Twinkle, a young writer from India, has loved reading for more years than she’s loved anything else. In the past, she has published a short story in an anthology. After being driven crazy by a hectic year at college, she has returned to writing.
Things That Move
by Twinkle M
Motion. The act of moving. Spinning, sprinting, sliding. If a body is a moving at a constant speed, it will keep moving unless acted upon by a force. The rhythm of legs, air currents from a bird’s flapping wings. Blood flowing through veins, atoms clashing constantly, electrons orbiting in relentless circles, or near-circles… everything moving, all the time.
All the time.
A disorder of visual perception, most probably of the higher areas of the visual cortex—the first diagnosis. Or maybe some issue with the cerebellum—because there wasn’t any distinctive sound or scent, so how could they be sure those senses remained unaffected? An association cortex syndrome? Something to do with perception and the sensory system, most likely, because the defect was in the perception of motion, not in the act of it, right?
“What could you tell from the scans?” his mother asked, hovering over him—literally and figuratively—as she did. She no longer bothered to make him leave before starting the discussion.
“Nothing much, to be honest,” replied the doctor, his eyes flicking to the scans before him. “Activation in too many parts, like before. Some temporal difference, but nothing very significant. Or useful.”
“Okay, so where do we go from here?”
His mother had learned the language well. With unconventional illnesses, the trick was not to ask “What’s the solution?”, because no one knew that. Rather, you asked what came next: new treatment, method, experiment. The latest had been to scan his brain while they put him in a virtual walking stimulation—to reduce activation from his moving parts or something—but too much of his brain had lighted up anyway.
“Well, you’ll have to give us some time. We were kind of hoping this would do the trick, you know.” His mother’s face tightened—he’d never imagined having an active brain could be a disappointment—and the doctor rushed to add, “But we’ll figure something out. Don’t’ worry.”
That was his cue to leave. He could’ve left way before—the discussion was about him, not for him—but he liked to know what new thing they were going to try.
“Mom, I’m going outside.”
She nodded and ruffled his hair before he took off. His worn boots hardly made a sound as he jogged down the hallway. Over the years, he had become an expert at running nearly silently. As he gained speed, the world slowed down. Walls stopped drifting, floors ceased sliding, and the sky outside the shuttered windows became still. He descended the stairs two at a time, sprinted out, and nearly jumped onto the swing. Sometimes, if he was fast enough, he almost didn’t notice the transition.
“Hey, watch out.”
He skittered to a stop, the pebbles making a jarring sound as his boots dug into them. A boy sat on the swing next to his, crocs planted firmly on the ground, like he had no intention to swing.
“I’m sorry, did I hit you? I didn’t mean to.”
“No. But this is kind of like my time, you know.”
“Your time?” He blinked, trying to see through the momentary haze between motion and stopping. Did the hospital playground have different shifts or something?
“Yeah. My time to sit-on-the-swing-and-feel-sorry-for-myself. I wish someone was recording; I’d look great as the moody, sarcastic lead.”
Was he hearing wrong? That had happened before—sometimes, if he came to an abrupt stop, his senses took time to work right. They’d never transmitted something that strange before, though.
“Anyway, I’m Matt. And you—”
Matt’s eyebrows furrowed. Now that he had been still for a while, he could make out his companion better: Matt seemed about his age, but that was all the similarity they had. He was like a washed out-sheet: alabaster pale, with light brown hair and faded blue eyes. Matt, on the other hand, had a sharp brown complexion with dark black hair. His eyes, though, were the kind of startling blue that always looked surprised.
“No, I’m Cary. Short for Charles.”
Cary prepared himself for the usual interrogation about the abbreviation, but it didn’t come.
“Cool. What’re you here for?”
“Just to swing for a while.”
“Not the playground, idiot, the hospital. Why are you at the hospital?”
Of course. Why would anyone ask why someone was at the playground?
“Sorry. Uh, I’m here because there’s something wrong with my head. It seems to me like the world is always moving.”
Matt whistled. “That’s a new one. So, like, right now, you see me moving? How? Like, back-and-forth or up-and-down or what?”
“Uh, it varies, actually. Right now it’s like if you were rocking.”
“Cool. And it never stops?”
