The Happy Place Enrichment Facility was neither happy nor enriching. Instead, it was a cold, featureless complex stuffed with ten-square-foot rooms, large enough for a cot and, in some cases, a window, all encased in walls painted in brilliant tooth-enamel-like colors. He’d call it a prison if the people living here were convicts.
Anston passed the front gate, which no longer existed—a broken striped thing that used to be a gate—and the guard shack that had once housed an old man in uniform but now housed a grease mark covering the remaining interior walls of a concrete husk. A sign on the shack read: “HELP WANTED.” The parking lot was close to empty, so Anston found a spot near the entrance. If anything happy were to come of this visit, it was that he wouldn’t have to walk far.
The entrance had broken glass and a piece of yellow tape across it. Another old man in uniform sat on a barstool beside the wreckage.
“Visiting hours are over, son,” he said, with one eye cocked at him.
Anston reached into his pocket and removed his wallet. He showed the man his identification.
“Dr. Niles Farea asked me to see him,” he said.
The old man unclipped his walkie-talkie from his collar and spoke with his raspy voice into the speaker.
“Maxwell,” he said. “See if Dr. Farea is still in the building.”
Something unintelligible garbled on the other end.
“Thank you,” he said and snorted as if he and Maxwell had just shared an inside joke.
The old man peered into Anston’s eyes but said nothing. Anston turned away, a little creeped out from his birdlike stare. He really hated this place.
While Anston waited for permission to enter, the pit of his stomach stirred. He wanted to ask the guard what had happened to this place but feared of the answer. This was the kind of institution, he was certain, that made no reservations to oddity, and the truth would probably make him sick.
The walkie-talkie garbled again. The old man nodded.
“Anston Michaels,” the old man said into the speaker. More garbles. “Okay, I’ll send him in.”
The old man clipped his radio back to his shirt collar.
“You’re free to enter. Dr. Farea will see you at the reception desk. If you dare.”
Anston was waiting for a sinister laugh to follow his tacky joke, but the old man didn’t give him one. Just another matter of fact, apparently. He shrugged.
Anston was free to enter, the old man had said. Though he disliked the idea of a wasted trip, for once he hoped he had wasted this one.
He rubbed his belly to quench his nerves. It had never helped in the past, but he thought it might work this time. “Mind over matter,” his high school psychology teacher used to tell him. “Placebos work just as well as brand names,” that old teacher used to preach. Rubbing one’s belly in times of crisis, medicine to a tortured soul. Timeless truths from a 1980s sage; this had to work.
It didn’t work. He still felt the remains of his fish lunch stirring as he passed under the yellow tape, trying to avoid scraping his biceps against the jagged glass. He wouldn’t have been surprised to find his old psychology teacher incarcerated here.
The reception desk could’ve been a short walk—a case for most institutions of higher therapy. But this was the Happy Place Enrichment Facility. The reception desk here stood at the end of a two-hundred-foot corridor lit with fluorescent lights—most of them burnt out, the remaining few alternating between flickering and black (crack-head designers most likely)—and carved from exposed cinder blocks, polished with white paint. Each footfall leading to the desk echoed with a pulsating beat down the length of the corridor, exploding with a pop at the end. Anston fought the urge to hum techno-rave as he walked.
After breaking through the glass-ridden sphincter and down the facility’s white-walled intestinal track, Anston finally reached the room of reception, the place where all men dissolved into mush, the place where they could either clog the building’s arteries or get flushed into the parking lot as dismantled souls. It was the place where the sane mind came to die.
No one was there. Anston forced himself to sit in a plastic chair while he waited. A lone copy of Entertainment Weekly lay on the coffee table in front of him. He frowned as Brangelina became his only link to the outside world.
No man deserved this place.
A couple of minutes passed. Glass walls housing offices on either side of reception, each covered from the inside with closed venetian blinds, reflected the flickering lights overhead. As the strobe effect came from all directions, entrancing him, he found his eyes pulling themselves shut. Blackness followed.
This was nice, he thought. Silence, save the buzzing of the air-conditioning, and his happy place unfolded—a meadow populated with the latest desktops, all ripe for the—
His body shuddered and his eyelids flung open. This was no time to sleep. The building had a way of implanting nightmares into its inhabitants’ minds. He didn’t want to see anglerfish jumping out of the meadow into his lap while he slept.
He dug his elbows into his thighs and propped his chin with his palms, forcing his eyelids open with his fingertips. Brad Pitt stared at him from the cover of the magazine, with Angelina Jolie next to him puckering her iconic lips. The caption, “Brangelina Dazzles Third-World Country,” smoked from its red-yellow hue. Then he noticed something odd about it. The cover bulged when it should’ve been flat. He opened the magazine to find a dying cigarette on top of a charred healthcare ad.
“Oh, my patient was looking for that,” said a deep voice from the right of the room.
