Hard to Believe Heroes
Chaplain Wallace let out a long sigh as he made his long walk through Nymphis General’s barren corridors in order to reach the hospital’s Behavioral Health Unit. His arms strained carrying the stack of Gideon Bibles on top of his clipboard of patients charts, and his glasses slid to the end of his nose as sweat ran down his face. Though he enjoyed the exercise of walking the long hallways of the hospital and ascending its seven floors, the march toward the very remote psych ward was an especially long one, lacking of any pleasant images of sign, windows, or anything but the white wash walls.
Wallace was called to Behavioral Health perhaps once a month at most, more accustom to running to real emergencies on the spectrum of death, be it imminent news or expiration. On eerily slow days, he’d round in the ICUs to introduce pastoral care, and on the brazen days he’d visit the always overpopulated ER that had no shortage of victims and perpetrators of violent crime and nefarious deeds that seemed to as of late plague the city. He had made sure to specifically avoid the ER on his double shift of Halloween—or the Harrowing, such as the city preferred to call it, a name he personally disdained—knowing no such profitable work could take place among the droves of lunatic and self-righteous “Masks.”
Wallace stopped at the locked, double doors leading to the unit, strained to press the page button near the door, and obediently looked up at the camera.
“How can I help you?” A disgruntled and annoyed voice asked him from the speaker just above the button.
“Chaplain Wallace, Pastoral Care, here to see that new patient.”
Wallace winced hearing a long sigh unmuted over the speaker.
“That’s the one. Bill Henny,” he said, remembering the name without looking at his chart.
“One moment please.”
After a few moments, the door gave out an alarming whir before popping open, and standing at the threshold to meet Wallace was a tall and burly nurse technician. He looked down at Wallace at first with an unimpressed glance before squinting and narrowing his eyes at the stack of Bibles.
“They’re for the other patients,” Wallace explained. “Your unit requests them every time I come up, just after I leave.”
The nurse tech snorted and gestured Wallace inside, holding the door open just enough for Wallace to squeeze inside with the Bibles, thereby promptly closing and locking the door behind them.
Wallace was well enough acquainted with the unit despite his few visits to the removed side of the hospital. The first room was a kind of “checkpoint” of two sets of locked doors, monitored by an aged and aloof security guard behind a booth. Beyond that was a U-shaped unit of patient rooms, each removed of their doors, each with a chair stationed just outside each room for a rotation of sitters. The U-shaped unit was always short staffed and manned by a handful of nurses and nurse techs, who behind the desk watched over the rooms and “lounge” of the unit where patients freely roamed about, read, or watched TV—strangely always tuned into the dismal local new channel. At the other end of the unit was a communal cafeteria for meals and sometimes used for support meetings varying in topic and utility.
The security guard waved the two through with flat affect, and the second set of doors swung open for Wallace and the nurse tech. The unit was as “busy” as Wallace imagined for a late afternoon, with patients shuffling and pacing back and forth through the unit, few stopping to talk to one another, save to exchange a mistrustful glance or mutter a subdued curse under their breath. Maddened chanting and muffled cries echoed out of only a few patients who had cloistered themselves either to their beds or to the communal couch and sofa; Wallace had felt relieved that the stereotyped ambience of madness befitting of an asylum was surprisingly absent, though he chalked the phenomena up to the unit’s chief psychiatrist…
Once Wallace approached the nurse’s deck, he could feel all eyes rest upon him and heard the shuffling of feet towards the desk. He plopped his stack of Bibles on the desk while the head nurse, a petite and older woman, looked up at him with a sweet smile. Wallace looked over to the young and overweight nurse tech that had answered the comm, seeing her tiredly glance up at him once before returning to her newspaper, flipping through headlines of turf wars, child kidnappings, and the rote dismal article published on their crime-ridden city; whereas Wallace tended to steer away from such content, he couldn’t help but notice how hungrily the nurse paged through it, as though the depressing stories echoed with something inside of her. The two nurses were a perfect pair of yin and yang, of hopeful optimism and burnout respectively that Wallace had experienced often in the healthcare field.
“Thank you for the Bibles, Chaplain,” the head nurse beamed.
