Walter sat inside the atrium of the Shelby Institute and watched the raindrops trickle down the sides of the glass. The steady patter of the light rain on the roof was a soothing white noise. This was the most peace Walter had experienced in months.
An older man appeared between the two ficus trees surrounding the doorway. He was wearing a sweater and baggy slacks, and carried a long file folder under his arm. “Mr. Fenton,” he said quietly at first, so quietly that Walter did not hear him. “Walter?” he said, a little louder but with a gentle tone.
This brought Walter out of his trace. He turned away from the window and noticed the man standing only an arm’s length away for the first time. “Yes, that’s me,” he replied, still a bit disoriented.
“Good morning. I’m Doctor Russo. Welcome to the Shelby.” He opened the thin folder and flipped the single piece of paper stapled inside it. “You must have arrived late last night. Your admission form is incomplete.”
“Yes, the floor nurse let me in. She said it was alright. She let me stay in the visitor’s suite until I could properly check in.” Walter stood and offered his hand. “Thank you.”
The doctor declined the handshake, and instead reached inside his sweater for a pen. “Let’s just get your signature of consent to make it official, and then we can go get some breakfast, shall we?”
Walter looked at the doctor smiling at him, holding out the patient folder and pen towards him. The man seemed trustworthy. Walter waited for the voices to contradict his initial impression, but heard only the rain. This was unsettling. For as long as he could remember, there were voices in his head giving him either advice or criticism. Sometimes he could see their faces, too, hovering next to whomever he was talking to. Even in the taxi ride here last night, the cab driver had an extra passenger that only Walter could see. He was never alone in a room with just one other person, until now.
Walter took the pen from the doctor’s hand. It was an expensive ballpoint with a redwood shaft. He paused with his hand hovering above the dotted line at the bottom of the legal-length page, beneath many paragraphs of small text. The rain had stopped, and the room remained voiceless.
“Just to confirm,” said Walter, looking up into the doctor’s kind eyes, “this is just a voluntary stay, you know. It’s been difficult for me at work lately, and I just need a safe place to stay for a while.”
“Completely voluntary,” reassured the doctor. “May I call you Walt? I think you’ll find our facility has everything you need. Our staff will leave you alone for now, if that makes you more comfortable, and when you’re ready to talk, we’re ready to listen.” He took the pen and folder from Walter, and extended his other arm towards the door.
Walter led the way out of the room. He brushed past the ficus tree on the left and its leaves rustled, but he did not notice the wall plaque hidden behind it. It said, “Shelby Mental Institute, Russo Memorial Atrium, for a lifetime of dedicated service, Frederich Hans Russo 1912-1981”.
Dr. Russo walked through the other tree, but the tree did not move.