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Plea of insanity, p.31
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       Plea of Insanity, p.31

           Jilliane Hoffman

  ‘The murders were very brutal.’

  ‘I’d rather not discuss that.’

  There was a long and difficult pause. ‘I don’t know how much you know about the disease itself, but schizophrenia doesn’t go away, Ms Valenciano. So I don’t know what you’re expecting to find today. With paranoids, some hold on to the same delusion or auditory hallucination their whole lives, others may develop different delusions, or perhaps hear new or different voices. Medication can do wonders for some patients – completely quieting the voices they hear, or dulling those voices to whispers. In others, we unfortunately have limited success. There are some that will always exist in a foreign world that no one, and no medicine, can ever reach. I can tell you that your brother is one of the lucky ones. But since he hasn’t seen you in so long, without divulging any privileged information, I have to suggest that you show him your hands before you sit down. Palms up. Let him inspect them carefully, so that he does not become agitated.’

  She stared at him. A wave of goosebumps suddenly erupted down her back.

  ‘He needs to look at your hands to make sure they have no implants,’ he explained. ‘To make sure that you are not a robot or a CIA spy. Medication successfully helps your brother learn to live with his illness. To him, though, his delusion and the people in it can still seem as real as you or me. Without medication, I’m sure he’d bet his life on it.’ He hesitated for a deliberate second. ‘And yours.’

  I saved them, Ju-Ju. I saved them.

  ‘I know there are privacy rules,’ she said finally, and paused again. She looked down at her hands, rubbing them slowly together, thinking of what Dr Mynks had just said. ‘But, well, how is he now?’

  ‘You can see for yourself in just a moment. He’s in the visiting room upstairs, waiting.’

  ‘Does he know I’m here? Does he know it’s me?’

  ‘Yes. Yes, he does.’

  She tried to read Dr Mynks’s face, but he gave nothing away. She still didn’t think he liked her.

  ‘Thank you for speaking with me,’ he said, rising. ‘I was just curious to meet you. You know, fourteen years in here and no one. Not even a phone call. Now, with just weeks before his release, he gets his first visitor. It couldn’t just be coincidence, I thought. I wanted to make sure you weren’t with the press, trying to stir up some reaction in the community. From what I understand, his case did receive a fair deal of coverage in the news at the time.’

  ‘Release?’ she asked, startled.

  ‘Yes,’ Dr Mynks said, turning back to face her as he opened the door. He studied her with that same suspicious frown. ‘Andrew just had his two-year review. The Forensic Committee met last month and reviewed the report of the ward psychiatrist, the staff psychologist and the OMH social worker, and this time recommended that he be released to a less-secure, civil psychiatric facility. He’s being sent to Rockland Psychiatric within the next ninety days or so, as soon as there’s a bed available for him. The hope, of course, is that from there, he can eventually be released back into society.’


  The stairwell that led to the visiting room on the second floor smelled like fresh industrial paint, but the gray walls still looked as if they were about to shed, bubbling and flecking in many places. Everything, in fact, was painted the same bleak gray – the ceiling, the air ducts, the pipes. Caged fluorescent tube lights buzzed overhead, bathing the lifeless halls in a ghoulish, purple tint.

  Julia walked up the center of the steps, her hands in her pockets, careful not to touch anything, her head down and her nose buried in her turtleneck. She thought of the very first time she’d walked into the Dade County Jail to take a statement from an inmate. A brand new C, the awful stench had hit her like a hard slap across the face. The air had smelled of not just urine and shit and old paint, but it also smelled dirty. Like the rancid men in the holding cells next to her and the catwalks overhead, who leered and cackled and coughed and breathed back into the same air that she then had to inhale. And right now – in this bleak, gray stairwell, in the waiting room downstairs, even in the administrative halls – all around her, it was not so much dirty that she smelled as sick. Like the stink of a hospital. The smell disinfectant never washed away. She held her breath for as long as she could, breathing in and out through her mouth only, wishing she were outside under the winter trees in the freezing weather with the aids and nurses, sucking in the icy air. Far away from this peeling, probably asbestos-filled building where she breathed in the panicked breaths of sick, crazy people.