“Only if I’m moving. Like when I ran here.”
“Interesting. If you move, the world doesn’t, but if you stop, it does?”
Normally, that would’ve bothered, or hurt, Cary, depending on how it was said. Some people muttered it under their breaths, like an insult, while others whispered it involuntarily, like they pitied him. Matt said it with awe, like something that was surprising and new, but not freakish or anything like that.
“What’re you here for?”
“I’m not answering that,” Matt said, without missing a beat. He jumped up from the swing. “You try and figure it out as we go along.”
“Go along where?”
“Just scouting. Something interesting always turns up, if you keep looking for it, even in a psychiatric hospital’s playground. Besides, we’re ideal partners: your world is the most stable when you’re moving, and everyone says I love moving around too much for my own good.”
He motioned for Cary to follow. Cary was half-inclined to deny, but what was the point? He didn’t have anything better to do. Besides, Matt was the first kid he’d talked to in a long time; dropping out of school and spending all of his time around his mother and doctor, with no skill to approach strangers didn’t make for a very friendly mixture.
“Who else do you know around here?”
“Uh, no one.”
“No one? You don’t come here often?”
“I live here.”
“Really? Then why don’t you know the other kids? It’s a shared space.”
“I live in one of the quarters with my mother.”
Cary strived to detect any underlying sarcasm, but he was either too pleased to be talking to someone new, or there really wasn’t any. Plucking up his courage, he asked, “Do you know the other kids?”
“Some of them. There’s Alicia, sixteen, OCD. Rita, fifteen, anorexia. Michael, eleven, ADHD. And Steve, fourteen—my age—autism. I could introduce you; Steve takes some time with strangers, but the rest are pretty okay.”
Cary made some non-committal noise. The prospect of talking to so many new kids, even if they were all around his age (fourteen) was too daunting.
“We’ll do that another day,” he continued. They were walking at a brisk pace, yet, Cary could feel the not-quite stillness of the world. But he didn’t speed up. “Today, we gotta steal pies.”
“Yeah. If you sneak in through a window and pick some from the boxes and slip them out, no one notices. I could do it alone, but it’s better to have a partner to catch them outside. All pies are good, but not having to remove the grass from them is better.”
“But why would you do that?”
“Because I can’t eat grass, Cary.”
“No—why would you steal the pies?”
“Oh, that. You see, the pies are only for the richer kids. Not the hospital’s fault—something to do with funding—that’s what everyone says, anyway. But I’d like for my friends to have some pies today. We only do it once a week.”
“What? Would you rather we didn’t have pies even once? When they have it every alternate day?”
Well, that made it difficult to argue.
Also—who was he kidding? He hadn’t had a friend in years, and Matt was here, ready to talk to, ready to walk with him at a speed that almost made everything all right, and if he wanted to steal some pies, Cary wasn’t going to say no.
“Awesome,” Matt said, grinning.
Matt picked up the pace—which was fine with Cary. As they jogged down the slope, Cary hardly noticed the transition. Half his mind was lost in thought about Matt, the other busy observing him. What was he? ADHD? He had the restlessness and impulsivity, but was that enough? He ran with a focus, without getting distracted, but maybe that didn’t happen… Or he had cleverly disguised depression. Or mania. Or something he probably hadn’t heard of yet.
“There it is.”
A flat white structure stood before them, its windows reflecting the clouds. It was better than a shed, but not much. Matt pawed towards it, Cary following. The white walls were moving, like someone had hit play on a video, and the clouds looked like they were drifting. Cary focused on Matt’s back—striding forward confidently—and his own motion combined with perceiving Matt’s lessened the dizziness.
“I’ll go in. You squat by the window. I’ll pass the pies. Just rap once if you see anyone coming.”
Cary nodded. Matt clapped his arm once, leaving a pleasant vibration in his wake, and jumped inside. Cary crouched, trying not to look down and see the ground moving. Watching out for a moving person in a moving world was like looking for driftwood in a stormy sea.
“Aha! Chocolate, my favorite!” Cary grinned at Matt’s voice, and began shoving the pies in a paper bag. “So,” he continued, still digging for pies, “have you figured out why I’m here yet?”
“No. I’m hoping it isn’t psychopathy, though.”
