door, and secured all the locks. Turning around as the sound of footsteps approached, he pushed against the door.

“I’m not coming out! It’s madhouse out there, I tell you! A madhouse!”