Wallace could feel a drove of patients hovering about him and the desk. His first time up on the unit he’d naively interpreted the interest the patients gave to him as an opportunity to provide care. That day he’d left the unit with an hour of unpaid overtime, unable to leave, as a line of patients referred themselves to Pastoral Care. It wasn’t that Wallace thought their stories didn’t matter, or that their pain wasn’t real…
“They’re just bored,” the other nurse grumbled, taking the stack of Bibles and beginning to pass them out to the patients.
Wallace sighed to himself. He knew she was right. But that didn’t mean he blamed the patients for wanting to schedule impromptu visits with him. It was just impossible to give himself to every single one of them on a whim when his daily referral list always barely got done by punch out, to say nothing of the sporadic emergencies that were called over the loudspeaker that he was required to see to.
“I’m here to see—”
“He’s in your room,” the pessimistic nurse groaned, flashing her eyes down the other half of the unit.
Wallace cringed hearing it referred to as his room, as though there was an asylum reserved for him. That being said, the room, opposite of the chief Psychiatrist’s next to the cafeteria, was relatively unutilized save for the chaplains who visited the unit. It was a small room, exposed by a large window for passerbys and the front desk to see into, and one of the only rooms with a door. It had a table with two chairs, and between the chairs hung a simple painting of a potted flower.
“He’s quite pleasant,” the older nurse reassured with a smile. “Have a good visit.”
“Thank you, nurse.”
Wallace kept his eyes forward and passed through the lingering patients. He did not celebrate the fact that he’d learned to be so direct and unapproachable, though he knew how one simple greeting could lead to a rabbit hole of a visit for a chaplain who had trouble setting a boundary and saying, “I’m sorry, I have to go. Goodbye.” That being said, he marveled as the patients parted before him in a way of knowing, as though they anticipated he had to see someone, as though recognizing the need of one of their own above their own loneliness and listlessness.
On his way to his room, Wallace glanced left, spotting the lead psychiatrist, Dr. Christine Pax, through the window of her office which conveniently looked into Wallace’s meeting room. Dr. Pax kept her head down in her papers, paging through reports and charts with feigned focus. However, Wallace could feel her divided attention, having been hunted after by her each time he visited one of her patients, interrogated for his report.
Wallace turned to his room, surprised to see his referral sitting and staring blankly forward, not at all looking out the window in anticipation for him, wearing a blank and only slightly woebegone expression. He was a lean, middle-aged man, his head recently shaved with a bristle of hair sprouting from his receding hairline. He wore an enveloping blue hospital gown that overlapped his body once, free of strings, wholly covering the patient’s backside—Wallace preferred that design. Just outside the window, Wallace could make out scuffs and marks of bruising around the man’s crooked nose and bony knuckles, the tells of a brawler that Wallace had learned to pick up on.
Wallace ceremoniously knocked on the door despite knowing he was fully visible to the patient.
“Pastoral Care, may I come in?”
The patient’s voice was hoarse though full of life, and as Wallace entered the room, he could see the man’s eyes light up and grow wide as though to take Wallace in fully, though the creases of his mouth did not move.
“My name is Chaplain Wallace. You are Bill?”
“You can call me, Billy,” he said warmly, his eyes still peeled wide open. It was hard for Wallace to tell if the man’s alertness was indicative of excitement, his medication, or merely a baseline of some condition.
“May I have a seat, Billy?”
Wallace sat down in his seat, folded his hands together, and shot him a subdued smile. Unless the patient or family of the patient were visibly distraught, Wallace usually began the visits with his routine introductions, “How are you feeling? What brings you here? How has your experience at the hospital been thus far?” In that particular unit, Wallace preferred to steer the conversation himself, knowing how fast a patient could spin such a question into a rabbit hole of an unrelated story.
“I apologize, I didn’t think to bring a Bible for you. Your residents probably have taken them all by now.”
Wallace knew it was an unconventional way for him to begin the visit, though his introduction had a method to it. The apology began to screen for the patient’s general regard towards others and their capacity of extending grace, the Bible was to explore the patient’s faith background or foundation of meaning and purpose, and the mentioning of the other residents was to establish he reality of the patient not being alone and explore how that patient was adjusting with his new environment.
