The woman in the blue overcoat led her guests down the hallway. Footfalls echoed on the tile floor. Everywhere the taller man and his companion looked, they saw surfaces painted in neutral shades. On the walls hung watercolor paintings, all bolted into place.
"How long to we have?" the tall man asked.
"There are forty minutes left in the visiting hour," the woman told them. She opened the door to well-lit room. There, the fellow spied his sister. She sat with her hands folded in front of her at one end of an oval, pine-wood table. The table was anchored to the floor.
His sister's curly, brown hair had been cut short. She probably didn't like that. But she flashed him a smile.
"You've brought a friend," she said. There was a long pause after she spoke.
"Yes," her brother said.
"You're useless," she concluded. She turned to the shorter fellow. He had taken a seat to her left. "But at least he's my brother. I know why he thinks he's here. Why you? Have you come to talk to me about religion?"
"We've only met once. I'm impressed you remember me. No, I'm here to support your brother. Insanity runs in my family, usually paranoia as in your case."
"You think I'm sick? My brother won't say it."
"I've known you were ill for a long time. I recognized the signs when we met." He folded his hands in front of him as he nodded. "You have a chemical imbalance. You haven't been treating it well."
"I'm careful with my body and brain. Very careful. I control my foods. I measure out my medicines."
"That's not what I mean. Your brain is like any other part of your body. It can be injured. When it is, it needs emergency care. It needs to be treated like a broken leg or a sprained ankle."
"Look," she said in an exasperated tone. "Can get me out of here? Or not?"
"You'll do that for yourself." His face inclined downward as he shook his head. "You're smarter than I am. Just observe. Watch your mental and emotional states carefully."
"That's all? Just observe?"
"People with your handicap need to observe the ways of things more than anyone. You have theories about how you got to be here, I'm sure. But you're in a lucid moment right now. You're aware enough to suspect that your theories may be wrong. No one likes to admit that. Everyone has pride. To make your pride worse, you're smart."
"My wits are the one thing I've got going."
"Brilliance makes the process of admitting mistakes more difficult. You can seem to fit the facts to your theories. You can find excellent-sounding reasons to ignore contrary facts. No one is going to convince you that you're wrong. It's up to you. You need to observe the warning signs in yourself. When too many people disagree with you on the facts, when you hear awkward silences after you talk, when people look to one another as you speak or act, not to you ..."
"Why do people do that?"
"They're looking to see who will be brave enough to mention your craziness. That's when you need to realize that you've sprained something, that you're injured. You can't wait for your brother to speak up."
"It's rude of you to call me crazy. It's rude to say my brother is timid."
"I don't mean to be rude. I was brought here to say the obvious. You have to recognize when your intellect is leading you into delusions about the world."
"And what would I do if I recognized the signs?"
"You wouldn't exercise a sprained ankle even if you had painkillers. You would rest and
concentrate on healing. That needs to be your priority with your mind, too. Do your mental therapy just as you would do physical therapy."
She gave a contemptuous snort. She glanced at her brother.
"Thank you for your opinion. And is our mother well?"
She occupied the rest of the visit with a discussion of family.
Months later, at a holiday celebration, the woman visited her brother's home. She entered the living room and spied her brother with his friend. They had their backs to the far wall as they listened to an elderly gentleman.
At first she wanted to confront them but she decided to listen to their conversation. She grabbed a ginger ale because it looked like wine but left her mind clear. Then she passed in back of the elderly gentleman, who kept talking about some medical complaint that didn't interest her. She pretended to care for a houseplant on the end table.
"What did you say?" she blurted.
The silver-haired man stopped. He turned her direction. "Excuse me?"
"I think you said that you're taking the same medicine I am."
"Do you like it?"
"Of course not."
"Do you take it?"
"Now that I've gotten the dose right, yes."
"Ah." She sipped the ginger ale. Her gaze drifted from the elderly fellow's face to that of her brother's friend. "I think I understand. You know, you have a great son."
"How do you know him?" The fellow seemed at a loss. He put down his own drink, which looked to
her like water.
"I don't," she replied.