Risk by Laurie Lindop

Heather works at the mental institution and when she walks into a patient’s room with feces on the ceiling, she doesn’t ask why? Instead, she sticks to the basics and asks Joleen how, exactly, she got her bum up high enough to get feces on the ceiling, quite the engineering feat.

Working in a mental institution as a not-yet-fully-certified social worker, Heather doesn’t ask “why” very often, which means that if one of her patients is holed up in a room that he’s filled with broken glass, she doesn’t ask why he decided to smash the ten to twelve Coke bottles on the floor. She asks instead when did he get that many bottles in his room in the first place because this is a security issue. She asks where was his roommate and who was on staff at the time. How did he get alone long enough to smash so many bottles? She doesn’t have bandwidth to ask why did he want to cover his bedroom floor with glass. She’s got to get to the kernel of what is going on in order to get him out of the immediate danger.

As far as she can tell, everyone has got a quirk. Some just take their quirks to the extreme, while the rest live outside of a mental institution. And her job is to deal with her patients’ quirks, make things better.

Her boyfriend knows this. At the same time, Justin cannot believe that his girlfriend thinks that a guy smashing up a case of Coke bottles is a quirk. Is it a quirk to sit on a stool amongst those shards and tempt Heather to approach through broken glass so that she can take his pulse, so that she can talk to him long enough to determine whether or not he’s having a psychotic break that will require restraints?

Justin privately admits he has his own quirks that probably need changing: he fails to floss, he forgets to take off his boots when he enters the apartment, he loads the dishwasher so that it looks like a mini cyclone hit it, he’s also apparently not very good at oral sex. But his one oddball quirk is that whenever he can after work, he drives up to the mental institution to watch Heather guide her last group back from their meetings to the housing unit. He really enjoys lounging against a wall in the cafeteria to watch her shepherd all the patients into line so that they can get their evening meds. The parade will follow his girlfriend, like a bunch of ducklings, down the hallway to the medicine cabinet where she unlocks one drawer after another in order to administer the right drugs to the right patients. What he admires is that they are so dutiful around her; they take their little white cups of pills, swallow them with a little white cup of water; most thank her. At these times, he’s impressed that she’s so fully in control of what could so easily spiral out of control. It’s like watching someone guide a hurricane into submission or quiet a nor’easter squall before it can reach landfall. It makes him think she’d be a fantastic mother.

Heather likes the fact that Justin shows up at her work most evenings to drive her back to their apartment. She also likes the fact that he usually makes them something good for dinner, like a nice curry stew. What she can’t stomach is that he’s still not applied for a job beyond temp work so that he has plenty of time to go grocery shopping, to grate ginger and slice vegetables. In fact, the meals he cooks are often so delicious that her leftovers are an object of envy at work. She’ll heat up one of his braises in the microwave and her colleagues will sniff the air, declare her the luckiest woman on earth. Justin wants to be a chef, but instead of getting started in the industry, he’s temping at offices with generic names like CGI Industries and America Holdings.

So, Heather feels mixed emotions when Justin asks if she’d like to go away for the Wednesday and Thursday she has off that week. Whatever they do, she’ll have to pay, which takes some of the fun off the invitation.

“What do you have in mind?” she asks.

“The museum of contemporary art’s having a new show.”

She likes this idea — the special exhibits are always worth the trip. The museum of contemporary art is a three-and-a-half hour drive away, located in a working class town with no other main attractions, as if it purposefully dares visitors to make the effort. Its red brick buildings were once mill factories built along the Hoosic river. Now the museum’s architecture takes up most of town and runs along viaducts interspersed with brick courtyards, pathways. It’s a truly fine museum with an adjacent four-star inn that will no doubt offer a package deal, especially for a couple arriving on a Wednesday. Justin smiles at Heather, knowing she’ll agree that after work tomorrow, they’ll pack up the car and head off.

When Heather gets to work that next morning, she finds out one of the cutters is on the run. The lithe teenage Daphne has apparently taken off racing at a five-minute mile pace for the local CVS to buy razors. The staff are all overweight or out of shape or both, and can’t keep up.

On a beautiful sunny morning like this, Heather guesses that Daphne’s sprinted yet again from the CVS to the park where she can cut amongst bird songs and busy squirrels. Heather jumps in one of the staff SUV’s, races to Longfellow Rec. She thinks: if you’re going to cut, and you’re a sentimental teenager who secretly wants to get caught, where might you choose inside the park? The river’s edge where there are Canadian geese that mothers and toddlers like to feed.