Anston looked up to see a bearded man in a doctor’s coat approaching from the hall between the reception desk and a glass office. He was carrying a cellphone.
“For what?” Anston asked.
“That cigarette. He couldn’t remember where he’d put it.”
Anston lifted the cigarette from the magazine and tossed it into a nearby ashtray. The impact killed what was left of the smoldering filter.
“Doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “Are you Dr. Farea?”
“I am. You must be Anston.”
“Nice to finally meet you. My predecessor spoke adequately of you, to put it nicely.”
Anston wasn’t sure what Dr. Farea had meant by “adequately.”
“Sure. Might I ask, do you prefer Anston or Jack?”
Anston shrugged. It was an odd question.
“I mean, Anston’s my name, but if you want to call me Jack for some reason, you’re the doc. Not gonna argue with you.”
Dr. Farea smiled. “Excellent. So, I’m glad you’re here, Mr. Michaels. Under any other circumstance, I wouldn’t have called.”
Anston leaned against the back of the plastic chair. His thighs felt relief as he released his elbows from the impressions they’d left.
“Do I have to see her?” he asked.
The doctor dragged one of the plastic chairs by the leg with his feet and stopped it parallel to Anston across the table. He sat down, folded his hands, and frowned. He was very professional.
“Well, ‘have to’ is a very loose term at the moment.”
“Well, I guess I should say that ‘having to see her’ depends more on her than it does on you.”
Anston dug his elbows into his thighs again. Somehow, he thought, the discomfort might dislodge unreality from his system.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I suppose the best way to answer that would be to first point out the damage to our front door.”
“Yeah? I saw that. Pretty disturbing image.”
“Onsite video shows that your ex-wife had a hand in creating that damage when she—”
Anston held up his hand.
“Hold on, stop there,” he said.
He needed time to process the information that Dr. Farea was feeding him. As a former professional in the computer engineering field and a current professional in the information technology field, Anston needed to approach things with a problem-solution formula, and to achieve the formula, he first needed to understand the problem. And the problem here wasn’t the broken gate, as that was a surface issue, and the surface issue was never the real issue. The problem here had a root cause. Most people, not even mental patients, didn’t just decide to one day crash a gate. The woman the doctor was speaking of, Anston’s ex-wife, or rather, the woman he had meant to divorce but never quite got that far—his estranged wife—wouldn’t just cause damage for the hell of it. She was here for another reason.
Anston lowered his hand. His mind was now properly primed for the information he needed.
“Start over,” he said.
Dr. Farea leaned forward. His face was commanding and his breathing was steady. He had this calming demeanor in his brown eyes, something that the normal people probably appreciated whenever they had to talk to him.
“As a practicing doctor, Mr. Michaels, I have taken an oath to protect the privacy of my patients. There are some elements to this story I cannot divulge. But those same elements are necessary for you to understand how dire the situation is we’re facing here, that you face. So, off the bat I’m in a complicated position.”
“I understand. But let me remind you that you called me.”
“Yes, of course. So I will do my best to share the details in a way that does not compromise patient confidentiality while alerting you to the seriousness of the problem at hand. This includes the details about your wife, whom, if I have my information current, you no longer have direct power of attorney over.”
Anston gestured him to get on with it.
“You see, Mr. Michaels, we’re more than a mental fac—er, an enrichment place. We’re a development center, a place where dreams happen. Our northern sector specializes in various chemical therapies, where the hyper can become stoic and the criers can become content, so-to-speak. For those who fail to change their lives on their own power, we develop the resources to help them . . . through chemicals mostly.”
“Right, you make them ‘happy.’ I get it. What’s this have to do with my wife? Ex-wife.”
Dr. Farea oscillated his sights to various focal points around the room, with a strong focus on the table, the magazine, and the dead cigarette in the ashtray. From time to time he glanced at the wall. But his eye contact with Anston was limited. As he thought about how to answer this question, perhaps to squelch any mention of details that qualified as confidential, his eyes moved down to the table. His hands, which people often used to emphasize important story elements, were still resting in his pockets. Whatever the doctor was about to say, Anston would have to pay close attention to it. He leaned forward to listen.
“Well, it seems that during her community time—off the record, we give them an hour a week to socialize, though most don’t realize it because they’re off in their own little world—she befriended one of our old-timers, a former colleague of ours, a chemist turned sociopath. For confidentiality reasons, I cannot give you his actual name, so we’ll call him, er, let’s say Brad Pitt. Well, the friendship seemed innocent at first because Mr. Pitt had been induced with sedatives daily, so his tendencies toward rampant chaos were nullified, and thus, his passions with it. But his mind was as clear as ever, something he hid very well from us, and he apparently used it to lure your wife, ex-wife, into a scheme that we believe culminated into what you saw upon entering.”
The doctor looked up from the table. He was poised to continue his story.
