I still feel guilty that I didn’t manage to see him earlier. It’s not often that one of your friends loses his mind overnight – or in the course of an evening.
I knew Vincent as the calm, steady guy, the guy that never worried. We were good friends when I was younger – but time moved us to different places. Still, no matter how much time might have passed – I never would have thought that Vincent could strangle his wife.
I was abroad when I got the email, telling me that he had been admitted to a closed ward. That was a year ago. Since then, every week “Plan to visit Vincent” was near the top of my to-do list; only now, when a business trip brought me nearby, I actually made it happen.
When I pushed the glass door open, smelled the disinfectant and the rubber floors and finally moved on to the overly broad reception desk, I remembered why I used to think of mental wards as a sort of carnival. You never know what to expect, you never know which colorful character you might meet; you never know which mind is hidden behind the mask of normality.
“Vincent.” The receptionist said while leafing through the list of names. “I heard of him. He’s in the Roofjumpers’ League, isn’t he?”
I shook my head and tried hard to hide my disgust with the tiny bespectacled woman behind the counter. Jokes about suicide are the last thing I expect in a professionally run institution.
Then, for a moment I remembered how little I knew about what had happened in Vincent’s life during the last year.
“I think he even is the founder.” She said.
With the ward number in hand I walked up the large stairs, passed other wards, other visitors, other staff dressed in blue and white – and not a single person that looked like a patient.
But that’s the thing – no one looks like a patient. Most mental patients are not raving lunatics that run against walls all the time. Most mental patients are inside for more difficult and less visible reasons. And those that do run into walls don’t do it all the time.
They checked my visitor’s badge carefully, then buzzed me in. I asked for Vincent and the young man pointed me to a ring of chairs at the other end of the room.
“If that’s a therapy meeting I can wait.” I said.
“No,” said the young man. “It’s not one of our sessions. They sit there all day if we let them. You don’t know the League?”
“Thanks.” I said and started walking.
While I walked past the bare white walls I had a hard time suppressing my anger. When you work in an institution you learn certain rules. The first is to treat everybody with respect, no matter how they might look, smell or speak or what history or character profile you might have read about them. The second is to never joke about suicide.
The whole group, around twelve people sitting in a circle, turned at once. One head turned, all the others followed straight away. There are not many distractions in these places and having a visitor is always a welcome distraction.
“Welcome to the League.” Said a young guy with a short blond beard that later introduced himself as Roy. The others only referred to him as “the Irish.”
I pulled an empty chair next to Vincent and sat down. My friend of more than ten years shifted his chair in the other direction.
“You saw them too?” Asked Ella, a younger girl with wild black hair. “You look like a journalist. Write that they took my parents. Write that. It’s true.”
“Shh.” Said a red-haired girl sitting opposite me. “Maybe he’s one of them.”
“One of who?” I asked.
“The roofjumpers.” Said Roy.
“Shut up.” Said Vincent. “He won’t believe us.”
“Believe what?” I asked.
“You judge people.” Said Vincent.
“I’m not psychotic.” Said Ella, the girl that thought I was a journalist. “It’s all true. They exist.”
“I don’t judge you.” I said. “And I’d like to hear about the jumpers.”
“Roofjumpers.” Said Roy. “They jump from the roofs.”
“I saw them jumping down.” Said Ella. “And then they took my parents.”
“What happened with your parents?” I asked.
“They took them and replaced them.” Said Roy. “Like all the others.”
“Like they took Debra.” Said Vincent.
“That’s why we’re the League.” Said Roy. “We will fight them.”
All the heads in the circle nodded. The red-haired girl opposite me still looked suspicious, but even her head was gently moving up and down.
“We have to stop them from eating others.” Said Ella.
“They don’t eat us.” Said Roy. “They just steal bodies.”
The red-haired girl snorted with laughter. “They don’t steal bodies, they steal people. They recruit people. That’s why their numbers are growing.”
“Bullshit.” Said Roy.
“You know your wife stole my boyfriend.” Said the red-haired girl.
“She would never do that.” Said Roy.
“Of course.” Said the red-haired girl. “Because she is now one of them.”
Roy jumped up; the red-haired girl flinched. Two of the other men held Roy back until the nurses arrived.
I used the confusion to pull Vincent aside.
“What is that?” I asked.
“See, you judge people.” Said Vincent.
“I don’t. I’m just curious.” I said.
“Why didn’t you come earlier then?” Asked Vincent. “You always have some agenda. Am I your next prized case?”