A few minutes later Heather has a crying Daphne in her arms, takes her to the SUV, opens up the big First Aid kit. She bandages Daphne’s wrists with gauze, and heads for the hospital.

Turning onto the Mass Pike she notes that after many attempts, Daphne still hasn’t dug in deep enough to cause a real threat, nor has she sliced upwards along the veins the way you would do if you truly wanted to slice yourself to death. Daphne will be fine, but there’s blood, plenty of blood coming through the gauze and there’s all this drama, which is Daphne’s quirk. Glancing over, Heather sees blood on Daphne’s khaki shorts, blood up and down her arms, blood on the SUV seat. Heather brakes. Fucking traffic. They’re at a standstill.

“How are you feeling?” Heather asks, thinks she knows the answer.


Yep, that was the answer. She doesn’t ask Daphne why because she knows the clinical reason Daphne’s done it again — Daphne gets relief by slicing herself because it’s better to feel something physical than emotional, plus slicing gets attention.

“Do you want to tell me what happened this morning?”


“You know that at some point you’re going to have to tell us what happened this morning.”

Daphne stares out the front window at the cars in front of them.


“Lousy lovely morning,” Heather says, thinks about how Justin wants to start using Rogaine now that he’s turned thirty-six. She jerks to a stop as the cars around them jerk to a stop.

“Ow,” Daphne mutters.

“We’re going to have to tell your mom, you know.”

“I fucking know.”

“Did you sleep last night?”


“Bad anxiety?”

“Shut up, okay?”

Heather exhales through her nose. She’s seen Justin’s hair in the shower drain. It used to be long and thick but now she can see where his comb runs through, the pink of his scalp. Despite this he’s still an incredibly handsome man with an angular face and eyes that make her think of icebergs. “I’m getting middle aged,” he complained the other day. Not true for him, not true for her.

Heather grips the steering wheel. Blood on the console. “I hope the ER isn’t too crowded.”

It is indeed crowded, and Heather sits next to Daphne in the waiting area. With the bloody gauze wrapped around both wrists, there’s no way to hide what Daphne’s done. People stare, and Heather assumes they wonder why she, Heather, the older one, couldn’t have done something to prevent this. Heather fingers the lanyard around her neck that attaches to her staff badge. She doesn’t want to look like a family member who could’ve done something but didn’t. Daphne plays with her phone, looks bored.

Heather rubs the bridge of her nose. “When you run, what do you think about?”

Daphne looks up from her phone. “No one’s asked me that.”

“Well?” Maybe this is important?

“I run because then I’m alive. I run because I can beat all the staff. I’d run forever if I could.”

“Couldn’t you just run around the track?” There is a track at the park.

“No, I need to feel the adrenalin of them chasing me. and I want that feeling to go on and on and on untli I’m fully alive when I cut.”

That’s incredibly selfish, Heather thinks, but doesn’t say.


It’s late when Heather and Justin arrive at the Inn, just in time for a last seating in the dining room. There’s a roaring fire in the stone fireplace, a complimentary cheese display on an Edwardian banquet table. Most of the cheese is gone and now there’s only a couple of diners left. Justin glances at the menu and as soon as the waitress arrives, orders for both of them. Heather can tell that the young waitress is startled by this seemingly sexist arrangement, and wants to tell her, oh, he knows my tastes and knows what will be especially good, farm-to-table; in fact, he could be a student at the Culinary Arts Institute; you wouldn’t believe how well he can dice carrots so that every bit is exactly the same dimension.

Over glasses of very good local Merlot, she tells him about Daphne and how, while the doctor stitched up one wrist, Daphne was on her phone, like any teenager dealing with something deemed too tedious to even notice. “Five black crisscross in each wrist,” Heather says.

“I’m going to run to the men’s room,” Justin says.

Heather knows that en route he’ll have to go through the kitchen. She is quite certain that his ulterior motive is to spend a few minutes watching the behind-the-scenes craziness. The women’s rooms are back there as well. She gets up from the table and goes around the bar to where there’s a view of the busy kitchen and of Justin leaning against the far wall, watching. She goes up to him. his blue eyes scan the room. He could be any one of the chefs, good enough to sear that chicken, or plate that heavenly looking salad. The sous chefs shout at each other and one throws a half-cut mango into the trash. She’s sure that there’s some sort of rhythm to the madness back here, although it’s hard to discern. Everyone seems simultaneously intent on what they’re working on and irritated by everyone else around them.

