SPOILER ALERT: If you plan to read my novel, A Bitter Pill to Swallow, don't read this story yet. Wait until you have finished it.
He was going to tell everyone who asked that his name was Arthur. He stood on the side of the road, hoping another car would pass by soon. An Edsel had sputtered past, but the little old lady driving it eyed him suspiciously without so much as slowing down. Could she tell he was from the school? He’d hoped he had put enough distance between himself and the place so that no one would figure out who he was, or who he had been. He hoped the old leather jacket and blue jeans Paul had given him would be an adequate disguise. Paul, his only friend in that strange and terrible place, had given him normal clothes to wear so he’d look like any other 17 year old boy, and his brand new copy of On The Road.
“You should come too!”
“Nah. I’ll be alright. I’m better off here. This place has kept me off the pills, at least.”
Yes, only by substituting them with stronger medicine. All of it made him feel absolutely lousy. Lousy and drowsy. He spent the last couple days only pretending to take his medication, hiding pills under his tongue or between cheek and molar. He secreted them away in his sock drawer. Paul said he could sell them if he wanted. He knew a guy just outside Portland who’d buy them from him. Why anyone would be stupid or desperate enough to buy a pill that had once been inside anyone else’s mouth was completely beyond him. But then again, a lot of things were. And that was why when he was just 8 years old, his parents had sent him away to this school among the pines and the redwoods that stood beneath perpetual rain clouds.
“He’s the cutest little boy. Makes it that much sadder, doesn’t it?” He overheard a relative say of him when they learned of his fate. They had come to say goodbye. It was no ordinary Sunday dinner. They did not know if he would ever come back.
He could overhear them talking late into the night that last time he slept in his own bed. Some said he was too bright. They said that genius could lead to madness. Others said he was too dull. And what kind of a boy still lived in such a fantasy world at his age? He was too big for this, or too little for that, and what would ever become of him? What kind of man would he become? Finally, to shut them out, he shut his eyes and envisioned Camelot. He imagined that he was the boy who could remove the sword from the stone.
The place he went the next morning was not like his school at all. There were so many rules, and punishments far worse than detention or demerits. And he was not allowed to bring his toy soldiers, or his cars, or most of the other treasures of his lonely childhood. So all he had was Camelot. He talked to his doctors, stern-looking men who smoked pipes and wore horn-rimmed glasses, and they looked at him disapprovingly. They were always telling him to stop thinking about knights and castles and being the boy who could remove the sword from the stone. They wanted him to leave the one place that made sense to him, the only place where he felt safe, only to join them in their world of rules and regimens and tapioca pudding. They did their best to pry him away from his world. They used ice water baths and cold sheet packs, insulin shock and electroshock. Each time, he just went further and further into the back alleys of Camelot, hiding behind stables, finding secret passageways, even taking on disguises so that no one would know his true identity.
He wanted to be good, to get better, to make progress. He did what was asked of him. He even kept taking the medication after he realized it was causing him to gain weight at an alarming rate, even though there were no longer clothes that fit him when he finally went home for a weekend when he was twelve and that pretty girl across the street laughed at him when his pants split as he was picking up the morning paper for his father.
“Did you just get back from the funny farm or the fat farm?” The loudmouthed paperboy asked as he sped by.
And the pretty girl didn’t seem so pretty anymore once she started laughing at him.
He dropped the paper, ran inside and up the stairs to his bedroom where he retreated into Camelot, where that afternoon an insolent paperboy was slain by a young knight in training.
That was five years ago. He had not returned home for weekends since. Partly because he didn’t want to go back and face further humiliation, and partly because he had lost the privilege. Now they were calling him delusional. And this meant another round of treatments. They were no longer as terrifying, and he wondered if that meant they were no longer as effective. Finally, last month his parents came to visit him with tears in their eyes.
“They told us of another treatment. It’s a last resort.”
An operation, they said, that was called a lobotomy.
Nobody wanted to tell him much about it. But he had seen the effect of it on some of the other kids. And he couldn’t let it happen to him. And hadn’t he tried to be good? Hadn’t he done what they asked? Wasn’t there some other way? He really did want to get better. He really did want to be normal, and make friends, learn to drive a car, do the things that all the other boys his age did. He did not want to become what those unfortunate few of his classmates had become. The light in their eyes had been extinguished. Paul had called them the pod people.
“Oh I forgot, you haven’t seen Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” He said, teeth chattering as he shivered under an ice-cold sheet.
The nurses had left them there in beds that were side-by-side. Talking seemed to help distract them from their frigid confinement.
“Yeah we don’t see a lot of movies here. Only once in a while.”
“You gotta get out of here before they do it to you.” Paul whispered.
And that was they night they formulated the plan that had worked so far. Hitching a ride wasn’t as easy as he’d hoped, though. Why did they have to put the school in such an isolated place, so far removed from the rest of the world? As it began to rain, he wished he could have been in a city, near a bus or train station. But now the only way he could get to a station would be with the help of a stranger, and thank goodness a produce truck slowed down and the driver let him in. The trucker didn’t ask many questions, only where he was going, not why and how and what he’d do when he got there. But he’d been coming up with answers anyway.
His parents? They died in a terrible accident. He was on his own now. First name? That was easy. Just call him Arthur.
The money from the pills he sold to Paul’s friend was enough to get him a train ticket out of state. And he needed to get out of state before they found him and sent him back for the dreaded procedure. He worked his way east, taking whatever odd jobs he could. The school had prepared him for little more than a life of light industrial work. The few classes he had taken were too remedial to count for anything. To make up for his shoddy education, he spent his days off reading as much as possible at public libraries.
In one little town he even worked as a busboy at a restaurant that was so empty it must have been a front for something else. And through the owner he met a priest who created a false baptismal record he was able to use to get proper identification so he could finish high school. He found his way to Kansas City where some buddies at his factory job taught him how to drive. He still spent his free time reading, as he tried to find a way to understand all that his doctors had told him. He wanted to heal himself.
By the time he moved to Chicago, he was studying to become a psychiatrist at one of its top universities. And almost 20 years after running away from his own (mis)treatment, Dr. Arthur Lutkin was prescribing treatments of his own at a special school for emotionally disturbed children and teenagers. It was a place of healing, not of punishment, and it looked like an old castle.