Anston held his hand up again and took a moment to process the information. He spun the ideas in his head for at least half a minute, imagining this budding friendship between two “happy” people who somehow conspired to damage the facility’s front entrance, and what that meant to him economically and socially. Then he contemplated the missing pieces to the doctor’s short version of the story. When he lowered his hand, he glanced at the doctor and frowned. He reasoned that the best way to understand Farea’s point was to match his demeanor and tone.
“So, you’re telling me my wife escaped?”
The doctor’s frown dragged his eyes back down with it. Anston was certain he was looking at Brad and Angelina again.
“It’s complicated, Mr. Michaels. We lost some potent chemicals in this transaction, as well as a couple of our best guards. You must understand that we’ve taken serious hits from all angles. But we’re committed to doing what we can to rectify the problem. Once we’ve finished securing the area and rebuilding our guard shack, we’ll be ready to take her in again should the police or Mr. Sanders catch her and her chemist friend, Mr. Pitt.”
Anston cocked his left eyebrow.
He waited for clarification. Dr. Farea, who seemed quick to understand nonverbal expressions, something Anston, though not completely hopeless at, was not particularly great at himself, not unless he knew the person well, bit his lip as he thought about how to explain this Mr. Sanders to him. He fidgeted in his seat as he considered his words.
“Er, how do I say this?” He was now avoiding eye contact. “We have a policy around here to leave the police out of our business as much as possible. We call them if we have an insurance issue, but mostly we keep them away. Sure, they may apprehend our escapees if they commit a crime, but as a rule we do not alert them to the possibility. We find we do better to handle things ourselves. The police often just get in the way and complicate things. We try not to encourage that.”
He returned his focus to Anston. Anston was not a fan of his no-police policy.
“Mr. Sanders is our guy who ensures the police aren’t needed,” Dr. Farea continued. “When our patients escape, he is the one we send to find them. He is usually very good.”
Anston shook his head in disbelief. He was certain he hadn’t heard Dr. Farea correctly.
“When they escape?” he asked. “As in, this is a thing that happens sometimes?”
“We do not alert the media to this, of course. As I said, we like to keep our issues within the family. But yes, we do have escapes sometimes. We do not usually have such violent escapes. Your wife and Mr. Pitt are also very good, it seems. But I am confident Mr. Sanders will catch up to them, eventually. Hopefully.”
Anston drew a labored breath. His stomach wanted to heave all that had survived his day of digestion, with his bowels wanting to expel the leftovers. He knew exactly what this situation meant. It didn’t take a rocket scientist, a psychologist, or a computer engineer to figure out what the doctor, in his most tactful way to warn of danger without damaging his oath, was actually saying here. Anston’s safety was now at risk. If his ex-wife was capable of such destruction to an innocent guard shack, then there was no telling what horrors she could introduce to the man who had volunteered her to this den of nuts. He was probably best to stay away from home, especially given the details of their last encounter.
Anston reached into the ashtray and picked up the cigarette. He twirled it around his fingers as he studied it. Such a simple object, so little to comprehend about it. How he wished he was a smoker so he could do something about the tension rising in his chest.
“Think I could get a room here tonight?” he asked, as he set the cigarette back in the tray.
“I’m afraid we do not have the space to admit mentally functional people like yourself without the proper recommendation from another party. Perhaps you might consider a hotel for the next few weeks?”
If Dr. Farea was giving him that much of a window, then this Mr. Sanders he swore by must not have been that good.
“Perhaps I’m a laid-off computer engineer who has to moonlight as a tech support operator just to keep his refrigerator stocked and can’t actually afford that.”
“Then maybe you have friends or family who could put you up?”
Anston thought of Matt and George. They were probably passed out by now from their day of drunken card games, or still on the boat playing War, but it was worth a shot calling them.
“Could I use your cellphone?” he asked.
The doctor placed his phone in one of his numerous coat pockets.
“I’m afraid I don’t let people use my phone. I have a germ phobia.”
Anston stared at him, his mouth now ajar.
“You kidding me? You’re a doctor. Aren’t you required to touch people?”
“No, I talk to them. I work in a sterile environment. I never leave this building. I invent my own food if I can help it.”
“Then who do you call if you never leave here?”
The doctor thought about this.
“No one, actually. Everyone I know works here. And I pay my bills online.”
“Then why can’t I use your phone?”
“Because I’m a germophobe. Now, if you don’t mind, I have to get back to work. My patient was hyperventilating earlier because he couldn’t find his cigarette and I imagine he hasn’t stopped.”
The doctor stood, putting his hands behind his back.
“I’d shake your hand,” he said, “but I don’t know where it’s been. Have a happy evening.”
“What about reception’s phone?”
“Requires a password, and I never learned it. Sorry.”
He spun away, leaving his chair where it was, and returned to the hall.
Anston stared at his back until he disappeared.
He hated this place.