“That’s alright. They’ll probably sell them all once they get out.”
Wallace blinked, subduing his surprise for such a candid response. He learned more from the patient with such a line that a medical chart simply could not communicate.
“Forgive me, Billy, but that sounds a little cynical. Is there something wrong?”
“You can’t give me a Bible, chaplain,” Billy responded flatly, though keeping his pleasant and lively tenor. “You can’t, because you and I both know they won’t let me keep one.”
Wallace waited before answering, and Billy held up his arms as though referencing his unique gown. Wallace knew that the stringless gown was indicative of patients with a history of violence or suicidal ideation. And the patient was right that Wallace knew the nursing staff wouldn’t let Billy keep the Bible, or any possession for that matter.
“What brings you to the hospital, Billy,” Wallace asked, gently gesturing to Billy’s gown with his eyes.
“You know why I’m here, chaplain,” Billy said, still in a pleasant voice.
“I don’t read the charts of my patients before visiting them, Billy.”
That was only half-true. Wallace read only the charts of patients he visited outside of that unit. He knew reading the notes of the medical staff tended to paint his view of the patients and their story.
Billy raised his eyebrows in an expression of what Wallace interpreted as commendation.
“What brings you here, Billy?”
Wallace raised an eyebrow.
“Yeah. Justice. Serving justice.”
“Care to elaborate?”
Wallace was surprised by the level of eye contact Billy employed as he told his story. He was used to patients staring off somewhere, looking up and about as they shared their story—fabricated or otherwise true, Wallace still had difficulty discerning which was which.
“My wife was killed a year ago, on Halloween, on the Harrowing. Ended up here in this hospital actually. She looked so bad they had trouble identifying her. I wasn’t notified until days later when they moved her to a nearby funeral’s morgue. When I reported to the police that she had gone missing, they finally identified her, and then they called me. The Russian mob, the Spades, they did it.”
Wallace leaned back in his chair, squinting with some suspicion as his patient told the story without any affect whatsoever.
“You lost your wife a year ago,” Wallace reflected. “I imagine that grief is fairly raw still, Billy.”
Billy shrugged only slightly.
“I deal with it in my own way. Like I said. I’m serving justice.”
Wallace stopped himself as he was tempted to pry into Billy’s writing off of grief, of crowbarring open his soul to get the man to cry. But the man seemed intent on the word ‘justice’, and Wallace decided to oblige.
“What do you mean serving justice?”
“Retribution, chaplain. I’m making those who killed my wife pay for their sins. I’ve been taking down the Spades, their sex trafficking rings. And I need your help, chaplain.”
Wallace put up a hand and squinted.
“The Spades killed your wife?”
It was hard for him to ask without a sliver of suspicion coming through in his question.
“They did,” Billy answered matter-of-factly. “Killed her, chaplain. She was going to uproot their whole system. Save a bunch of the girls trapped in their brothels and sex rings, put the dirty traffickers on trial. She was onto something big.”
Wallace felt silly for his curiosity, wondering if asking would only enable the fantastical tale. Though as he put his curiosity to words, he knew where his curiosity stemmed from; he knew the outset of the patient’s story was a gripping one, even if he suspected it to be fabricated.
“How was she going to do all this, Billy?”
Billy broke eye contact, his eyes looking down and off to the side in what Wallace perceived as shame. He pursed his lips as though hesitant to answer. Wallace suspended his misgivings of the expression as a dramatic ruse, and leaned in.
“She got herself into trouble. Gambling problem. We were loaded with that debt. I didn’t approve, chaplain, but she gave herself up to them. Stripped and slept to pay off the debt. I was going to take another job, or two, to pay it off, but I couldn’t talk her out of her indenturing herself.”
Billy looked back up at Wallace, his eyes perking up with the familiar wideness.
“But maybe there’s a silver lining in there, chaplain? Maybe she was able to uncover the truth through her sin? Neither of us would have known how bad these poor girls had to suffer if she hadn’t worked in the trenches with them.”
Wallace bit his lip, knowing how far out of the room the two were. He did not enjoy talking about other people in his visits, not when the patient was the one stuck in the hospital with their own particular condition that required addressing, confronting, and even lamenting. Wallace composed himself, and wove his way out of the weeds of the tale.
