Social Currency

Ben sawed off the wing with a butcher knife.  The whole chicken, roasted in the oven, screamed for its life.  But it’s dead and smells delicious, Ben thought.  It had been two weeks of clicks and snaps in all of his senses, and like a worn out record, he could still understand reality but the breaks in his sanity were getting in the way of life’s music.  The first time he suspected his schizophrenia was returning was three weeks ago when his daughter cut her arm.  Just last week he had heard the table saw in the garage, but when he went to check on it the machine wasn’t on.  Things would taste different for a moment, a shadow moved on its own the other day, and now the roasted chicken screamed like a haunted house banshee.  The golden brown chicken hadn’t had a head since the slaughterhouse.  Ben was losing his mind, again.  He took his medication, Serpazine, like clockwork, so this should not be happening. Ben stabbed at the chicken to kill it again, but at the same time he knew it was just an auditory hallucination.

Maybe you should get rid of the snakes with the table saw.  A voice whispered.  Ben was definitely losing it.

He rinsed off the butcher knife and put it away.  Sharp objects would be a danger to himself and his daughter, Dana, if his antipsychotic was losing its power.  Ben wasn’t about to panic, however.  Giving in now would mean losing a long battle to be normal.  Ben believed he could overcome this change in his condition quietly and without incident.

Ben heard Dana shake herself awake in the living room where she had fallen asleep in front of the TV.  He wasn’t going to ruin her birthday and he had to be the strong one because she was sick, too.  He smiled when Dana slumped into the kitchen.  She was eighteen, now.  She had his green eyes and untamable waves of brown hair but Dana lost her olive complexion because her body was exhausted from fighting an infected laceration in her arm.  The infected area from her elbow to her wrist had the color of Victorian virgin cheeks that radiated heat in a diseased halo.  Her arm didn’t look like a part of Dana anymore, Ben thought, but that could just be the first whispers of his returning schizophrenia.

Three weeks ago Dana had stumbled and sliced her forearm on a jagged slab of rock while hiking a rigorous path in the Devil’s Punch Bowl.  It was the same arm she broke in a playground fight when she was eleven.  After cutting her arm on the rock, Dana refused to go to a hospital and would have refused First Aid from the park rangers, but Ben had listened to an inner voice that whispered violence and grabbed her arm like he was going to wrench it off.  Holding Dana like that was the only reason the rangers could do their work.  That was when he suspected the Serpazine was losing its hold on his sanity because he didn’t act out of love.  He held onto Dana like someone would after catching unknown animal that could be poisonous.  He had been frightened of being infected with her resolve to deny medical treatment.  Her resolve seemed suicidal at the time.  Later he realized she was just scared and he should have been there for her.

The bleeding stopped on the walk back to the car, but when he returned Dana to his ex-wife the cut reopened and seeped puss with a pink puffiness spreading up her arm.  Dana’s mother rushed Dana to the hospital and launched Ben into a legal gauntlet.  He succeeded in proving himself a responsible parent, again, thanks to the fact that he was still seeing his doctor and taking the Serpazine.  Dana was a trophy won against Mom.  He hoped she didn’t feel like an object.  He really did love Dana and cherished the bittersweetness of watching her grow up.

Dana’s visits broke up the monotony of the retail job he had advanced beyond minimum wage.  With his record Ben couldn’t get anything better.  The journey to control his schizophrenia was an unreal hell where he racked up two aggravated assaults and five public disturbances, and those were the charges that stuck to his record.  There were countless others he dodged because of his sickness.  Ben’s weekends with Dana were proof that he wasn’t a complete loser.  He had earned his visitation rights by staying out of jail and out of the asylum since the divorce.  He had been trouble free for seven years when Dana hurt her arm during that hike.

Ben set the table for three.  He felt the paranoia swell inside him like a balloon filling with polluted gas.  This was a sign of a relapse, suspicion edged into every thought and he’d begin to regard everyone, including Dana, with increasing judgement and fear.  If he started seeing diseased, oozy snakes, then it was too late and he’d be incapable of helping himself, or worse, incapable of saving Dana from himself.  He went to the bathroom and popped two Serpazines instead of one. He chewed them and braced himself for the uncut, absinthe bitter flavor.  The pills tasted sweet and made his teeth hurt.  Either his pills had magically changed to candy or his schizophrenia was messing with his senses.

