Vaughan simply couldn't be sure just looking at it. Gritting his teeth in frustration, he tried nevertheless. He rubbed his eyes, for all the good it would do, and took a good long, hard look out the window. But, as before, the only thing he could absolutely be sure about was that it was snowing.
An old familiar voice showed up in the back of his head, Just because the phrase is nuclear "winter" doesn't mean a single snowfall's proved anything's happened. Vaughan sighed; he knew that of course. He knew a lot of things, things about people, about the world in general, but most importantly he knew a lot about himself.
The damnedest part was he wasn't sure if he knew enough, especially about the latter.
He wasn't a young man anymore; he remembered how things used to be. He remembered the old days when the threat of Soviet missiles ushering a rain of ruin down upon them all was an everyday threat; hell, he was old enough to remember Kennedy's speech about that damn mess that occurred down in Cuba, even if he had only been seven at the time. The nostalgia of recalling old memories would have brought a smile to his face were he not in such a dire predicament. Maybe not so "dire" fool.
Snapping around, Vaughan turned away from the window and just started roaming all around the lounge. Maybe it was or wasn't dire, he decided, but it was... debilitating. His mind was being pulled apart at the seams. The threat seemed so obvious, and if it happened, well, he could just forget about everything he had ever taken for granted in his entire life. But then why was everyone else walking around so casual? Why wasn't anyone else concerned? What possible insane reason could they have for not wanting to face reality if it were true, if it had already happened?
Vaughan knew that his perspective on things might be a bit... skewed. He had already been through a rough bit; he remembered himself screaming and hollering and shoving people out of the way, shouting that it was all coming to an end. He shook his head though; he didn't want to think about those kinds of things.
A nurse walked by, moving to help a nearly crippled older woman named Gertrude from falling. Gertrude had to be over ninety at the very least, most of her family was dead except for grandchildren and great-grandchildren and the like, and her body was frail and fading fast it seemed. But she still insisted on walking by herself, albeit with a walker.
It was almost second nature to see a nurse around here helping one of the various residents from injuring themselves, but even so old Gertrude was a stubborn old lady, a dignified old lady, and despite the various issues in her head she wore on standing as tall as physically possible for as long as her strength held. As such she tried to brush aside the nurse, insisting that she could walk well enough on her own. The nurse, of course, was not convinced, probably all but certain that the elderly lady was being stuck up and proud, and consequently he insisted that he help Gertrude on her way. Old Gertrude, being herself, set evil eyes of venom upon the nurse for daring to suggest that she, of all people, was incapable of handling herself. The nurse finally acquiesced, but Vaughan could see in his eyes that he thought that the old woman was making a mistake, because he knew what was better for her own safety than she did.
Instantly Vaughan's face grew dour, and it was all he could do but walk away before he said something he regretted. He couldn't however, keep himself from giving an icy glare to the nurse. The next moment his unsuspecting target of contempt, however, turned about and made eye contact with Vaughan, and the two of them locked gazes with each other. Momentarily embarrassed, Vaughan broke first, focusing on a nearby chair for no other reason than he wasn't looking at the nurse anymore.
Even if someone was keeping secrets from them "for their own good," he couldn't blame them, could he?
Of course he could, he suddenly reasoned. If the end truly was upon them then they needed to act decisively if they were to survive, otherwise the fallout would consume them all.
The cuckoo clock on the other end of the lounge started going off, indicating that it was six o'clock; time for another group session. But the world was ending outside right now, couldn't they!...
But that only made sense if they were indeed deliberately keeping them all in the dark. After all, they did say that his illness could cause paranoid delusions and the like, so wouldn't that fit?
His other half, however, would have snorted derisively if it had been a separate person. What about the drugs? There was powerful mind altering crap in that stuff. There always was, that's what made them psychotropic drugs. So if that were the case, just how would he or anyone else taking them know the difference between what they were told what the drugs were supposed to do and what they actually were doing inside their skulls? They could be doing all kinds of things up there and he'd be none the wiser the whole damn time.