“How does this relate to you being here? Is any of this connected to justice?”
Billy finally smiled, just a little.
“It is, chaplain. Almost a year after losing her I decided to do something about it. I decided to get justice for my sweet Mary. So I put on a mask, I took to the streets, and I went after the Spades.”
Billy closed his eyes so as to roll them behind his eye lids without incurring judgment.
“You’re a Mask, Billy?” Wallace asked flatly.
Wallace was familiar with the movement though wholly uninterested with it. He found it hard to follow which Mask was on which side, which one took money and which didn’t, which killed people and those who didn’t. Worse of all, Masks on both sides seemed to increase the patient population in the hospital, and that was just more unnecessary work for Wallace and the rest of the hospital.
“I am, chaplain. I was busy pummeling the Spades during the Harrowing, and I kept at it the next couple of days…until they caught me.”
“What’s your vigilante name, Billy?” Wallace asked, punctuating Billy’s own name in the question.
“The one I gave myself, or the one everyone gives me?”
Wallace blinked with surprise.
“You’ve been given one? Sounds like you’ve earned notoriety?”
“I’m afraid to say it. Maybe you’ll know then who I am.”
Wallace suppressed a chuckle at the insinuation.
“Billy, if I may be candid, I don’t pay attention to the Mask phenomena in our city. You can tell me whatever name you’d like, and I still probably won’t know who you are.”
“They call me Whitie.”
Wallace feigned a guttural chuckle for a cough.
“What was that?”
“Whitie, chaplain. They call me Whitie.”
Wallace blinked. Though the man was Caucasian, he knew there must have been more than race that had to do with the patient’s alias.
“How’d you earn that title?”
“Every Mask and vigilante in this city has a fancy costume, looking to either impress their fans or scare their enemies. Not me. I’m trying to spread the message. I want the naked truth exposed to this city of what’s really going on.”
“Do they call you Whitie because you do your crime-fighting in your skivvies?” Wallace asked pointedly.
“Well, my mask and my cape are also white. Tennis shoes too.”
Wallace closed his eyes and bit his tongue. He’d heard some crazy stories before on the unit. He was sure no subsequent visit to the behavioral health unit would top his visit to Billy.
“Don’t vigilantes need to cover up in order to do what they do, Billy? For protection?”
Wallace wasn’t quite sure why he’d asked the question, but he knew he’d been fully caught and trapped in the narrative.
“Well, I’m really hard to catch when I grease up.”
It was perhaps the most sane thing Wallace had heard in the course of their conversation.
“Again, chaplain, the message is what’s important. Our wives, sisters, and daughters are enslaved in this city to vile men who demand they take off their clothes. Once they get into the Spades’ strip joints, gentlemen’s clubs, and brothels, there’s no way out. They extort them, trap them, and give them debts they can never pay off. So I show them something—I admit—not so pleasant to look at, but the circumstances of our city are far much uglier than what people see when they look at me.”
Wallace nodded slowly. He hated to admit how poetic it sounded. Still, he needed to get the two of them off the streets and back into the hospital room.
“Why are you in the hospital, Billy?”
“Because I got caught.”
“Unless you’re here for those cuts and bruises, I’d imagine you’d be put in jail instead, where the rest of the caught Masks have been going.”
Billy sighed uncomfortably and looked up at the painting of the potted plant.
“They don’t think I’m right.”
“And what do you think, Billy?”
“I think I’m in the right, chaplain.”
Without breaking eye contact, Wallace could feel Dr. Pax peering in at the two of them. Wallace felt his watch ticking towards the end of his shift, which also happened to tick to the end of their visit. He knew the rabbit hole went much deeper, but he knew venturing much further would put him in a place in the conversation much harder to leave from.
“There was a consult to see you, Billy,” Wallace said directly. “You requested to see a chaplain. So, what can a chaplain do for you today, Billy?”
Billy put up two fingers.
“Two requests, chaplain.”
“I wanted to ask if you think it’s wrong what I’m doing, if it’s sinful what I’m doing.”