  A handwritten sign on the second-floor landing read ‘Visitors’, and an arrow pointed toward a door at the end of a short hall. Above that door, the face of a guard peered through a security window, watching her with a disinterested stare. He didn’t even blink and the door below him suddenly buzzed open. Julia quickly moved to grasp the knob in her sweaty palm, pushing it in before it could lock again. She hesitated for just a second longer, then took a deep breath through her mouth and walked slowly into the room.

  In here, administration had picked a soft, powder blue for the walls. A nice calm color, she thought. Round faux-wood Formica tables and mismatched plastic chairs were scattered about the large room, but there was no one seated at any of them. Another fake Christmas tree blinked in the corner. Cardboard dreidels hung on the wall beside it.

  Bright sunlight streamed in from the wall of security metal-mesh windows that overlooked an empty exercise yard, casting diamond-shaped shadows across the tables and on the white floor. A few pumpkin-orange easy chairs that might have been left over from when the building had originally closed in 1975 sat empty, too, in front of a console TV. To Julia’s left, two guards sat like DJs in an open booth that was mounted against the wall and above the room. A young, muscular black man in a white polo shirt, who she assumed was what they called a SHTA, stood in front of the booth, his arms folded across his chest, watching her intently. No one said anything when she walked in. In fact, the only noise in the room was from the boom-box radio on the ledge of the booth that played soft Christmas music. She looked behind her, wondering if they were going to bring him in after her, but there was no one. Then she scanned the room once again. It was on that second glance that she saw the heavyset man at a table in the far corner. Dressed in a tan button-down shirt and brown pants, he practically blended in with the dull furniture and the barren landscape out the window behind him.

  His face was cast down at the table, his fingers folded neatly in front of him. The first thing she noticed was the tousled mop of thinning black curls on his head. She knew right away that it was Andrew although, just last week, she probably couldn’t have picked him out of a crowd at the supermarket. She forgot all about breathing through her mouth and sucked in a deep breath that probably sounded more like a gasp to the SHTA, who shot her a cold look.

  Andrew didn’t move, though. Didn’t even lift his head. Julia walked slowly across the stretching room, her heels clicking softly on the polished floor, but she no longer cared if anyone heard them. The room suddenly seemed like a football field. Feet turned into yards. Yards could have been miles. ‘Andrew?’ she heard herself ask softly, standing awkwardly in front of him. ‘Andrew, it’s me. It’s Julia.’

  The man seated in the chair slowly looked up. His large brown eyes found hers. A long moment passed. It was Julia who finally looked away.

  ‘Can I sit?’ she asked softly, clearing her throat. ‘Do you mind if I sit down?’

  He watched as she pulled out a chair, but said nothing.

  So she sat and she waited. Waited for any one of the million sentences rushing her brain to just come out. Waited for him to say something. Waited for the SHTA to say something from across the room. And she tried not to stare at her big brother, the person she’d idolized from the time she could walk. The person who’d taught her how to play guitar and climb a tree. Who’d held her hand every morning on the walk to the bus stop, even when their mother wasn’t looking. The person who’d introduced he
r to Led Zeppelin and Steely Dan and Pink Floyd, when everyone else was singing along with Madonna.

  Andrew was only five years older than her, but he could easily have been twenty. Once lean and fit, she guessed he was about forty or fifty pounds overweight now, his soft, dark curls peppered with gray. In high school, he’d been the varsity starting quarterback and captain of the baseball team, earning a full athletic scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Every girl had wanted to date him, every guy had wanted to be him. It had obviously been years now since he’d done more than a short walk through an exercise yard. Deprived of sunshine, his face was pale, his skin blotchy, probably from all the medicine he took. But it wasn’t so much the dramatic change in his physical appearance that finally made her fidget for something in her purse. It was his eyes. Not just your ordinary brown, Andrew’s dark-chocolate eyes had sparkled and fizzed when the light hit them. ‘Root-beer brown’ her mom had always called them. Now they were flat and dull. Devoid of light. Devoid of life.

