Forest deflated when they dumped him out of the minivan in front of this subterranean booby hatch. Parents were supposed to be worried, concerned, full of remorse for someone they may have exploited as a child. They should have been in there listening to the shrinks go on about tests, drugs and group therapy, wrenching tissue in their hands feeling guilty. Instead they smiled and waved out of the open window of the van as they pulled away, pot smoke reeking out of their pores and snorted, “Have a good time, son! Remember, it’s all good material. Keep a journal.” That’s how come he ended up with the name Forest. He had been court appointed to go through the drug rehab program here for 28 days, while his free-loving parents he’d never called mom and dad were having a good old time at home, just because he got nailed at school setting some narco-dick half-wits up with Ecstasy and pot for the weekend.
Forest entered the non-descript brick building splattered with graffiti and that hellish sign posted above the entrance screaming out, State Mental Health Treatment Facility. He took a deep breath and pushed open the door picturing a scene from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Nobody was going to lay any voltage on him!
He was ignored for a good five minutes while he checked out his surroundings. There were adults talking in groups of two’s and three’s holding Styrofoam cups, one lady with a clipboard in hand. There was a welcoming desk with no one sitting behind it. The usual posters denoting condoms, clean needles and Just Say No saturated the walls. Finally, some woman looked out from behind her huddled threesome and waved Forest over. He forced a strained smile and hobbled slowly toward her.
“Hey, you want to sign our petition?” she said. She dragged on an unlit cigarette stub, blew non-existent smoke up at the ceiling and smiled through grey teeth. “We want the government to let tobacco companies sponsor state mental homes. We want to get back some of the money we’ve been giving those bastards for years.”
She reached inside her blouse and pulled out a chatty piece of paper. Sticking the cigarette stub in the side of her mouth, she unfolded the paper and thrust it in Forest’s face. “Sign here.”
Forest stepped back to focus. The page, cigarette-stained, was blank.
While Forest was signing the petition, a man approached. He had a full head of wavy hair, graying temples. “What’s your name, son?”
“I’m Dan,” he said, extending his hand. Forest shook. He felt odd, like it was some kind of cult maneuver, some inner member deal. He hated locker room antics.
“We need to have an intake conversation,” Dan explained. “We can do that outside since it’s so nice.” Dan grabbed a clipboard from the registration desk. “Follow me.” They walked down the driveway to the back of the building in the penetrating April sun. Dan took a seat at a weathered picnic table. Forest sat opposite, swatting a fly away. It smelled vaguely of garbage, a slightly acrid stench. Dan asked a lot of questions and wrote the answers behind his clipboard. They discussed Forest’s current dilemma, how this wasn’t his first offense selling drugs at the high school. The amount of times Forest was forced to move with his vagabond parents. Dan told him about his own troubled teenaged years, his addictions, and how he overcame them. The more Dan spoke, the more Forest felt a sense of vague familiarity. Was it Dan’s deep voice? The way he looked intently into Forest’s eyes? His own father certainly didn’t talk this way.
“I have something to tell you that will be shocking,” Dan said. He leaned back, crossed his arms. “Those people who dropped you here this morning?” He paused. Forest felt his heart beat in his throat. “They’re not your parents, Forest.” Forest stared at Dan while his mouth unhinged, fell open.
An interruption from above stopped them, and now both were looking up at the petition-woman pounding on a window on the third floor, yelling and gesturing down at them. Forest couldn’t make out a word.
“Doris is upset because you signed her petition in regular ink.” Dan must be a lip reader.
“What was I supposed to use, invisible–on that blank piece of paper? The woman’s whacked.” Forest pulled out a piece of gum from his pocket and stuck it in his mouth.
“Precisely. You got it. She’s been working on that petition for three months, and she’s saying she has to start the whole thing over again. Now about all this…”
The fire alarm went off. It was like three air raid sirens from all directions–deafening. Forest heard Dan mumbling, “Shit, Doris got a hold of some matches again.”
Dan got up from the table and kept looking back nervously at the building. “What do you say we go for broke and get out of here? Make this a one-step program, and I get you out now? Come on,” Dan said, gripping Forest across the back. “Burgers at my place. And yeah, Forest, when you feel ready, you can call me dad.”
“Hey, hey, hey, just wait a minute here. Hold up! Now Danny-boy, how did you get all the way out here?” Two guys in white grabbed Dan by both shoulders. One of them pulled out a walkie-talkie and told them to shut off the alarm. “And give me that clipboard,” the other one said as he pulled it away from Dan. “Check this out,” the guard shoved the clipboard at Forest. It was filled with doodlings of snakes and naked ladies. “Must have been a good interview,” the guard started snickering.
“He never got this far before. I thought you were keeping an eye out, Bill?” The one guard smirked at the other. “And you must be the new kid for the drug program? I’m sure Dan gave you an earful? He thinks he runs this place. Come on, let’s go. Back to the dayroom for you Dan, and kid, we’ve got to get you signed up! Where the hell are your parents?” Forest’s gum fell right out of his mouth.
“What the…” Forest looked over at Dan as they were taking him away.
“He does this every once in a while when he gets a chance and Gladys, at the front desk, goes off for her cigarette break. Sorry, kid. This really is the Cuckoo’s Nest, if you get my drift.” The guard winked at Forest.
Dan looked over at Forest and smiled. “Got anymore of that gum, SON?” Now Dan was laughing as the guards held on to his arms and made their way back to the building with Forest following slowly behind.
This month’s contributors to Exquisite Quartet are:
Matt Potter, an Australian-born writer who lives between Australia and Germany (particularly Berlin), perhaps following the summer. Matt has been published in The Glass Coin, A-Minor, Gloom Cupboard and fwriction: review, with stories coming out soon at Used Furniture Review, Connotation Press, Thunderclap Press, Fix It Broken and Istanbul Literary Review. He is a regular contributor to 52 / 250 A Year of Flash and has recently had his work performed as part of This Berlin Life in Berlin. Matt is the founding editor of Pure Slush. Find more of his work at his website writing, and then some.
Robert Vaughan, whose plays have been produced in N.Y.C., L.A., S.F., and Milwaukee where he resides. He leads two writing roundtables for Redbird- Redoak Studio. His prose and poetry is published in over 125 literary journals such as elimae, BlazeVOX, and A-Minor. He is a fiction editor at JMWW magazine, and Thunderclap! Press. Also hosts Flash Fiction Fridays for WUWM’s Lake Effect. His blog: http://rgv7735.wordpress.com.
Catherine Davis, whose work has appeared at 52/250 A Year of Flash, kaffe in katmandu, Short Fast and Deadly, and Clutching at Straws, and has received the Joan Johnson Award in Fiction. She also decorates sets for film, with credits including We Own the Night, Brokeback Mountain, and Blue Velvet. She moves between Columbia, South Carolina and Manhattan.
Meg Tuite, whose writing has appeared in numerous journals including Berkeley Fiction Review, 34th Parallel, One, the Journal, Monkeybicycle, Hawaii Review and Boston Literary Magazine. She is the fiction editor of The Santa Fe Literary Review and Connotation Press. Her novel “Domestic Apparition” (2011) will soon be available at San Francisco Bay Press. Her blog: http://megtuite.wordpress.com.