Ben returned to find Dana itching her arm, a habit she had formed even with the special ointment that numbed the irritation of the stitches and bandages.

“Who’s joining us?”  Dana said.  Ben forced a chuckle and unset the third place at the table.

“I’m so tired these days.”  He said and it was the truth.  He couldn’t sleep, which was another sign his medications were wearing off.  His thoughts at night multiplied, all of them good ideas that crashed into one another.  His thoughts wanted him to do things, but the last remnants of the drugs in his system were still fighting back hard enough to make those thoughts unclear.

After dinner he got Dana’s medicine ready for the night.  She watched with an intensity that betrayed her anxiety.

“What is it, honey?”

“Nothing.”

“Boy trouble?”

“Shut up.”  Dana said and cracked a smile.  Ben was glad she was over the boy without legs.  He believed she said yes to a date with him out of pity.  It would be easy for a guy to use a freak accident to buy a girl’s pity.  By the time she cut her arm they had stopped going steady.  Now she wasn’t seeing anyone.  At first she’d get visits from friends, but as the infection raged on the novelty of a sick friend wore off.  Ben felt bad for her.  She was alone and Ben was thankful her condition was temporary.  The loneliness that mental diseases gift to their hosts is a disorder in its own right and far more terrible.  He set down the pills and a glass of water on a TV tray.  A tube of antiseptic ointment, a pain killer, and the last of the industrial strength antistaphylococcal penicillin.  Ben changed the bandage around the source of the infection, a jagged laceration ribbed with black stitches.  He spread the ointment over the bumps the stitches made of her swollen skin.

Cut it off.  Dana winced in pain and Ben had to remember that he shouldn’t listen to that voice, the voice that sounded like Dana’s and showed up in italics in his mind.

“Dad?”

“Yes?”

“I can do this if you’re preoccupied.

“No, I want to.  Sorry.  Just thinking.”

“You think a lot.”  Ben finished with the ointment and wrapped a new bandage around her arm, gentle this time.  She knew he was slipping, or so he thought.  If she told her mother then he’d lose her for good.  The horrible thing was that he couldn’t ask probing questions to see if she suspected anything.  The best thing to do was act normal and sneak out to the doctor tomorrow when he got groceries.

Ben saw Dana’s antibiotics were shy a full day and the pain killers were almost gone, too.  The missing antibiotics had to be accounted for or Dana would have to go back to her mother’s not seven hours after she arrived.

“Did you forget some of your pills?”

“Mom packed my bag.”

“That explains it.”

“Don’t take me back, not yet.”

“In the morning you’ll have to go back.”

“But I’m be an adult.”  Dana insisted.  Ben stood silent.  He let his suspicions wander and connect dots as he stared at his daughter.  Maybe Dana was playing them both for affection, blaming her mom for sabotage while in his house, yet telling her mother that she left her medicine on purpose just to go back.  Then, again, his ex-wife was capable of engineering short weekends.  Maybe they were both in on it, trying to appease the crazy man in their lives without having to spend too much time with him.  Ben felt angry and betrayed.

“What do you want to do for your birthday?”  Ben asked.  She didn’t have much freedom with that arm and the feeling was exasperated by turning eighteen today.

“Nothing.”

“Oh, ok.”  He said.  He wanted to hang out with her, watch a movie or play a board game.  He also knew this was a cardinal sin.  He was already uncool for being her father, but being crazy on top of that was a reputation killer.  Leniency was his choice of credit with Dana.  Hers was obedience.  It all gathered interest in a joint account that wasn’t quite love.  Ben knew what they had was some form of currency they needed to survive in a world they did not enjoy.  Ben noticed normal people made similar exchanges everyday.  A mother appeased a child with some forbidden corn syrup candy, a wife made a husband feel like a man for two minutes just so she could be at peace for a few days.  Ben didn’t see love in the world anymore, just denominations of quid-pro-quo.

Dana was heavy on withdrawals in their father/daughter dynamic, but it would bankrupt their relationship if he were strict like her mother, who was plagued with snakes coming out of her sleeves.  Ben couldn’t tell if he was remembering a hallucination or if his ex-wife really did have snakes for arms and he was having a concrete memory.

Cut off her snakes, whispered the voice that sounded like Dana’s if she were speaking low without moving her lips.  Ben bit the tip of his tongue to snap him back to reality.  He hoped his cover wasn’t blown.