  She finally broke the silence, her voice barely above a whisper. ‘It’s been so long, Andrew. I came today because I wanted to see you. I didn’t know you were …’ She paused, looking awkwardly around the room, ‘… here.’

  ‘I understand,’ he answered back softly, nodding. His voice sounded exactly as she remembered it. They sat in silence for a few more tense moments. ‘How are you?’ he asked finally.

  She smiled a little. ‘Okay. I live in Miami now. I moved from Washington DC a few years ago. I work on my tan when I’m not actually working. As you can see, I’m in the office a lot,’ she said with a short, desperate laugh, holding out her arm.


  ‘I went to school there.’

  ‘What do you do?’ he asked, his eyes on her hands.

  ‘I’m a lawyer. I work for the government.’ There was no need to get into details. ‘How about you? What’s it like in here? Are the people nice?’

  He shrugged. ‘It’s okay. It’s better than it was. It wasn’t so good when I first got here. It was,’ he paused for a moment, as though remembering something. ‘It was hard. We watch TV and see movies. We have computers to use, and someone comes in and teaches some of us how to use the Internet. I like to read the paper. The Times, when they let me.’ He smiled again. ‘You see, I’m a Republican now.’

  ‘Maybe you do belong in here,’ she said, laughing.

  He laughed, too. ‘It’s a good thing I can’t vote, right?’ Then his face grew dark and he scratched at the back of his head. ‘I don’t like the screamers, though.’

  The goosebumps were back. She felt them race up her arm. ‘The screamers? What are they?’

  Andrew quickly shook his head back and forth. He blinked a few times and looked back down. ‘Are you married?’

  ‘No, no. I date people – I’m dating someone, but that’s it right now.’ Given where she was and what Andrew had been diagnosed with, part of her wanted to speak to him like he was an imbecile or a little kid: in short, loud and carefully enunciated Dick and Jane sentences. But he obviously didn’t need that. She felt herself gently slipping into a conversation instead of just sentences. The awkwardness was still there, but it was getting better.

  ‘Any kids?’ he asked.

  ‘I’d like to try marriage first. We’ll see about kids after that.’

  ‘You probably have your pick of boyfriends. You’re a pretty woman, Julia. Not just a little sister anymore. Your hair, it got so long. And you got so tall. You look so different from the pictures I have in my head. Good, Imean.’

  ‘Thank you. The height’s an illusion, though.’ She stuck out her foot and pointed. ‘Three-inch heels. You look good, too, Andy.’

  He shook his head again. ‘Nah. No more baseball for me. Only on TV. The medicine makes you gain a lot of weight. It used to make me real tired, and it does other things, too.’ But he didn’t say what those other things were.

  ‘What are you taking?’

  ‘I think it’s Risperdal. I’m not so sure of the name. I’ve been on a few. I don’t like when they change them, though.’ He blinked a few more times and rolled his tongue about the inside of his cheeks. She heard his foot tapping and moving underneath the table.

  ‘I think you look good,’ she said. ‘And I hear that you’re gonna be released soon. You must be excited about that.’

  ‘Can I see your hands, please?’ he asked suddenly with a frown, blinking fast. ‘I’m sorry, but I just need to – I really would like to see your hands. Can I see them?’

  She swallowed hard. She had totally forgotten what Dr Mynks had said. She nodded and put her hands out on the table, palm side up. Andrew had grown very intense very quickly. She could hear both feet tapping away busily under the table as if he were running a marathon in place.

  He moved his rough lumpy fingers over hers, and she felt an electric jolt run through her. The thumb on his left hand was twisted inward, flopping uselessly at the wrist; his other digits were strangely deformed. They were the hands of her brother, but yet the hands of a murderer – the very hands that had brutally taken their parents’ lives. She could see the raised, jagged red scars and white lines that haphazardly sliced across the palms, dissecting his fingers into tiny pieces, like a ripped-up piece of paper that someone had tried to glue back together. She fought the urge to pull away while he probed her palms, carefully feeling every knuckle, every joint, every line. Her hands began to sweat and she wondered if he would think that meant she was hiding something. Then she went one step further and wondered what he might do if he did think that, which made them sweat even more. Suddenly he grasped both her wrists. He was strong, very strong. Where have you been?’ he demanded, staring at her, his face dark.