When Heather and Justin get back to the dining room, they are presented with a glorious pan-seared sea bass for Heather; medium-rare steak and pom frites for Justin. Even though she’s not seen the menu, Heather can estimate that this meal will set her back today and yesterday’s wages.

Their waiter comes over to re-fill their wine glasses. “Are you here for the museum exhibit?” he asks.

Justin nods, “Can’t wait.” When the waiter leaves, he leans across the table and says, “So this artist has done some wild stuff.” Justin sips his Merlot. “He did one installation where he freaked everyone out by crucifying himself–”

“No, no, don’t tell me,” Heather recoils. “I want to just see it tomorrow without any pre-conceived expectations.” How could you survive Crucifixion? Was it real, the nails and splayed limbs? She’d read something about people in the Philippines doing that ceremoniously on Easter, surviving somehow.

“This one’s called ‘From Abu Ghraib.'”

“So, it’s a laugh riot.” She realizes she’d been hoping for something more benign, perhaps some textile work or abstract sculpture. It feels like right now there’s enough for her to worry about with work, with Daphne.

Justin spears a forkful of his French fries. “You know what might be a real life laugh riot?” He puts his hand at knee height, “a toddler toodling around us right now.”

How many times does she have to tell him she’ll not get pregnant until he gets a job? A real one in a kitchen. She’s not going to risk supporting a child on her salary and his temp work. As usual, he makes no promise to try to find a food industry job. In fact, he looks rather cheerful as if they’d not broached what they’ve broached so very many times that she doesn’t know why it needs broaching yet again.


The next morning, the sun shines through the floor-to-ceiling window of their bedroom at the Inn. The pillows and linens are so soft, it feels like Heather’s slept on a white cloud. She’s glad to be here, away from work, far away from Daphne who will no doubt be scheduled for a straight line-up of counseling sessions, from the program director to the DBT specialist to the art counselor.

Justin stirs next to her, groans softly, wakes to these wonderous linens. He cups her breast, rolls over so that he’s halfway on top of her. She’s not particularly in the mood, but she’s also not particularly not-in-the-mood so she kisses his cheek, which he takes as encouragement. (It is good to know her body is flooded with birth control pills.) But there’s also a sadness that engulfs her for a moment . . . until she tells herself to focus on their bodies, on the moment. He does have a wonderfully sinewy body that weighs just the right amount and if he’d only challenge himself to work in a kitchen, he could go miles and miles. There could be a toodling toddler born with his sapphire blue eyes.


The edgy artist’s exhibition is in its own wing, darkly lit, country music plays loudly over the sound system. The artist is right out of one of those frightening Abu Ghraib photos — he’s wearing a black hood with eye holes cut out and a dark blanket draped over him. There are electrodes connected to his finger-tips. A big red switch one the wall says, Pull, if You Want.

There’s no other explanation. There’s just the red switch that Heather would never pull in a million years, whether it’s real or not. The electrodes are red rectangles attached by the kind of athletic tape Daphne’s doctor wrapped around her wrists.

“Jesus,” Justin mutters and she can feel him shudder next to her. There’s something transfixing about the artist standing there on a box, head tilted slightly, dark brown eyes wide open, watching them, then glancing nervously over at anyone who gets near the big red switch. It must be for real.


At the inn that night, there’s the artist reception with lots of guests, but at first no one recognizes the artist when he enters because he’s not in his hood. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Erik Schire,” the desk manager says. Erik has a dark buzz cut. His penetrating eyes are suddenly familiar — the ones that looked out from inside the hood. There’s clapping from the guests and he bows slightly. Heather wonders what it would do to a man to stand so debased in front of all of them? He wears khakis and a white button down, looks like he could blend right in. Is that part of the artistic message, Heather wonders.

Everyone wants to ask the same question: has anyone ever pulled the switch?

“Only one person, I don’t know if it was a man or a woman, but quite the jolt. It is torture. But in my case only done once, not many times over.”