Wallace chewed on his lip and stared pensively at the painting of the potted flower. His mind steered towards not entertaining the thought at all, to turning the question on its head, but he already knew Billy’s answer; Billy had already indicated he believed he was in the right. Perhaps, Wallace thought to himself, the man was merely looking for affirmation.
Wallace chuckled to himself as he was about to open his mouth to entertain the idea, realizing how uncouth it was to entertain what almost certainly seemed like mania. He knew answering would only fan Billy’s flame, perhaps billowing a real paranoia or delusion that existed behind the story.
Wallace looked back at Billy who waited patiently, eyes still large though with a starved look rather than true mania. Wallace sighed doing the simple math in his head. He was not a clinician, and therefore did not need to prove Billy’s sanity. He was not a judge, and did not need to pry into Billy’s conscience. He was a chaplain and asked merely to hold a mirror to the circumstances before him.
“It’s a hard to believe story, I’m going to admit, Billy.”
Billy nodded slowly, still staring wide-eyed, hungry for the rest of the answer.
“But assuming everything you’ve said is true,” Wallace began. He stopped himself and went through the story once more in his head and laughed to himself. “I suppose it’s hard to deny that our city has a crime problem, a kidnapping problem, a lot of problems. One only needs to turn on the news to see that. It’s frustrating at times, seeing it happen, feeling too powerless to do anything about it, except keep watching the news and getting bothered…”
Wallace paused, cringed as the headlines and newscasts replayed in his head from the nurse’s newspaper, from the morning radio. He shocked himself, feeling something begin to burn in his chest, his face unconsciously burrow into a glower of indignation. As he looked up he saw Billy’s eyes come alive, as though the man began to see something turning inside of Wallace.
Wallace blinked, imagining Billy no longer in his gown, but in his underwear, his face hardly covered by the white mask he spoke of, staring wide-eyed and vigilant in the dead of night while the city was asleep.
And then Wallace laughed.
“What is it, chaplain?”
“Whitie is a refreshing thought to all the madness, isn’t he? A half-naked man who runs through the streets beating up criminals. It’s admittedly a little crazy, isn’t it Billy? But that kind of crazy is oddly refreshing to what’s happening outside, isn’t it?”
Billy laughed limply.
“I suppose it is, chaplain.”
“I apologize. I’m probably being uncouth, Billy.”
“I appreciate your honest thoughts on the matter, chaplain.”
“Well, you asked for something else too, Billy?” Wallace said, looking back at his watch.
Billy leaned in, folded his hands over his mouth—as though also cognizant of the two being watched—and whispered.
“Help me get out.”
Wallace stiffened back in his seat.
“Billy,” Wallace began, the words coming out of his mouth in a robotic, programmed manner, “you’re in here for your health, wellbeing, and safety.”
“I’m not though. The Spades could have taken me out like my wife, and they chose not to. They suspected I might have information on them that could ruin them, the information my wife had collected. They knew calling me in, not to jail me, but to hospitalize me would undermine any testimony I could bring against them. They knew another body would just raise suspicion.”
“You don’t think your testimony is undermined by running around in your underwear, Billy?”
Billy shook his head.
“It’s about the message, chaplain. But I need your help. Please. Get me out of here.”
Wallace bit his lip. He’d heard the plea before. He’d heard it from not just patients in that part of the hospital, but from the confused, the elderly, from those waiting on a doctor or some tests who simply could not get out even Against Medical Advice.
“I’m a chaplain, Billy. I can’t discharge you. You and I both know that.”
“I know that, chaplain. But she will talk to you.”
Wallace didn’t need to ask who he meant, nor did he need to look over to feel Dr. Pax’s stare.
He was undecided as to his recourse, but he knew failing to give Billy a positive or hopeful word would only keep him in the room that much longer.
“I’ll do what is in your best interests, Billy, as I do for all my patients.”
Wallace anticipated some resistance, some pressing from Billy as to what exactly the answer meant. Instead, he saw Billy nod slowly, and eventually lean back in his chair.
“I believe you, chaplain.”
“Good,” Wallace said, rising from his seat. “It was truly a pleasure talking with you, Billy.”
“Aren’t you going to pray for me?”