“Here.”  Ben said and she gulped her pills and chased them with tap water.  She listed down the hall to her room.  Ben searched for the missing antibiotics his daughter needed tomorrow.  He searched his memory for gaps in the timeline.  If he had hidden them in a fugue state then his schizophrenia had gotten the best of him.  If his ex-wife had set him up then she knew he’d have to bring Dana back.  He wished he had thought of this sooner because now he was delaying the inevitable.  Ben marched towards the phone.  Photos of Dana over the years watched him like the inmates of neighboring cells.

Ben shut his eyes, what would he say to Dana’s mother?  She had placed Dana in peril by sabotaging her pill count, yet he would take the blame.  The day their marriage ended she had found out what crazy really was and that was seven years ago.  She and Dana, eleven-years-old with her arm set in a cast, had caught him stoking a bonfire in the backyard.  He had cut the arms off all of their long-sleeved articles of clothing to get rid of an infestation of snakes.  He then tried to cut their fingers off with pruning shears believing they were baby snakes sneaking back into the clothing.  Once he was back on the Serpazine Ben had agreed to the divorce.  To his ex-wife his compliance was like finding a strand of soft hay in a marriage of needles.  She allowed him time with Dana after he proved he was more responsible with his illness.  There was no forgiveness for hiding his schizophrenia from her or himself.  The pills and behavior therapy had worked so well that he thought he could be normal on his own.  He thought he had built some form of credit with his wife, but her faith in him was counterfeit.

Ben thought of his ex-wife.  He missed her no matter how hard he tried to make her the villain.  He had never apologized for what he did because he didn’t want to admit he failed at being normal.

The telephone rang.

“Hello?”  He said, expecting the voice to speak at him.

“She’s gotta come home.  I found her antibiotics.”  Dana’s mother said in strained words.  She was fighting panic.

“Dana is home.”  Ben said.

“I’m not looking for an argument.”

“She’ll be fine until morning.”

“She’s hurting herself.”  Dana’s mother said.  The last time they were in a room together they listened to a doctor talk about Dana’s broken arm when she was eleven-years-old.  She had gotten into a fight in school with a girl twice her size.  His ex-wife asked if it was possible that Dana was schizophrenic like her father.  Now, those worries were back after hundreds of reassurances that Dana would never be like Ben.  They had argued about this over and over and he was sick of the worry.  Didn’t his ex-wife see their daughter was an incredible person?

Hang up, she knows!  Said the voice, but Ben thought maybe the voice came from the heating duct at his feet and not in his mind.  The voice told Ben to end the call because he would telegraph that he was backsliding.  He bit his tongue until the metallic tang of blood soaked around his teeth.

“Ben.  I found a stash of antibiotics in her room.”

“What do you mean a stash?”

“She’s been hiding them under her mattress.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“I thought I’d call you before I called the police.”  Ben’s gut smoldered.  Dana would be taken to a padded cell, a gauntlet of paperwork and social workers.  All judges of normalcy.

“Do I have to be the responsible parent?”  She said.

“She took the dose she had.  She’ll be fine until morning.”

“Is she awake?”

“It’s her birthday, I won’t ruin that.”

“Put her on.”

“Do you know what they call the paper shoes they give to patients?  Piss catchers.”

“That’s right, how is your alma mater?”  Ben clenched his teeth against the hateful words he wanted to spew into the mouthpiece.  He fought the words, but they were coming to life inside his mouth.  He felt his teeth break and the words slithered from his broken maw and into the phone.  Ben felt his mouth, it was still intact.  It was just a hallucination, but the dead air over the line told him that he had said something to his ex-wife, something he had seen and felt instead of heard.  If whatever slithered from his mouth took on the form of words it would be just as ugly.

“Did I just say something?  I didn’t mean it.”

“Ben… how are you?”  He hung up on Dana’s mother so he couldn’t hear her crying.  She knew he was off the meds.  He didn’t have much time.

If Dana wanted to get rid of the antibiotics then she’d have flushed them, not hid them.  Hiding the antibiotics meant she needed them for later.  Ben didn’t know why she’d want to live with the infection.

“Dad?”  Dana said from her open doorway.  Ben shut his eyes and held himself.  Her face was weird, like thousands of worms in congress forming the likeness of his daughter.  Ben got himself together.  Dana was still Dana, no matter what he sensed.

