"YOU'RE SURE SHE'S NOT dangerous?"
"Not at all. Not to you, anyway."
Evelyn closed the sliding window in the door and made an effort to control the misgivings that tugged at her. It was a little late to discover in herself a queasiness about crazy people.
She looked around and discovered with relief that it wasn't the patients she feared. It was the fortress atmosphere of the Bedford Institution. The place was a nightmare of barred windows, padded rooms, canvas sheets and straightjackets and hypodermics and burly attendants. It was a prison. With all the precautions it was only natural that she should feel nervous about the people it was built to contain.
She peeked into the room again. The woman inside was so small, so quiet and composed to be the cause of all this fuss.
Doctor Burroughs closed the thick file he had been scanning. Barbara Endicott. Age: 28. Height: 5' 3". Weight: 101. Diagnosis: Paranoid Schizophrenic. Remarks: Subject is to be considered dangerous. Remanded for observation from criminal court, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, murder. Intense hostility to men. There was more, much more. Evelyn had read some of it.
"She's got a massively defended psychosis. As usual, granting the illogical assumptions, the delusional system is carefully worked out and internally consistent."
"I know," Evelyn said.
"Do you? Yes, I suppose you do, from books and films." He closed the file and handed it to her. "You'll find it's a little different actually talking to one of them. They're sure of the things they say in a way that no sane person is ever likely to be. We all live with our little doubts, you know. They don't. They've seen the truth, and nothing will convince them otherwise. It takes a strong grip on reality to deal with them. You're likely to be a bit shaken when you're through with her."
Evelyn wished he'd finish and open the door. She had no worries about her sense of reality. Did he really worry that the woman would unsettle her with the kind of rubbish that was down in that file?
"We've had her on electroshock treatments for the last week," he said. He shrugged, helplessly. "I know what your teachers have said about that. It wasn't my decision. There's just no way to reach these people. When we run out of reason and persuasion, we try the shocks. It's not doing her any good. Her psychosis is as defended as it ever was." He rocked back on his heels, frowning.
"I guess you might as well go on in. You're perfectly safe. Her hostility is directed only at men." He gestured to the white-suited attendant, who looked like an NFL lineman, and the man turned a key in the lock. He opened the door, standing back to let her pass.
Barbara Endicott sat in a chair by the window. The sunlight streamed through and the bars made a cross-hatched pattern over her face. She turned, but did not get up.
"Hello, I'm... I'm Evelyn Winters." The woman had turned away as soon as she started talking. Evelyn's confidence, feeble enough in this forbidding place, threatened to leave her entirely.
"I'd like to talk to you, if you don't mind. I'm not a doctor, Barbara."
The woman turned back and looked at her.
"Then what are you doing in that white coat?"
Evelyn looked down at the lab smock. She felt silly in the damn thing.
"They told me I had to wear it."
"Who is 'they?' " Barbara asked, with the hint of a chuckle. "You sound paranoid, my dear."
Evelyn relaxed a little. "Now that should have been my question. 'They' are the staff of this... place." Damn it, relax! The woman seemed friendly enough now that she saw Evelyn wasn't a doctor. "I guess they want to know if I'm a patient."
"Right. They'd give you one of these blue outfits if you were."
"I'm a student. They said I could interview you."
"Shoot." Then she smiled, and it was such a friendly, sane smile that Evelyn smiled back and extended her hand. But Barbara was shaking her head.
"That's a man thing," she said, indicating the hand. " 'See? I have no weapons. I'm not going to kill you.' We don't need that, Evelyn. We're women."
"Oh, of course." She awkwardly stuffed the hand into the pocket of the lab coat, clenched. "May I sit down?"
"Sure. There's just the bed, but it's hard enough to sit on."
Evelyn sat on the edge of the bed, the file and notebook in her lap. She poised there, and found that her weight was still on the balls of her feet, ready to leap away. The bleakness of the room assaulted her. She saw flaking gray paint, yellow window glass set in a well behind a mesh screen, gun-metal bolts securing it to the wall. The floor was concrete, damp and unfriendly. The room echoed faintly. The only furniture was the chair and the bed with gray sheets and blanket.
Barbara Endicott was small, dark-haired, with the smooth perfection of features that reminded Evelyn of an oriental. She looked pale, probably from two months in the cell. Under it, she had robust health. She sat in a checkerboard of sunlight, soaking up what rays passed through the glass. She wore a blue bathrobe with nothing underneath, belted at the waist, and cloth slippers.
"So I'm your assignment for the day. Did you pick me, or someone else?"
"They told me you'd only speak to women."
"That's true, but you didn't answer my question, did you? I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you nervous, really. I won't be like that again. I'm acting like a crazy woman."
"What do you mean?"
"Being bold, aggressive. Saying whatever I want to. That's how all the crazy people around here act. I'm not crazy, of course." Her eyes were twinkling.
"I can't tell if you're putting me on," Evelyn admitted, and suddenly felt much closer to the woman. It was an easy trap to fall into, thinking of deranged people as mentally defective, lacking in reasoning powers. There was nothing wrong with Barbara Endicott in that direction. She could be subtle.
"Of course I'm crazy," she said. "Would they have me locked up here if I wasn't?" She grinned, and Evelyn relaxed. Her back loosened up; the bedspring creaked as she settled on them.
"All right. Do you want to talk about it?"
"I'm not sure if you want to hear. You know I killed a man, don't you?"
"Did you? I know the hearing thought you did, but they found you incapable of standing trial."
"I killed him, all right. I had to find out."
"Find out what?"
"If he could still walk with his head cut off."
And there it was; she was an alien again. Evelyn suppressed a shudder. The woman had said it in such a reasonable tone of voice, without any obvious try for shock value. And indeed, it had not affected her as strongly as it might have a few minutes ago. She was revolted, but not scared.
"And what made you think he might be able to?"
"That's not the important question," she chided. "Maybe it's not important to you, but it is to me. I wouldn't have done a thing like that unless it was important to know."
"To know... oh. Well, did he?"
"He sure did. For two or three minutes, he blundered around that room. I saw it, and I knew I was right."
"Will you tell me what led you to think he could?"
Barbara looked her over.
"And why should I? Look at you. You're a woman, but you've swallowed all the lies. You're working for them."
"What do you mean?"
"You've painted yourself up. You've scraped the hair off your legs and covered them with nylon, and you're walking inefficiently with a skirt to hobble your legs and heels designed to make you stumble if you run from them when they try to rape you. You're here doing their work for them. Why should I tell you? You wouldn't believe me."
Evelyn was not alarmed by this turn in the conversation. There was no hostility in what Barbara was saying. If anything, there was pity. Barbara would not harm her, simply because she was a woman. Now that she understood that, she could go on with more assurance.