Though it came as a given in his profession, Wallace had become accustom to not forcing prayer on the end of his visits. Such was especially case in the behavioral health unit where Wallace feared an intention or petition could unknowingly serve as fuel for a deluded narrative or distorted sense of reality based on how his patient heard it.
And yet, Wallace could never turn prayer down to those who asked for it with sincerity.
Wallace sat back down and saw Billy reach his hands to the center of the table. Against his instincts and reservations, Wallace allowed himself to place his hands in Billy’s.
Wallace closed his eyes, and bowed his head with Billy.
“Heavenly Father, we thank you for this opportunity of fellowship. Lord of mercy, look down upon us, your servants, and especially on your servant Billy. We ask that you liberate us and loose us from all infirmity and weakness, and that you speak wisdom into our minds and hearts for our edification and healing…”
Wallace paused, hearing Billy not audibly but in his heart repeating and chanting the word: “justice.” Though he was unaccustomed to the petition, he decided to speak towards his heart’s inclination.
“And, Lord, we ask for justice…for…for justice, Lord.”
“Amen,” Billy responded.
Wallace looked up, shocked to see tears streaming from Billy’s eyes. Wallace smiled sweetly. He’d always been told that tears at the end of a visit were indicative of a job well done. Though he felt at a loss for any more adequate words to pray on Billy’s behalf, he was warmed to see the man weep.
“God bless you, Billy.”
“And you as well. Thank you, chaplain.”
Wallace left Billy as he held his face in his hands, as the streams of tears continued to flow. Wallace walked stiffly and hastily through the U of the unit, feeling the eyes of every patient and staff member tracking him. He felt their looks, however, not in the usual way, indicative of those looking for something, but rather looking with awe. He couldn’t be sure how much could be heard outside the closed door of the room, or interpreted through the glass of the room, and yet he felt the staff and patients knew the nature of the conversation, and the nature of Billy.
Wallace paused and grit his teeth, hearing the shrill voice of Dr. Pax follow after him just as he reached the checkpoint of the unit. He turned seeing her smile at him, a feigned kind of smile of pleasantry and formality, a toothy grin that served as a façade of welcomeness behind a want for favor and control.
“Yes, doctor?” Wallace replied neutrally.
“Thank you for seeing Mr. Henny today.”
“I think he prefers to go by Billy.”
“Actually, he prefers to go by something else,” she said with a forced chortle.
Wallace smiled limply back.
“I’m not sure if you are privy to his history, chaplain?”
“I don’t read patient charts,” Wallace replied briskly. “Not unless I have to.”
“It might be good for you to do so, chaplain,” she said, her voice growing slightly sharper. “The man is likely a paranoid schizophrenic and has persisted in a narrative that the mob is out to get him. The police suspect a history of vandalism and assault as well.”
“Suspect?” Wallace asked.
“Nothing that’s been confirmed in court yet. I’m sure he told you about his little ‘crime-fighting esquepades’.”
Wallace refrained from answering directly.
“Why isn’t he in jail?” Wallace decided to ask.
Dr. Pax beamed.
“He came in Baker Acted by the police when they found him streaking in his underwear—again, something I’m sure he’s already shared with you. They found him in a state of madness, only confirmed when he shouted accusations at the cops that they too were connected to the mob. No charges have been pressed yet, despite having been picked up out of a porn shop wielding a crowbar. It’s a miracle he didn’t end up in jail. He seriously needs help.”
Wallace nodded, not so much in agreement as much as to indicate he heard the psychiatrist.
“Forgive me, doctor, but my shift is about up and I need to chart. Anything you need from me?”
“Anything you might have for me that might provide important insight into the patient’s condition?” Dr. Pax asked, cocking an eyebrow.
Wallace spun on his heel to leave.
“Nothing that you won’t see in the notes of my chart. Good day, doctor.”
Wallace took his time descending from the psych ward to his office, his finger glued pensively to his lip, considering what he truly thought, felt, and believed about his conversation with Billy, deliberating what he might log in his chart. He cringed as he played through the conversation again in his own mind, embarrassed at the thought of another staff member listening to him entertaining the story presented to him.
“I got sucked in, didn’t I?” Wallace grumbled to himself.