The staff always said the same thing, that he had to take his meds because he wasn't thinking straight. Not that it mattered; one way or another he'd get them because they'd force him to take them. This was a nuthouse after all, and there were plenty of people who wouldn't cooperate and were "force-fed."
What if it was all true? What if the meds were there to mess with his mind, to keep him distracted from the doom that awaited them all? How would he know? For all he knew, he could be the only sane person left on the planet! It certainly felt that way sometimes.
Still, the medication had helped. Before he was brought here he had been in dire straights, stuck up a rather stormy creek without a paddle. His mind hadn't been a pleasant place to be then, and it was certainly better now. If he stopped taking his meds, the storm might come all over again.
"Vaughan!" Dr. Orwell shouted from down the hall, "It's six, it's time for group session."
For a moment Vaughan sat frozen, unsure what to do. He had to act now! If he didn't, he'd...
He'd be proving himself to be another raving lunatic, like he saw in some of the other patients. He'd be proving himself to be a madman.
But which was better?
"Vaughan," Dr. Orwell said softly as she approached him, a gentle look of concern on her delicate features. Vaughan had a reasonably favorable impression of her; she was unpretentious and didn't speak down to her patients and wasn't at all the type who tried to force her picture of "reality" on them. She seemed more concerned with working with what her patients were concerned with and moving on from there; in a way she was more of a counselor than a medical professional, at least from Vaughan's perspective. She didn't tell him what to do, she didn't remind him of his "delusions," she just showed concern.
It may not have been much, but it was alternative to the tug of war that was going on inside. Swallowing he nodded and moved to follow the doctor down the hall to the small conference room where his group session was to take place. It didn't take long for the doubt and anxiety to reappear, demanding answers to their questions. Unfortunately he didn't have any. He could only sigh in response to unanswered weight that felt like was building in his chest.
He followed the doctor into the conference room and took a seat in a circular array of chairs that sat in the middle of the room and watched as the other patients alternately waltzed, trudged, skipped, and slid into their chairs. Dr. Orwell waited until everyone was seated and then sat down adjusting her glasses and brushing a strand of her auburn hair out of her eyes. "Alright, I'm glad to see you've all made it," she declared smiling sincerely at the twelve or so of them gathered around, most of whom smiled back. What could one say; she was just the likable type. Yeah, so was Hitler, his suspicion said. Shut up, the other side countered.
"Alright then, let's get started," Dr. Orwell began. "You remember what we talked about last time, so today I decided to take it a step further. Let's think about these problems that we've been discussing as these big, dark, thundering storm clouds."
"Like in the cartoons?" one of the patients asked excitedly. Vaughan recognized him as Radek, a younger man, probably in his late twenties or early thirties. Vaughan had no idea what he was here for, but it probably had to do with his excitable fixation that he seemed to latch onto anything and everything.
"Yes, Radek," Dr. Orwell smiled, "Just like in the cartoons. And they follow you around everyday, just sitting right over your head," she motioned with her hands above her head.
This is a complete waste of time. Vaughan knew that while they sat there all blithering about how they all felt and all that warm fuzzy stuff, the holocaust could be beginning. While he sat here he could very well be starting to inhale the first wafts of radioactive dust.
"The thing is, have you ever looked at a real storm cloud, from all the way out? I mean a real thunderstorm like this," she continued, pulling out a large high quality picture of a thunderstorm cell viewed from the side, from the looks of it from a plane a mile or two up. "You know how dark and gloomy they can look when you see them from the ground. But if you go up into the sky and look at them top to bottom, they look different don't they?" Some of the patients nodded in agreement. "They're like blossoms, puffing outward all the time."
"What about tornados?" Radek suddenly asked.
"What about them?" Dr. Orwell asked.
Radek stared at her excitedly. "Do tornados look really pretty too from high up? Cause from the ground they're scary."
The good doctor tried to deal with Radek's tangent without trying to sound condescending. "Tornados are part of big storms, yes Radek, but they're just parts, you can have-"
"What about hurricanes?" Radek asked, suddenly changing the direction of the conversation. Vaughan suppressed as sigh; he didn't like to make scenes or fusses about other people's imperfections but this kid was just one of those that pushed the bounds.