Matt chuckled, and Cary felt a burst of warmth in his chest.
“Nah. But aren’t you curious?”
“Not really. I don’t care what brought you here.” I’m just glad we became friends, he wanted to add. It was true. He’d been trying to diagnose Matt earlier, but that was just idle thinking. He didn’t care what Matt had. As long as he was friendly and nice and laughing, what did it matter?
He instinctively held out his hand for the next pie, but didn’t receive it. Were they done? He looked in, but Matt seemed hazy, blurred, which meant he’d gone still. He was staring at Cary, staring with a peculiar look, something Cary couldn’t puzzle out.
“I didn’t mean—I mean, I wasn’t saying I don’t care—”
The lock at the door started turning. Cary wrenched his hand back and swiveled around: an old man was keying the lock, just about to open it.
“Damn it!” Cary muttered, but Matt was too fast. He jumped out the window just as the door fell open. The old man let out a scream of surprise but Matt didn’t turn. He grabbed Cary’s hand and tugged, and before he knew what was happening, they were running across the grounds. The speed was blinding, exhilarating—so fast Cary felt the world slow to stillness. He looked down. One hand was clutching the bag of pies, the other clamped hard in Matt’s. A bit too hard; maybe Matt was worried he would fall behind or slip or something.
They skidded to a stop and promptly fell to the ground. Cary tried to sit up, but Matt’s hand held him back. He turned and saw Matt curled against the grass, breathing heavily.
“Matt, I’m so sorry. I should’ve seen him. I wasn’t paying attention, I—”
“Sorry?” Matt interrupted, speaking through rattling breaths. “Are you crazy, Cary? That was the best fricking thing I did all day.”
He was grinning. Like, actually grinning, the kind of grin that takes up your whole face and makes you look kinda crazy. And suddenly, Cary was grinning too, and then they were both laughing, shaking with peals of laughter though he couldn’t have told you why.
“Earlier, in the shed,” Matt began, as their laughs started to die away. “When you said you didn’t care—”
“I didn’t mean it like that,” Cary said quickly. “I meant it didn’t matter to me to know. Not like your problem doesn’t matter.”
“I figured,” replied Matt quietly. “And that’s… sometimes, I think, people care too much about the problem, even when they’re trying to help. It’s like the first thing they ask about you, especially around here. It starts to feel like it defines people, like your problem is you, not a part of you. So I really liked that you didn’t care.”
“I hadn’t—I didn’t know people did that.”
“Well, you’ve hardly talked to anyone here.”
“I… I don’t approach them because I think they won’t like me,” Cary admitted, his voice quiet. “My problem’s too alien. Too weird. Sometimes I think I would be better off blind.”
Matt was a silent for a minute. Then, “Remember back when I said we were stealing those pies because they were only for the rich kids and stuff?” Cary nodded. “I lied. I didn’t want to go steal the pies alone, but I could see you weren’t coming otherwise. I just wanted to do it for the fun. You didn’t. That made us different. But there were things that made us alike, especially how we both just want to keep moving. And I focused on that. If you focus on the similarities, the differences don’t matter as much.”
Cary looked at Matt, and tried, as hard as he could, to stop his face from drifting, to keep his image still. He couldn’t—and probably would never be able to. But Matt’s hand in his felt steady as a rock, and he decided to take his advice and focus on that.
“Now, before you think I’m some arrogant jerk trying to be all mature, let’s eat those pies. You’ll eat, right?”
Cary grinned, nodded.
“Was it always like this?” Matt asked, munching on his second pie. “The motion thing?”
“Yeah,” answered Cary, nibbling at his. “As long as I can remember. Honestly, I wouldn’t have much of a problem with it, if not for the other things. Like if I try to focus to read or something, I get this huge headache. It’s also very difficult to talk to people. Because I constantly have to shift attention, and that comes across as weird.”
“And you wouldn’t tell them the real reason.”
“I realize now that I should have.”
Matt nodded, staring at his half-eaten pie.
Cary looked at the ground. It was moving. So was the pie, Matt’s hand, shoulder, and face. But when his gaze reached his eyes, Cary forced himself to focus, ignoring the sharp pain shooting down his skull. He felt he needed to focus, to pay real attention to whatever Matt was about to say.