It was a rookie move. Unbecoming in his work to let the story outside the walls of the hospital to become the topic of discussion, to get away from the diagnosis and how it affected their sense of meaning & purpose, to explore relationships and means of coping in strife, to be nothing more than a pastoral presence.
And yet, he couldn’t shake the prying eyes of Dr. Pax from his mind, couldn’t help but sympathize for the patient after being interrogated by her. Wallace had learned the psychiatrist had extended the stay of many patients by her own orders, had made under functioning prisoners of the weak-willed patients that she’d sunk her talons into. Wallace had seen it before in ministry, a kind of toxic savior complex that sought to keep the flock nice and close for the reward itself of having others becoming dependent on you.
Wallace fell exhaustedly back into his chair once he arrived at his office, and he stared silently at the computer screen instead of immediately going to the hospital charting system. Though he was tempted to explore the patient’s chart, he felt nauseated by the thought, as though prying into the details would suddenly deflate and paint the story in an instant, that the psychiatrist’s verdict would suddenly become his gospel truth.
Instead, Wallace opened up his browser and searched “Mask Whitie.” Sure enough, multiple articles accompanied by stark photos popped up on his screen. Wallace leaned in, seeing Billy Henny, wielding a humble crowbar, wearing nothing but his underwear, a white domino mask, a pair of white tennis shoes, and a cape made of a strange fabric. Wallace leaned in and zoomed into the photo, studying the cape with some scrutiny, interpreting the cape as some fine fabric, something light and fluffy almost like scrap fabric belonging to a wedding dress. Wallace scrolled through the articles, seeing stories of a half-naked Mask vandalizing porn shops and liquor stores, causing bedlam in casinos and strip clubs, even assaulting individuals with Slavic sounding names befitting of the Red Spades recruiting pool.
Not all of it seemed as innocent to Wallace as Billy portrayed it, but Wallace had been in chaplaincy long enough to know man’s proclivity to portray details that either dignified or victimized the teller rather than self-incriminate. And yet, he knew there was even more to Billy’s story that he needed to know.
Wallace turned to his charting program and searched not for Bill Henny, but Maria Henny. But after a quick peck of the keyboard and click, he sighed and shook his head, seeing no such name come up.
Wallace drummed his fingers on his desk in annoyance, displeased to see a hole in the story that he admittedly wanted to be true. Without the dead wife, in Wallace’s eyes at least, Billy wasn’t just a maniac without a motive, but worse, a liar spinning tales to get others to join his crusade.
Just as Wallace was about to type in Billy’s name to write up a damning note, he stopped himself, considering one other alternative. He ran a report of the ER’s patient list on last year’s Halloween and scrolled through the names. Wallace scrolled through the “H’s” first incase the patient had gone by a different first name, but to no avail. And then he went to the “D’s,” and as he had suspected, a handful of “Jane Doe’s” popped up. He clicked through the different charts until he found one that had been pronounced dead, and Wallace eagerly opened the ER Physician’s note:
“Female patient in 30s admitted to ER with violent hemoptysis, acute repertory distress, and multiple injuries sustained to face and body. Patient’s pulse was in decline at emergency admittance. Compressions were administered for 32 minutes. Patient was unable to be identified, and staff could not establish an emergency contact or health care surrogate. A pulse could not be achieved. Time of expiration: 21:33.”
Wallace reclined back in his seat and let out a heavy sigh.
The skeptic in him told him that such circumstances were common enough to fabricate a story around, or that Billy merely could have been privy to the poor anonymous woman’s demise and wrote into his own mind a narrative that she was his dead wife. Believing Billy, on the other hand, that this woman was in fact his wife also required some mental gymnastics as he considered the grandiose nature of the story, considered the flat and manic-looking affect of his patient. Both conclusions required a leap for Wallace.
Wallace opened up Billy’s file and began to write his note. The cursor in the text box blinked annoyingly at him, begging him to pen his observations, his purpose in the visit, the outcome of the visit. As he stared at the blinking cursor, he thought of the still heart of the Jane Doe that came in, and the beating heart of Billy Henny. He couldn’t help but wonder how Billy was still alive after so many bold ventures, after chasing after criminals without any armor or proper weaponry.