"Well, there you go," Dr. Orwell said, "You can say the same thing about hurricanes too; from below they look huge and frightening, but if you look above from space they look like nothing else on Earth."
"What about from the eye?" Radek blurted, "I've heard it looks pretty from the eye, have you ever been in a hurricane's eye, Dr?"
"No, I can't say that I have," the doctor began.
"That must be weird," Radek plowed on, "the sky being all clear, and you think that it may be over. That has to be really scary to people who don't know anything about hurricanes; they don't know if they're clear or if they were going to get hit again."
"That's... that is true Radek," Dr. Orwell said diplomatically, clearly taking great pains to ensure she didn't show the slightest degree of impatience. Vaughan had to admire her for that at the very least.
On the whole though, he found the session to be uninformative and pointless either way he looked at it; he had hardly learned anything at all except that Radek was easily sidetracked. The whole proceeding more or less dragged on for the next thirty minutes.
Radek, for his part, kept interrupting now and then and looked antsy as the session closed, but Dr. Orwell quickly came to him and guided him back to the lounge. She sat him down next to Gertrude who was sitting around doing nothing in particular and the three of them started playing a game of scrabble, which seemed to occupy all their attention.
Scrabble wouldn't do it for Vaughan though. He'd tried it in the past; he'd tried a lot of things. Not much worked to draw his attention away from his dilemma. He was just stuck.
By now through the window he saw that a significant amount of snow had accumulated outside, and he could only watch as it gently fell down, possibly bringing with it contaminated radioactive dust. Why wasn't he doing anything about it!? He wanted to shout it out, tell everyone about what could be happening right this instant, to shake the complacency out of them, to-
He stopped, and took a long, deep breath, though it seemed utterly empty and unsatisfying. Behavior like that had gotten him thrown in here in the first place. It wasn't unjustified at all when he thought about it. He had been on the verge of seriously hurting people out of his fear. What if it happened again? Images of him shoving people, maybe accidentally cracking their skull against a wall or something? What if he hurt someone? He knew that it was possible, he knew how terrified he was of the ever looming nuclear holocaust, and he knew that it was strong enough that he might do something he'd later regret.
Quickly he scanned the lounge, spotting a couple of nurses in the other corner, and of course Dr. Orwell at her table with Gertrude and Radek. Maybe he should tell them to lock him up, that he was unstable. But that might not even work; what if he got so paranoid that he grabbed a paperclip or something and managed to pick his locks, or if he went nuts and tried to hold someone hostage or just threaten to kill people unless everyone listened?
He sat down, paralyzed by uncertainty. He knew he could very well explode at any time, and who knew how many he could take out with him if he did. But, of course, there was always that little voice that told him to stop being so tense about everything. It was a weak, pathetic voice, carrying with it the dismal banner of reason and rationality, but as small as it was, it seemed to be all that was left.
Briefly he wondered if he shouldn't just end the whole problem at the source, and just be done with his rotten existence. But his family still cared about him; such a thing could devastate them, and for what? So he could selfishly turn away from the world because he wasn't strong enough to stand it?
Yes, he could rant and rave about the end of the world. Yes, he could lock himself up out of fear that he'd only hurt everyone around him. Yes, he could end it all. But he wasn't sure. He couldn't be sure that those were the right things to do.
And he couldn't be sure that one of them wasn't either.
Vaughan sat there for a long time, probably in the vain hope that mere passage of time would allay his quandary, but of course to no avail. Time passed, and nothing happened. He just drowned some more in his own rotten cesspit of uncertainty of inaction.
Roughly an hour later, he got up and started walking. He wasn't heading anywhere at first, but ended up at his room. Lying on his bed was some paper he'd printed off while looking at the internet. It was a "field guide" on how to survive a nuclear war. Gingerly he sat down and picked up where he had last left off. He hoped that maybe just reading it and embracing one side of his conflict (and in a way that wouldn't hurt others) would make his mind a bit quieter. But he didn't find it any more peaceful; the arguing little voices kept on pulling him apart the whole way until bedtime.
A short story about a guy in a mental hospital having to ponder the fact that he's clinically insane