  She could feel her heart thumping loudly in her chest, so fast and so hard that it felt like it might actually push right through her shirt, like some love-demented cartoon character. The adrenaline instantly tensed every muscle in her body; icy fear froze her right where she sat. But, strangely enough, she didn’t try to pull her hands back or scream for the SHTA or even stand up and run out. Rather, she looked into those sad, flat, root-beer eyes and just knew Andrew wasn’t angry or even dangerous. He was scared. And he was pleading with her for an answer. An answer she’d owed him for fifteen years. It was at that moment that she just knew it was the scarred, broken hands of her brother that held her fast, and he was no murderer.

  ‘I’m so sorry, Andy,’ she whispered softly. ‘I should never have left you.’ She felt his grip relax and he looked down at the table again, defeated. She could have pulled away then, gotten up and walked out on shaky knees, promising to come back but not meaning it. But instead, she slid her palms back into his, taking his hands in hers. She squeezed them lightly. ‘I’m here now, Andy. I’m here. And I won’t go away again. I promise.’

  The moment stayed there, held in suspension. It was just the two of them in the world right then and time had simply stopped. He closed his eyes. ‘I’m sorry, Ju-Ju. Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,’ he rambled, over and over again, his words barely a whisper. ‘I didn’t mean for you to hate me. I know what I’ve done and I wish I didn’t do it. I wish I could go back. I wish I wasn’t born. I wish, I wish, I wish …’ He squeezed her hands tightly and then started to weep. So did she.

  They sat together like that, holding hands across the table for hours, talking and crying until the light faded from the winter sky behind them and the SHTA named Samuel came over to tell them that visiting hours were over.


  The ranch-styled house with the stone facade sat in an emerald-green clearing, encircled by acres of towering pines, magnolias, live oaks and the occasional requisite palm tree. On the front porch, an antique rocker creaked and tipped in the breeze; white smoke puffed from the chimney into an ink-black sky scattered with diamonds and conspicuously missing a moon. An overnight frost warning had brought all the flowering baskets that normally hung from the porch trellis inside
for the night. A long dirt driveway rambled down through the trees from the main road, running alongside the house and finally ending in front of a small, four-stall stable. Two beaten horse trails wound back into the woods behind the house, past a rusted metal swing set and a Little Tikes plastic playhouse.

  Nestled in the black shadows of the pines less than fifty feet away, a man stood silently watching the postcard-perfect cottage. At least a half-mile from the nearest neighbor, it was secluded enough to be considered ‘country’, but still only a quick hop in the car would bring you to the local 7-Eleven and nearest Wal-Mart Supercenter. Perfectly charming, it was, like out of a perfectly charming fairytale. Maybe Grimms’ Hansel & Gretel, the man thought, his cold eyes once again falling on the swing set. Yes. A perfectly charming, unassuming house in the woods with tasty sugar-frosted windows and stone walls the color of gingerbread. From the outside all looked too good to be true. Too delicious to resist. But tomorrow, when the sun rose on the clearing and the first police car gently rolled down the dirt driveway, like poor, hungry Hansel and his sweet sister, it would be a house of horrors that the shocked policeman would find awaited him when he turned the knob and stepped inside.

  The night air was refreshingly cool and crisp; it tasted of burning wood and smelled of rich compost and sickly-sweet night-blooming jasmine. And, of course, pine. Above him, the towering treetops blocked out even the starlight; their leaves rustling and swaying in the wind like the pompoms of a cheerleader. Strangely enough, though, other than the soft whispers of the trees, not a sound could be heard in the pure black woods. Not the hoot of an owl, or the croak of a frog. Even the two stabled mares were settled and quiet. It was as if everything living had picked up and wisely left for the night.

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