“We need to talk.”  Ben said, organizing what his ex-wife told him and combating the rage that threatened to scatter his thoughts.  “Why are you hiding your antibiotics?”

“Because…”  Dana began, but she waved her bad arm because she didn’t know how to put it into words.

“Listen, honey, let me tell you about me and you stop me when things sound familiar.”  He told her about his illness.  About the animals he hurt as a kid and the asylum he lived in for years until the doctors found a drug and behavioral therapy that halted his schizophrenic progression.  He told Dana that his drugs weren’t working like they used to, and if they had been working at the time of her fall he might have saved her.

“You wouldn’t have stopped me.”  Dana said.  He felt his heart plunge and he leaned against the wall.  The Serpazine stopped all emotion and now that he was feeling again the emotions were overwhelming.  Most of all was the feeling of love for his daughter and the dread of what revelations were coming.

“You remember when I broke my arm in that fight?  That wasn’t an accident.  Neither was this.”  Dana said, running a finger down her injured arm from elbow to the tip of her hand.

“What does that mean?”  Ben said with a skip in his heart.

“When I was eleven I paid that girl my lunch money to twist my arm off.  On our hike I pretended to fall.  You weren’t looking when it happened.  I leaned into that sharp stone on purpose.”

“But why?”

“I replaced your pills with sugar.”  Dana said.  Ben staggered back because he thought she said snakes instead of sugar.  He processed her words, fighting the anger and misfiring electrons that made him perceive a different reality.  She had done this to him, but maybe that was the schizophrenia talking.  The sickness made him unreasonably paranoid and angry, working its way up to a panic rage so he could combat the impossible visions that were already starting.

“I thought I could control you.”

“That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard!  You and those snakes are crazy!”  Ben shouted, kicking at slithering shadows that used to be the grout between the kitchen tiles.

“Dad, I’m sorry.  You’ve been taking sugar for almost a month.  I thought… I thought you’d cut off my arm for me.”

“I’ll never see you, again.”  Ben said, shutting his eyes so he’d see a memory of Dana and not the shapeshifting, mangled form in front of his eyes.  The snakes had taken her away and you are seeing her imposter.

“Why did you do it?”  Ben snapped at the snakes, not realizing the question was relevant to the real world, too.

“I want to cut off my arm.”  Dana said, slapping her arm and gasping.  Ben opened his eyes hearing his daughter in pain. She was crazy like he was and she was having an episode right now.  Another part of Ben told him she was sane and only speaking from her heart.  Ben’s head pounded with the contradictory thoughts.  He made his way to the kitchen and he ate one of Dana’s painkillers, chewing it and savoring the intense bitterness that numbed his tongue and gums.  He swallowed the medicinal dust dry, the flavor reminiscent of his time in the asylum where he’d gone to get better long before he had ever met Dana’s mother.  Thanks to the asylum stay Ben became an automaton retrofitted for normal life.  As long as he took his antipsychotic.

“I’ve been trying to get the infection strong enough so they’d have to amputate, but you don’t have me long enough and Mom makes sure I get better when I’m with her.”  Ben threw an arm around her shoulder and Dana flinched.

“I may be crazy but I love you.”  Ben said, but removed his arm when he felt a sinister twinge in his muscles, like he wanted to strangle his daughter.  He imagined taking her injured arm and doing exactly what she wanted.  She had triggered a psychotic break to make him cut off her arm.  It would be just.

“I don’t understand.”  Ben said.

“I can’t make you, but it is everything to me.”

“You can try!”

“You don’t want me to go to a crazy house, like you, do you?”  If anyone found out about Dana’s secret they would lock Dana in a padded cell.  Ben would be held responsible because this was all possible under his supervision.  Ben would never see his daughter again and Dana would rot, never knowing herself, never living. 

She’s using you.  The voice said and Ben nodded to himself.  He was proud of her for such skillful manipulation and scared by her will to play with something as unpredictable as a mental breakdown.  Unpredictable except for the violence.

“I tried with the table saw, but it’s broken.  I can’t do it alone.”  She said and he felt that even if he were sane he would still humor his daughter’s wish for self-actualization.  It had been obvious for years in retrospect.  Family photos featured Dana with that arm stretched out of frame or hidden behind her back.  She only hugged with one arm.  The only photos she smiled in were those with her broken arm as a kid and on the day of the hike, which were the last photos he had taken of her.  She stood against the backdrop of the Angeles National Forest and the glacial slab she cut her arm on was a few feet to her left.