Heather wonders what she would’ve done if someone had electrocuted Erik Schire while she was there; would she have leapt instinctively into work mode and grabbed his hobbled body, arranged for the EMT’s to check him; would she treat him the way she’d treated Daphne? Or would she have just gasped in horror, watched with the other gallery patrons as he writhed with the shock? Named it “art” and assumed it wasn’t a real shock.

“So it’s all legit?” She asks him later while they stand next to the roaring fire in the fire place. “It’s not just a fake switch and you pretend to get shocked?”

“Why not come with me and see?”


“Yes, you.”

She gives Justin a glance, but he’s busy studying the cognac label. She follows Erik Schire out of the inn and over to the museum. He’s got a key. They go over to his exhibit. The blanket’s on the ground. He asks her to attach the electrodes together, the way she’d clamp a set of miniature battery jumper cables together. “Now set them on the ground,” he says and then goes over to the big red switch. Pull if You Want. He pulls it. Sparks fly out of the electrodes.

“It can make my heart stop for a moment or two,” he says.

But why she wants to ask . . .  except it’s obvious. “Could it kill you?”

“The doctor said that’s really not likely, although there’s no guarantee. When you play with life like this there are no promises.” He glances at her. “I can’t get health insurance, but I do get headlines, let’s put it that way.”

“So, you just trust humanity.”

“I trust, yes.” He uses the toe of his shoe to adjust the blanket. “Mostly.”

“And what do you think while you watch people look at the switch, go by the switch?”

“I mostly just feel this huge rush. The closer they get, the harder my heart beats.”

“Like this?” She goes over to the switch.

He picks up one of the electrodes, shows her that he’s cupping it in his palm.

“Like this?” She puts a hand just above the switch.

“Yes.” His dark gaze on her.

She walks back over to him. “I’d never flip it.”

“Thank you,” he kisses her lightly on the cheek. “I trusted you.”

“I have a boyfriend who also trusts me,” Heather says. “Let’s go back to the Inn.”

When they walk inside, she sees that Justin has made friends with an elderly couple. He’s always good at making friends, probably discussing the meal or the cognac. Heather leaves Erik Schire goes up to them.

“So, Justin’s been telling us all about you,” the woman says, she’s got bluish ringlet to her shoulders.

“Is that right? What has he said?”

“That you work at a mental institution.”

At that moment, her phone buzzes in her purse. She takes it out, sees that it’s a message from her supervisor: Daphne’s on another sprint. She only wants to talk to you. We’ve got it under control, though. Heather looks over at Justin.

“I think they’ve got a fresh fruit aspic,” he tells the older couple, points at the dessert table. No one except him would think to use the word aspic.

“Justin’s a chef,” Heather tells them. “I’m sure he could make an aspic with one arm tied behind his back.”

“Maybe,” Justin says, “but I promise you I couldn’t stand on a box with electrodes.”

“No, but you could make an aspic,” Heather says firmly and heads for the coffee table. When Justin and she went to Vegas a few months ago, they’d prided themselves on only spending twenty dollars at the slot machines; the rest of the night they’d watched other people lose money at baccarat, at the black jack tables. People in trouble all around them. But also a few beautiful people, holding cocktails, dressed in black-tie. It was like life’s roaring crystalline river splashed past them while they were content to dunk in just a toe, watch the torrent rage away. What kind of parents would they be? Him: watchful, amused. Her: Strict, competent. For the very first time, she has a real vision of them with a red-faced toddler who’s tossed her cereal bowl across the kitchen. Neither one of them would yell, get upset. They’d just clean it up and marvel at the child’s precociousness. Because they are not, never were, precocious themselves. But maybe they could be the starring two-bit players in their own very real, very intense drama?

“Aspic for you?” Justin slices a square of the desert and Heather looks at his receding hairline. Reaching for a fork, she admires the bright red strawberries suspended in the gelatin. Do they have enough life blood of their own to be parents? Yes, there’s the matter of his job, but is that a good enough reason to wait? She has a vision of her eggs getting gradually more desiccated until they’re nothing but dust inside her ovaries. Why not at least try? From across the room, Erik Schire glances at her and she feels oddly enough, as if this risk taker has given her his blessing. It’s a crazy thought, but she deals with crazy thoughts every single day at work. She puts a hand on Justin’s forearm, whispers, “Let’s go upstairs. Don’t ask why, just follow me.” And, like a duckling, Justin does as he’s told.