“I’m not gonna come back tomorrow. This is my last day here.”
Cary felt surprised, shocked, sad. He wanted to think Matt was joking, but he didn’t sound remotely like it.
“Does that mean you’re cured?” He asked, hoping to inject something positive in the suddenly heavy conversation.
“Well, there’s nothing more the hospital can do,” Matt said. It wasn’t a real answer, but Cary let it pass.
“You’ll be going home?”
“Yes, but I’m not sure I’ll stay there. Anyway, that’s not why I told you.”
Steady, Cary told himself. Don’t let him waver.
“I knew this was my last day here, and I didn’t want to go through with the routine. You know, the way last days give you the freedom to break routines, because there’s no tomorrow to worry about? I wanted to do something different, something fun. What I’m trying to say is, you helped me do that. I had a great last day with you, Cary.”
Cary felt weird. Like the world was still but something was moving inside him, a way he never had felt before. No one had ever said something like that to him. Then again, it wasn’t the kind of thing a lot of normal people would say to other normal people. But who cared what was normal anyway?
“Thanks.” Then, to dissipate the awkwardness he was feeling—Matt looked perfectly at ease—asked, “So, if it’s your last day, aren’t you going to introduce me to those kids before leaving?”
Matt shook his head.
“No, you’ll do that yourself, after I’ve left.”
It would sound rude to someone listening, but Cary knew it wasn’t. It was a way of saying how the day had changed him: he need no longer be afraid of being judged or thought weird. If someone couldn’t accept the way he’d been born, that was their problem, not his. And if Matt was any proof, he wasn’t entirely unlikeable, as he’d always assumed.
“It’s almost six,” Matt continued, glancing at his watch. “I gotta go. My parents must be at the gates already.”
He waved, and Cary waved back. He had almost turned the corner of the sliding wall when Cary came to a stop beside him. Before he could start to have second thoughts, he threw his arms around him. Matt, startled, took a minute to respond, but soon he was returning the hug, his gangly arms wrapping around Cary’s skinny frame.
“Just wanted you to know, that I had a great first day. Thanks, Matt, and have a good journey.”
Matt Reiner first came to the East County Mental Hospital for Children when thirteen, but he’d been sick before that. He had his first stroke at eleven. After a fitful year at school culminated in a second mini-stroke, he was withdrawn. Since then, he’d spent moving from hospital to hospital. It took a year and a half just to diagnose him accurately, and that was before the experiments/treatments began.
It seemed like he had inherited a vulnerability to stroke. Still, having it so young was unusual. Besides, kids don’t have as much to stress them out and set off a stroke. In Matt’s case, however, that didn’t seem to matter.
Ever since the second stroke, they’d lived in frightful anticipation of a third—one most likely to end either in paralysis or death. They’d done their best, put him on the most suitable medication. He’d been sent to East County to spend some months under observation. There hadn’t been a stroke, but the most hopeful doctors predicted that it could only be delayed, not prevented, and that not by much. Three years, at best.
Cary learnt all this the very next day. Some from the doctor, some from files he’d riffled through, and some from the other kids. It made him sad, sure, but more than that, it made him angry. Not at Matt, for not telling him—he would’ve pitied, and no one wanted that. No, he was angry, but at nothing in particular. The world, maybe. That there were kids like Matt and the others here whose brains were set on killing them. That there was nothing he, or anyone else he knew, could do about that.
“I understand that,” his mother said, when he told her, watching as the hair that had escaped her bun flew with the wind, while her head itself looked like it was moving back and forth. “And I’m really sorry about it all too. But I’m glad you both met.”
“Yeah, I would never have talked to anyone if not for him.”
“That, and also because it does sound like you were just what he needed. Someone who wanted to move as much as him, and didn’t pry. Good fits.”
Cary smiled. It hurt—hurt a lot—to think of that. To know what good friends they could’ve been, if there’d been more time. But some time was better than no time, and he was glad for it. When he stepped out of his room to head to the dining hall and jogged the way, he watched as the world transitioned from moving to still to moving again, and didn’t feel like he’d be better off blind anymore.
Copyright 2022 by Twinkle M