Dana’s only boyfriend had been the young man condemned to a wheel-chair after a car accident.  He had lost his legs.  Maybe that’s why they had broken up; she told him her desire.

She had taken action by creating diversions and accidents correctly assuming she would be punished for her desire to lose her arm.  Then she remembered how far Ben’s schizophrenia went that fateful day his illness sabotaged their lives.  It was a history he did not wish on his daughter.  He didn’t want to turn Dana into him, an empty shell thanks to the Serpazine that drained him of all emotion.

Normal is the new psychopathy, the voice said.  The only good that came out of his time in the asylum was an understanding that it was easier to act normal than demand tolerance.

“Do you still have my pills?”  Ben said.  Dana nodded and he followed her to her room where she pulled from under the mattress a Ziploc of white powder.

“I kept it just in case.”

“I need exact dosages.  It can kill me.”  He said, squeezing his eyes shut as he felt his reality shift and flicker.  The closest he could explain the feeling was being so drunk you were sober, watching your body and senses breakdown while at the same time you were logical and conscious.  Stress accelerated the change.

“Dad?  You ok?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m sorry.  You need help.”

“Your mother will think I changed my pills.  I’ll never see you, again.”  Ben said and touched the white powder inside the plastic bag.  This fine sand was all that kept him safe in a life he was never able to engage fully with his whole being.

“I’ll tell them the truth.”  Dana said.

“You’re an adult now, you’ll be punished.  And even if they don’t they’ll still lock you up.”

“I’ll find a way even if it means I end up like you.”  She said and even under the spell of his sickness Ben could tell she was serious.

“That’s why I have to do this.”  Ben said and he heard Dana follow him to the bathroom.  He upended the bag over the wide open mouth of the toilet.  If he had choked down antipsychotic powder to regain full sanity he would have died from an overdose unable to feel anything.  Serpazine took two months to reach adequate levels in his system and, thanks to Dana, a little less than one month to go away.  Ben also dumped the pills she had filled with sugar.  He was going to lose Dana and he wanted to feel something before the police took him.  His heart skipped beats as it heard new music in his blood.  There was only one snake, now.  Her injured arm was slick with slimy scales and her fingers flicked out in forked tongues.  No wonder she wanted to cut it off.

“Dad?”

“I’m good at killing snakes.”  Ben calmed down a great deal, so much so that he realized he was only calm when he was himself.  His medicine made him tired and put his mind on one droning track.  Dana had been sabotaging his medication since before the hike, otherwise he wouldn’t have had the energy to go in the first place.

“Come on.  Your mother knows I’m off my meds.”

“Dad?”  Dana said, the hint of a smile began in the corner of her mouth.

“Tell me you’ll visit me.  Tell me you’ll remember me, that you love me.”

Her glittering eyes told him she would and did love him.  Ben had never been closer to another person and the love stabbed right through his weakening sanity and gave him meaning.

“We need to hurry.”  Ben handed her the bottle of painkillers Dana slapped two into her mouth and chewed them.  Ben followed her to the garage where he kept his tools.  Ben used to be a handyman.  He had let dust settle on his tools since the Serpazine robbed him of ambition.

Ben took off his belt and cinched it around her snake-arm.  It hissed at him.  Dana smiled like she was about to get on a rollercoaster, all adrenaline and sweet anticipation.

“I tried this last week, but it didn’t work.”  Dana said, placing her serpentine arm on the table saw and it flicked tongues over the polished surface.  Ben turned on the table saw and the blade swung up from a slit in the metal top.  Ben grazed his finger on the blade and it retracted instantly.  Ben wasn’t cut.  The machine shut down when static electricity shocked the blade.  It was designed for wood, not flesh.

Ben took Dana to a vice on a heavy counter and locked her arm in its cool jaws.

“I’ll never see you, again.”

“You ok with that?”

“You can’t live with this snake.  Trust me, I’ve tried.

Ben got a hacksaw hanging from a nail on the wall.  The vice’s jaws turned the snake feeding on his daughter an angry purple.  Ben looked into Dana’s eyes as he put his weight into the hacksaw.

“Happy birthday.”

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