“You’re a friend.” I said.
Then he cried.
Then he hugged me.
“They all think I’m crazy.” He whispered over my shoulder. “Everybody thinks that.”
“I don’t.” I said.
The hug lasted a quiet minute.
“What happened with Nicole?” I asked.
“They took her.” Said Vincent.
“I heard something else.” I said. “I heard that you strangled her.”
Vincent pushed away.
“That wasn’t Nicole.” He said “You have to believe me.”
“So you really strangled her?”
“No.” Vincent said. “It wasn’t her! They took her.”
“Who?” I asked.
“The roofjumpers.” He said.
I saw that one of the nurses was eyeing us. Vincent noticed her too and pulled me into his room.
Vincent told me that he and Nicole had been shopping. He carried two large bags with clothes; she carried the one with food. They were near their house, tired but nearly home.
Vincent heard Nicole scream. Then he saw the second one jump on the sidewalk just a few steps away. The woman had her eyes shut, and she didn’t open them when she began to move towards Vincent. A man came from Nicole’s side; Nicole pushed backwards against Vincent’s body.
Vincent threw the bags on the floor, raised his fists. The woman in front of him took another step, then raised her head. She kept his eyes shut but for Vincent it felt as if she was looking at him. Then the woman smiled; Nicole screamed; Vincent felt Nicole being pulled away.
Vincent flew around, tried to grab her arm, but the man carrying Nicole was fast. He ran, then took a big leap over a front yard and landed clinging to a nearby wall.
Nicole was waving her arms and tried to hit the man that held her with one arm while he climbed up the wall with the other. The man kept his eyes still closed and climbed higher and higher. Vincent tried to follow, but he couldn’t get any grip with his hands. Within less than fifteen seconds the man and Nicole disappeared on the rooftop. The other woman was gone too.
“Do something.” Was the last thing Vincent heard from Nicole.
Vincent rang the doorbells until someone buzzed him in. Then he ran up the seven floors, kicked the door to the roof open – and found nothing. Nicole was gone.
Vincent filed a missing person report and reported the abduction. He left out the detail that the people had kept their eyes closed and that they had climbed up the walls.
“I didn’t want to sound crazy.” He said.
Then, just a day later, while Vincent was on the phone trying to explain to Nicole’s mother what had happened – a key turned in the door and Nicole walked in.
“Nicole seemed normal most of the time.” Vincent said. “Although she claimed that she didn’t remember anything. But then, sometimes, she just closed her eyes – and then she ran off with incredible speed. She just ran off and the last thing I saw was that she climbed up a wall of a neighboring house. And then, a few hours later, she usually was back, acting the same as before and as if nothing happened.”
That same week Nicole lost her job as a secretary “for taking excessive breaks.”
Vincent tried to prod her to remember things. He tried to explain to her what he saw and what had happened – but Nicole denied everything.
“She called me a liar.” Vincent said. “And we had fights every day.”
Vincent thought that being among people would help Nicole. They went to a bookshop-slash-café. They sat down, ordered, Vincent searched the book in his backpack – and when he looked up he just saw Nicole running out of the café. Her eyes were closed.
Vincent stayed back. He knew he wouldn’t be fast enough and he didn’t want another fight.
He sat and read for four hours, until Nicole finally walked back into the door. She had scratches on her arms and dirt on her fingers. He told her the things he saw – and they had another fight.
“Why are you making things up?” Nicole screamed. “I don’t.” Vincent screamed back. “You were gone for four hours!”
“What’s wrong with you?” Screamed Nicole. “I just went to the bathroom for –“
In that moment, mid-sentence, Nicole’s mouth closed. Then her eyes closed and she began to move towards the door.
Vincent grabbed her arm from behind, tried to hold her back, but Nicole pulled his hand off her arm, and then bent his wrist backwards until Vincent screamed from the pain.
Vincent punched her with his other hand.
“It was instinctual,” he said. “I didn’t mean to do it.”
Nicole flew backwards on the floor, but she still held onto Vincent’s hand so he fell with her. His other hand landed next to her neck. She let go of his hand.
Without thinking Vincent moved his hands to her neck. He pressed down on her until other people pulled him off.
Nicole rolled onto her side and got up; then she ran out of the café.
“It wasn’t Nicole.” Vincent said. “I would never have touched Nicole. But while we were fighting and while she was on the ground, that wasn’t Nicole – she had her eyes closed the whole time.”
This is my story, originally I published it on Reddit.