The fact that Billy was still alive, the message his comical appearance conveyed, the spirit in which he spoke his story…it wasn’t in itself compelling, but it made him want to believe the story.
Wallace sat down at his desk, and penned his note:
“Pastoral Care visited patient per patient’s request relayed by nursing staff. Pastoral care provided pastoral and listening presence and explored patient’s feelings towards hospitalization and patient’s coping strategies. Patient shared feelings of discomfort being in hospital. Patient seems to use humor to cope hard circumstances. Patient communicates concern for those outside of himself and seems to find purpose in helping others. Patient requested prayer. Chaplain prayed with patient. Outcome of visit seemed to provide patient with solace and emotional release.”
The Next Day…
“Alert! Alert! Alert! Code Grey, East Seven!”
Chaplain Wallace stepped out of line for his coffee and shuffled off to the west side of the hospital, the immediacy of the PA’s alarm hardly coherent to hear what floor of the hospital in which the emergency took place. Code Greys—physical altercations started by patients or guests against staff—warranted no more than a check-in from a chaplain to touch base with the staff, to provide a sense of calm after security had wrestled down the culprit. Still, Wallace forced himself to check in on it, finding an excuse to see to the emergency for the sake of enjoying the sunrise over Nymphis’ bay.
Wallace took the stairwell instead of the elevator, knowing it would take some time for the lift to return to him after security was done ascending to whatever floor the code had been called. Wallace whistled to himself, taking in the morning sun as he passed by each floor’s window, the sun refreshing him with its rays as it pierced through the glistening towers of a morally decrepit city.
Wallace paused as a clamoring set of footsteps descended towards him, and a man dressed in what he thought he remembered to be the garb of another patient from the psych ward brush past him.
“Excuse me, pardon me.”
Wallace reached out and grabbed the man’s arm, and spun him. The man wore a pair of jeans and plaid shirt of a patient not under a Baker Act, and although an N-95 mask covered a great deal of his face, his bald head and large eyes did not get past Wallace.
“Billy?” Wallace asked.
“Chaplain,” Billy groaned, his body falling slack, as though surrendering under Wallace’s grasp. “Look, I can explain.”
“Please do! You’re responsible for that code?!”
Billy shrugged, and he spoke in a spirited way.
“I told my story. Again and again. A lot of other people are trapped up there for who knows how long, feeling like life is slipping by them. They wanted to do something. They liked the story. So they helped me get out.”
“How, pray tell?”
“They all became Whitie,” Billy said. “Got in their skivvies, wrapped bed sheets around their necks like capes, put on masks like these to cover their faces. Meanwhile, my next door neighbor leant me his clothes. Said he was going to watch for me every night outside his window till he got out or I got back in.”
Wallace shook his head.
“You disapprove, chaplain?” Billy asked.
“Your craziness is contagious, Billy.”
Wallace saw Billy look down at his feet sheepishly.
“Not a real fair way to talk about those guys and girls up in that unit, chaplain.”
“Not what I meant,” Wallace said, letting go of Billy. “You’ve got me sick with your story too. Get the hell out of here, Whitie.”
Billy returned to meet Wallace’s face, wearing his same flat and wide-eyed expression, giving not even a coy smile to the absurdity of the moment, but rather a dutiful nod as though he were being sent off to fight a new war.
Wallace heard the ground level door spring open and slam just as he heard a familiar and similar commotion a few floors above him. Wallace looked up, seeing two winded security guards hustle down the steps with Dr. Pax in tow.
“Chaplain!” Dr. Pax huffed, looking surprised to see him.
“Heard there was a code, doctor,” Wallace answered flatly.
The guards pushed past him and trampled down the stairwell. Dr. Pax took a moment to catch her breath, and paused to meet him at his level, her usually forced pleasantry smile suddenly narrowed with a look of betrayal.
“Your note was not very thorough for what appeared to be a significant conversation,” she snapped.
“They’re all just bored up there, ask your own staff. They just want someone to listen to them.”
“As it turns out, a lot of people listened to Mr. Henny,” she hissed, stepping inches within his face. “Turned out to be a kind of insurrection if you can believe it, chaplain.”
“Hard to believe, mam.”